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Highlights from the EsriUK Scotland Conference 2018 #EsriUKSC

Highlights from the EsriUK Scotland Conference 2018 #EsriUKSC

Well I always intending on writing up about the EsriUK Scotland conference held in Perth this year.  I’ve said before it’s been a great conference in a great town and this year was no exception.  The speakers were all great with some notable highlights being (this is not an exhaustive list but ones that have stuck in my mind):

EsriUK: The live traffic count demo using a camera from a mobile phone roaming Perth and some machine learning algorithms ‘hats off’ for this amazing live demo on conference wifi.   Shows how all our devices can be connected to scarily powerful cloud services to perform analysis for good… or evil. 

like Siri or Alexa but from EsriUK and for planning applications…

There was also an interesting proof of concept demo from EsriUK (called ada I think) which walked people through a planning application type scenario.

RSPB Scotland and drone use..

RSPB Scotland:  They talked about “Saving nature with drones” and actually a really inspiring use of drone technology for producing up to date high resolution terrain and imagery for habitat management.  Also great uses for bird counts too!   They produced a best practice for using drones guide which probably everyone should read which is here (not sure this is final official version but only one I could find online): Drones for GIS (PDF) Did you also know they have an opendata site? No neither did I!

Powerful and effective communication techniques from Esri StoryMaps…

South Lanarkshire Council: This presentation on “Protecting the quality of the air that we breathe” stood out for me because the presentation hosted by 3 presenters from 3 departments showed what GIS should be about.  That’s joining of information and providing a powerful communication analysis and tool.  Here was a great use of storymap to communicate serious ideas to a wide audience, here’s what can happen when departments talk and work together.  I recommend you look at their storymap here.

That’s a few users…

EsriUK Education: Back to EsriUK again but here on their ‘Education Session’ I have a renewed interest due to being an new School Governor at my local primary school.  Now I’m always of two minds about private large organisations providing free stuff to schools/education.  I can hear the criticism of the open source movement loud and clear that a large company is perhaps abusing it’s position to increase it’s market share…. I know there are free (in money terms at least) programs teachers can use, I know a cloud solution (Esri is giving ArcGIS Online accounts away for free to schools) isn’t ‘true’ GIS in that it won’t teach the intricacies and science that’s required for a better understanding of the power of GIS and associated technologies.  However I know that teachers and schools also don’t have the time and resources to manage installations, perhaps a managed solution from Esri is actually the best solution.  Afterall those who are truly interested will seek out other tools to achieve what they need.  Who among us started their journey into GIS with Esri technology and now use other software and tools to do better?  I bet many of us.  Shocking I know but sometimes all they want IS a map…

So that’s my small write up of the EsriUK Scotland conference, a smaller more intimate and frankly more comfortable conference than the larger EsriUK one in London they do in May…  Perth is a lovely location and I hope they keep it there.

Finally I need to talk about the inspiring keynote from one of the Esri cartographic legends called John Nelson…. well no, I’m saving that for the next blog post as it deserves some nice maps that I made which he inspired me to make.

A helping handle & visual cues for my rules in Esri CityEngine

A helping handle & visual cues for my rules in Esri CityEngine

Sometimes in CityEngine it can be hard to figure out what’s going on.  Whether that’s understanding scope (CityEnginers understand this can get complicated) or just simple metrics.  

Down the CityEngine rabbit hole I go again…..

I’ll often use a combination of ‘print’ and ‘report’ to give me a better understanding of my code at any given point.  What I also do is use bright colours (which have simple RGB/hex colour codes) to indicate whether a part of the code has been reached.  once I’ve confirmed it works I continue the code.

Bright colours can show you interesting metrics but also when you’ve screwed up…

Recently I’ve been working on some code where an understanding of the orientation of an model is important, not just as a world orientation but also relative to the initial shapes scope.  As is the case with most of my work in CityEngine I start to wonder, how would I go about making something more visual for me?   Thus I decided to spend some (okay probably too much!) time creating a procedural protractor.  This allows you to switch between displaying an angle relative to the shapes scope, or the world.

Any excuse to use an animated GIF…

I’ve used the Handle features in CityEngine to make interacting with the attributes associated with this rule simple.  I’m starting to use ‘handles’ in CityEngine to expose attributes for users in a friendlier way.

To sum up for me I’ve found that programming language in Esri CityEngine called Computer Generated Architecture (CGA) is easier to pick up than traditionally programming languages because it is a visual one and by that I mean you create geometries.

4D 3D modelling with Esri CityEngine? (poc)

4D 3D modelling with Esri CityEngine? (poc)

LICA Building at Lancaster University

Last weeks CityEngine training at Lancaster University went really well.  It was my first time doing a session at this site and I really liked it.  Good facilities and a beautiful campus, stayed tuned for more CityEngine training sessions there in the future, but if you want a session now just ask as we do training on demand.   Also did I mention Lancaster is set to launch Architecture courses and are looking for a new ‘Chair of Architecture’??
Right, on with the main purpose of this blog post!

