Can you tell us a bit about your professional background and your responsibility in AccuCities?
Sure thing! I’m the lead Unreal Engine 4 developer at AccuCities, and my professional background has always been tied to some type of rendering or game engine. I graduated in Architecture and Computer Animation, and I’ve always tried to blend those two disciplines together – sometimes by pursuing realistic depictions of the built environment, and some others by creating useful tools that can be deployed to analyse our surroundings. I am very passionate about the ability to use virtual spaces to plan ahead for the real ones – and luckily that’s what I’ve been doing at AccuCities!
With regards to my work within the company, my main responsibility is to create, curate and develop our real-time app, Plan.City. This is a product that lets users visualise our virtual cities’ datasets, but it’s also employed in assessing the built space, navigating the models, visualising proposals, conducting different types of urban studies or pretty much anything else that a client might need to do. On that note, we try to work very closely with them in order to deliver tools that they might benefit from, so our pipeline is quite flexible in that regard – and my work, as a result, is constantly changing.
How is AccuCities formed? What exactly are you doing, can you explain in layman’s term?
AccuCities was formed when four colleagues decided to join forces to create accurate 3D city models. We were very passionate about this project, and each of us had a specific skill set that contributed to making it possible. With that combination in place, we decided to launch the company roughly four years ago.
With regards to what we do, the core of our business is still that very same creation of accurate 3D models. This is something that often surprises many of the people that we speak to – the rise in famous 3d mapping services have created the impression that wide-area urban models are easily available, but the truth is that they are quite difficult to come by when you need accurate results and/or nice topology. That’s where we come in, ready to provide those assets.
Beyond that, we also try to make the most out of the models that we capture, and we’ve created products and services that do just that: Plan.City, a real-time application that lets users interact with our different available cities, or the textured model that we are introducing this year in 2020.
Are you the only one that provides such a service? What makes your studio unique among your competitors?
We are not the only ones that create accurate 3D models – I’m familiar with two other companies that can provide that service in the UK. Our truly unique selling point is what we do beyond the capturing of the model and the way we work with our clients, as our relationship with them doesn’t end when they purchase one of our products. We offer them unique tools and services, some of which are bundled with our app – Plan.City, which we constantly expand and improve according to their needs. But we are also constantly updating the model that we capture, roughly every two years, as well as creating interesting datasets that can be of interest, such as the future skyline layer.
How do you produce the 3D model of a city and how long does it take to produce a 0.25 km2 part of it?
Our models are captured using aerial photogrammetry – a process that dates back years and years, where mapmakers would trace the contours of the recognisable features in a given area to create maps.
We do something very similar, but using a pair of partially overlapping photos instead of a single one – something that allows us to capture not only the shapes of the buildings but also their height. This is a manual process and one that ensures that the final quality of the models is higher than what we would get out of an automated process. It has other advantages as well, such as being able to separate the different components of a given environment into individual entities: buildings, green spaces, rivers, roads and any other features that we can distinguish.
With regards to how long capturing 0.25 km2 can take, it would be around 5 days.
Since you have the base model already produced, why does it take some time to deliver a part of it when someone requests it? What is the process after someone accepts your quote?
We produce and maintain a library of 3D city models that we make available to our customers. When they purchase something that already exists in it, there’s simply just no waiting time – our customers will receive what they’ve purchased within a few hours.
For those other situations when we don’t have readily available models, we offer a custom capture service that typically covers a minimum of a 300 by 300-metre area. These 3D models are usually delivered within 5 working days.
Digital model files can be easily duplicated. Since they are not legally artworks, how do you protect the usage rights of your work?
We purposefully create our 3D models without use restrictions, as this gives our customers lots of opportunities to add value to their projects. This does make them easy to copy, but we manage to counter potential misuse by making it unappealing.
As an example of this approach, we decided to release a big part of our models for free so that anyone who wanted to experiment with them could do just that. We also offer significant discounts and sponsorships to non-profit and student projects, and we invest heavily in updates and upgrades to our 3D city models which render the older versions obsolete every so often.
In essence, we hope to remove the impulse to steal the models by making access to them more affordable. This, combined with strong EULAs and customer agreements, has led us to see very few infringements.
What is Plan.City 1.1, how is it different from the other 3D models you are producing?
Plan.City is our interactive 3D app, and it is related to our 3D models in that we use it to showcase them – you can navigate the entirety of our databases using it, from London to Dublin, using the same interfaces and controls. But it also goes beyond showing you our data, as we’ve enabled it to work with certain other databases that make it that much more interesting. Examples of this are real-time traffic cameras, tube lines and stations, building regulations and many more.
The ability to do all of these things within a real-time app helps in a variety of situations, such as being able to quickly sketch a building that you know will comply with certain building regulations, or assess the impact of different proposals across their surroundings. The possibilities are almost endless!
Which parts of London are being requested more as 3D Models by architects or planners?
It’s almost always the case that the most demanded areas are those where more new developments are happening. This is probably because of the need for most of our clients to solve different problems related to planning and development in high-density urban areas, where many restrictions affect their work.
But this is mostly a guess on my part – many of our clients don’t buy a specific site, as they have access to the entirety of our dataset thanks to one of our subscription models. That means that we don’t really know which areas they might be using or interested in, something that we want to keep that way. This seemingly willful ignorance on our part is not an error but a feature. We work with many customers who might be competing amongst themselves, yet they can be 100% certain that their designs and information are safe with us – because we don’t know.
In addition to architects, who benefit from your services?
Architects are a good first pick, as are also construction companies, planners, engineers, consultants… We’ve worked side by side with many of these clients, and having access to accurate models in those industries makes a lot of sense for a lot of different purposes (analytical studies, helping design different building solutions, solving legal disputes…). But we also see quite a lot of interest from car manufacturers as of late for example, mainly because of the rise in autonomous driving solutions, or technological companies that can use our models for machine learning purposes – training AIs to traverse a city being a very cool one!
Beyond that, we are also starting to see a lot of interest in the film, VFX and game industries, especially now that we are starting to provide UVed and textured models.
Which other cities are in the pipeline?
Manchester and Edinburgh here in the UK are two that we have our sights on, but there’s also a lot of interest in Europe and North America. No solid plans on those as of today, but we’ll keep everyone posted whenever that happens!
Can you model any city in the world, what would you require except the covering of your cost?
Yes, we can! The only limits in that regard are imposed by the quality of the available imagery, but thanks to satellite data we can safely say that most of the world is covered. We prefer dealing with pictures taken from airplanes, as those tend to be more accurate, but all of them can be used to produce accurate 3D models.
Do you think it would be possible in the future to make an exact digital twin of a certain city or part of a city with all the actual real-time data connected to the model? Sort of Matrix, as in the movie.
Definitely! We are not quite there yet as an industry, but certainly heading in that direction. We already have companies dealing with vast amounts of data, and we are starting to see real-time integrations pop up more and more often – especially now that 5G is looming on the horizon. 3D rendering is also making huge strides, with releases of powerful engines and hardware in the near future. The way things are currently looking, it’s more a matter of when rather than if!