Public Involvement Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participation

4.C — Finding New Ways to Communicate

4.C.f — 3D Visualization

What is 3-D Visualization?

Three-Dimensional (3-D) Visualization is a process in which flat images are enhanced or manipulated by an artist to impart the illusion of depth. 3-D visualization may be still, i.e., no motion associated with the image, or may include motion, in which case the technique is usually referred to as 3-D animation.

Flat images, such as illustrations, photographs, films, and graphics in a display area or on a computer screen, can be manipulated through one of several techniques to create the illusion of depth. These techniques include special viewing lens worn by the viewer to make flat images appear with depth. Computer illustration and animation techniques can also provide depth to an image through special techniques of shading, perspective, motion, and possibly sound. When using a computer-based technique, it is possible to select certain viewing points or environmental conditions to examine the images or objects of interest. For example, a 3-D visualization of a project may be created using a morning, mid-day, and evening context to get a sense of the scale, utilization, and appropriateness of a proposed project in a community setting. All of these techniques have the intended effect of making the objects appear to be "life-like", extending flat images out of the paper, print, film, or screen on which they appear.

Three-dimensional (3-D) animation, the dynamic version of 3-D visualization, creates the illusion of motion by viewing a succession of 3-D still images or computer-generated still images. Prior to the advent of computers, animation was achieved by videotaping or filming a sequence of still images or painted sequences one at a time on plastic or paper surfaces. When played back, the sequence of still images give the impression of motion. When first used, computers controlled the movements of the artwork and the camera using this traditional method. Now computers create the artwork and simulate the motion effects.

Why is it useful?

Many individuals visually perceive the world and the objects in three dimensions—length, width, and depth. Because this is a natural state of observing and viewing our world, information conveyed with this technique does not require extensive translation or adjustment from our normal visual mode of sensing. The advertising industry for years has relied heavily on visualizations (and increasingly 3-D visualizations) to convey messages about products or services, educate the public, or encourage purchases.

3-D visualization are able to convey in a succinct manner the forms and shapes of an interim or final project design or concept. This enables the public to better understand the implications of a potentially complex project or plan and enhance their ability to provide review and comments.

Does it have special uses?

People perceive the world and objects in three dimensions. Accordingly, information conveyed with 3-D visualization does not require familiarity, training, or extensive translation or adjustment on the part of the public.

Computer animation can be used to create special effects and to simulate images that would be impossible to show with non-animation techniques, such as the look and feel of walking through a community after a large-scale facility such as a replacement bridge or new transit system has been built. Computer animation can also produce images from scientific data. It has been used to visualize large quantities of data, such as those gathered through remote sensing applications such as weather systems (See Remote Sensing Applications). Computer animation can also be used to create a sense of the operations of a proposed facility or system, including representation of vehicular and people movement in a project study area.

Who participates? And how?

Almost anyone can participate in the use of 3-D visualization. However, agencies using this technique should consider alternate methods for involving people with visual impairments.

The technique can be used during various stages of a plan or project. Typically 3-D visualization is used after a set of solution options or alternatives have been sufficiently defined and greater insight into the environmental, community, social, and visual impact is desired.

Because many of the 3-D visualization technique now involve the use of computers, the 3-D products may be shared over a wide range of media outlets, including the Internet, kiosks, CDs, display tables, VCRs, TV programs, and similar means. Static displays, such as special display boards, may be used at public forums. This static format provides the opportunity for a project representative to offer an explanation of the technique and solicit comments from viewers. On the other hand, 3-D visualization, when coupled with sound, may allow for a self-standing display, requiring no project representative. Self-standing displays may be used in kiosks, on the Internet, or on appropriate broadcast media (as PSAs, for example). (See Project Websites; Interactive Television; Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks; Information Materials.)

How do agencies use the output?

3-D visualization is a natural way of viewing the potential effects and outcomes of a proposed plan or project. The visualization may also be used to create a futuristic or a "desired outcome" vision for a project or plan, which is not necessarily tied to any proposed solution idea. In either case, once the public has had a chance to understand and review the 3-D visualization, agencies may use the technique to:

  • Gather community reaction.
  • Obtain community opinion on projects and plans.
  • Be a catalyst for further discussion, analysis, or refinement of a proposed alternative.
  • Be the basis for an honest and valid sample of community opinion.

What are the costs?

While commercial software is readily available to support 3-D visualization, highly skilled techniques and specialized computer equipment are needed to develop quality 3-D visualizations. The costs may range from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the number of 3-D visualizations required, the extent of animation, and the resolution, source materials, and complexity of the images being developed. Because this is such a specialized skill and the visualization equipment is somewhat unique for these visualization functions, consultant services are usually required.

How is it used with other techniques?

3-D visualization can augment a variety of other techniques. It is especially useful when describing a complex alternative or plan, in which case it can augment text-based or other image-based techniques. 3-D visualization is also useful in providing a baseline or common reference point for soliciting public opinion and comment on a project or plan. (See Briefings; Public Meetings; Open Houses/Open Forum Hearings; Conferences, Workshops, and Retreats.) 3-D visualization may also be used for brainstorming concepts or creative activities, such as a design charrette or community visioning exercise. (See Charrette; Visioning.) Depending on the acceptability and appropriateness of the 3-D visualization, it may become a "logo" or shorthand representation for a particular project or plan.

What are the drawbacks?

3-D visualization is a costly and potentially time-consuming technique. Care must be taken to ensure that the investment is beneficial to the overall public involvement goals. Because of its electronic format, it does have the potential for mass media appeal and distribution. However, agencies must take care to ensure that false impressions are minimized through accurate representations. In addition, proper use of this technique is required to effectively gather accurate and representative public comment.

When is it used most effectively?

3-D visualization is used most effectively when a small number of complex plans or project alternatives are under consideration for review and/or selection. The visualization, when used in conjunction with other techniques, provides a context for enhanced public understanding, review, and comments.

For further information:

Washington State Department of Transportation - Visual Engineering Resource Group (VERG)
University of Wisconsin Forest Visualization Project
Engineering News Record article on 3-D visualization and public involvement
Taking architectural views to the community with 3D Visualization
TxDOT Project: Cross-town Interchange Public Involvement Features 3D/4D Visualization
Maglev Corridor Transit Project — Baltimore-Washington proposed project using advanced magnetic levitation technologies
Honolulu Rapid Bus Transit project - Summary document with maps and photos of the BRT concept and proposed project

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