Above is an animated GIF of a quick proof of concept for some 4D modelling in Esri CityEngine.   4D refers to the time component used in the construction industry to see the various phases of development (see “What is 4D BIM?”) think Gantt chart in 3D!  Whilst CityEngine is not truly a 4D modelling software package it can provide some elements of it after-all time is just an attribute.    I like to think of this as a nice way of 3D modelling urban planning and city master planning phasing scenarios over time.   With the introduction of Esri CityEngine’s handles feature this can make for a nicer interaction method with your model.

after-all time is just an attribute

In this example I have a days and a maximum number of days attribute (think deadline).   The slider controls the day in that timeline between 0 and 365 days for example.   Each of the 2D footprints has a field with a start day and an end day, as the slider is moved a test is performed to see whether the day is between those two numbers for each footprint.  If the condition is true the footprint is extruded based on a calculation that gradually and proportionally extrudes up to it’s maximum building height.  When it reaches and/or exceeds the finish day, the model changes to a more realistic looking building.

All of this is relatively simple in CityEngine (case statements, attributes, and handles), the nice bit is being able to report on progress in the Dashboard.  We can use this in a variety of different scenarios in CityEngine, as usual because it’s code we can copy and paste in to other projects!

CityEngine 2018.0 beta and beyond (a sneak peek?) UPDATED

CityEngine 2018.0 beta and beyond (a sneak peek?) UPDATED

Is this technically a sneak peek? – probably not

NOTE: This post has been updated to include response from Pascal Mueller Director of Esri R&D Zurich and the creator of Esri CityEngine, scroll to the end to see his response.

CityEngine 2018.0 beta has been out for a while now and is pretty much over, I’ve been lucky enough to have been using it in anger for a bit too.   Building on the CityEngine 2017.1 release there are some small improvements, new CGA code as well as a couple of new features, but essentially this feels like a minor release which is not a bad thing.  Just because it’s minor doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like progress , it will be well worth the update!   

The Confession

Firstly a confession, the title is a bit of a click-bait (hey if respectable news organisations can try it why can’t I?) I can’t show you a sneak peak this time or really talk about specifics, well because of um beta stuff and all that…. (last time I had a special agreement).  What I can tell you is that if you want to participate in the future CityEngine betas you can sign-up here https://earlyadopter.esri.com .  If you like CityEngine and are interested in where it’s going and of course helping out the team at Esri then I thoroughly recommend you sign up!

I can assure you that some bug fixes have happened and a couple of new features added which complement the analysis side of things.

Where next for CityEngine?

The real interesting thing here is how Esri CityEngine is moving very much in the direction of the urban design / geodesign space now.  As is much of Esri’s push at the moment, 3D is a natural fit for planners and planning departments.  The discussion on cities/urban (smart or otherwise) is a clear market strategy for Esri and the push towards BIM having been resolved through a ‘partnership’ with Autodesk fits nicely.   

Planning, designing and development must take the full picture into account. Create, visualize and share in 3D to make better designs and present your work more effectively. Source: Esri

This I guess poses a question for Esri, does it continue CityEngine long term with so many products that seem to tick the urban space box?  As someone who has trained many clients in CityEngine and offers consultancy services over the last 5 years I certainly have an interest in its future!  There are big questions of whether it will be just consumed by ArcGIS Pro or placed in some cloud container and interacted with via ArcGIS Online.   

I think (and I have no insider knowledge here) the answer is all of these things will happen, but also that CityEngine will continue to be a standalone product for the foreseeable future.   Esri is in the movie industry now and I don’t think it will want to leave that, but also CityEngine is a great design tool that fits Jack’s interest in urban and geodesign.

“is a simple-to-use 3D city editing and visualization tool” – “Build Flexible Scenarios Faster” – “Create Realistic Context”

The real worry for me is what form will CityEngine evolve into.  The marketing literature still talks of easy operation and high quality realistic outputs.   Sorry but it’s not easy to learn or use (from a typical planners perspective) and the high quality outputs don’t come instantly (unless you like Redlands building typologies!).   

Handles don’t help with the usability issues of CityEngine as they require coding to implement

CityEngine’s great power is it’s flexibility of format support and usage.  But it has fundamental technical issues/challenges with terrain and roads that need addressing.   Esri also needs to decide whether this is a tool for the drag and drop users among us, or some highly technical development environment for urban planning.   

One glimmer of light and a direction of travel is the ESRI.lib folder, promisingly for new users it shows a path of drag and drop produce something now.  Unfortunately this seems to have gone a little stale, anyone who does CGA coding in CityEngine knows organising and keeping up to date rule files is difficult especially if projects vary like ours do.    The ESRI.lib has some great rules I use over and over again, roads and trees, in fact the more generic the better!   Give me more of those tree assets!   These smaller rules enable a greater freedom and I can write rules that work with these easily because I know they are installed with every CityEngine workspace.   

In conclusion, and I’m not good at concluding thoughts so forgive me, CityEngine is here to stay but has some challenges to overcome.   Like all software it has to evolve as it’s users ask more of it.  Currently I worry that CityEngine as a tool is too technical for widespread adoption this means that businesses will be reluctant to invest in it if only a hand full of users (CityEngine professionals) are out there.   On the plus side CityEngine professionals like myself will probably have some consultancy work coming our way! 

Update and response from Esri Zurich’s R&D Director

(originally posted as comments on LinkedIn)

So I posted the link to this blog on LinkedIn and amazingly Pascal Muller (read a post I did called Life Changer to understand why I am honoured to get this) very kindly responded.  I have got his permission to post those comments here, these have been copied directly and no editing has been done although I have tried to keep the paragraph breaks.   What I now need to do is a follow up post to contemplating this response! 

 

Thanks Elliot, really great read!

I could answer some of the raised questions : ) hmm, maybe we should do an ‘ask me anything session’ here…

Two things:

(1) You are correct, not a ton of new features in this release. Reason is that we changed our release cycle this year and are releasing now 3 months earlier. As a result the time between CE 2017.1 and CE 2018.0 was much shorter. CE 2018.0 comes out next week and you can expect CE 2018.1 in September instead of November.

(2) Yes, CE is here to stay. There are no plans to discontinue it. In contrary: maybe you have heard about our new product initiative ArcGIS Urban which is basically a streamlined urban planning platform (on top of AGO) for the planning departments of cities. It will feature cool web apps/interfaces and it will also work great with CE. It’s all developed under the same roof here (also includes the 3D JS API 4.x team btw). In the ArcGIS Urban context, CE will (still) be required for the more advanced workflows such as for example Devin’s site plans, Bruno’s Masterplanner, or the various greenfield mega city projects of the HOKs and F+Ps.

ohh, and of course Blade Runner 3 will need these off-world cities Batty was talking about : )

Besides all this, CE continues to be one of Esri’s development platforms where bleeding edge technology gets applied before it goes mainstream, see for example the push on game engines (more about that later…).

Pretty exciting stuff and I am extremely happy that all the pieces fall into place finally, but we know that we have to keep working hard and improve things. Huge thanks for your continuous support and wise long-term thinking.

 
Making the ‘Craftsman Rule’ more interactive….

Making the ‘Craftsman Rule’ more interactive….

In CityEngine you can use a feature called ‘handles’ to add visual controls to your models.  This means you don’t have to interact with specific numbers or values in the inspector.  It also means many more people can use your rules as they were intended.   The real issue here is how much control do you give you users via this method? 

As you can see there is a balance to be had between being highly configurable and being too configurable (i.e. too many attributes to muck around with!).

Early days on the handles, but I’m getting there!

Many people have reached out to me asking whether this rule file will be available for sale sometime.  The answer is probably!  Drop me a message if you’re interested and I’ll let you know how it goes.   Or keep an eye on twitter, LinkedIn or this blog for more updates.  I suspect I will have to stop sometime.

Procedural modelling the UK high-street

Procedural modelling the UK high-street

Some of our latest CityEngine work is looking at the high street and in particular here at home the UK high street.   Commercial buildings in a typical UK town are a mixed bag of traditional older buildings with some often badly maintained concrete buildings and the odd brick built modern monster designed and built in the 1980s.  More recent buildings like glass a lot …  We’ve been creating rules to describe building frontages, not all are pretty but that’s kind of the point! 

This set is early work for a project that we’re helping on for the Transport Systems Catapult based in Milton Keynes who are helping out the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) creating simulated virtual environments to test out way-finding technologies.  Stay tuned for some more outputs! 

City 3D GIS Building Renders

City 3D GIS Building Renders

Further to my CityEngine Quick Render post I thought I’d put through some of our GD3D buildings (sourced from CyberCity3D and processed for use on the ArcGIS platform sold via ArcGIS Marketplace) through the same process.  I think they look quite nice!   My next task will be to start showing more than pretty renders of buildings, I hope to add some metrics in and the do more nice imagery.

All this rendering of 3D models whilst not new to me is something I do very rarely, other people can do better but as with everything it is nice having some skills ‘in-house’!

CityEngine Quick Renders

CityEngine Quick Renders

I’ve been playing with my new ‘Craftsman’ style CityEngine rules in other workflows and pipelines.  The one I’m working through at the moment is some experimental renders, I know there are a lot of issues here but I’m not yet interested in spending hours working and tweaking my rendering program to get ‘just’ the right level of detail and dirt (there are better professionals than I for that).  It’s still amazing to me that these are proper GIS based models (they mostly designed to work with GIS data in ArcGISPro) with real dymanic metrics being now used to produce something that looks quite good (well I think it does).

I like how these renders make my craftsman style models look like something you may print out via a 3D printer.  Okay it I know it looks toy-like, and is somewhat dated in terms of visual renders etc.. (I’m not a entertainment industry/graphic artist professional) but I still like it.  Also apologies for over use of Depth of Field effect….