Newswise — The Scalable City---an interactive multimedia demonstration of how computers can auto-design aesthetically compelling layouts for new urban or suburban environments, but highlighting serious limitations as well---is a featured exhibit at the prestigious Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. Beginning Aug 30, the project will be on display in the Ars Electronica Center, one of the world's leading museums of digital and media art, for at least a year.
In the project, Sheldon Brown, professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego and head of the UCSD Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, working with a small team, shows how urban planning can benefit from computational power and, in the process, demonstrates software that does work that might otherwise require dozens or even hundreds of animators and artists.The algorithms underlying The Scalable City automatically create beautiful cityscapes, magnificent in an aerial perspective, but also reveal fundamental problems of scale as they intersect with geographic, political, economic and aesthetic zones of conflict.
"The goal of this project is to get people to move into a more self-aware way of participating in the environment," says Brown.
The basic concept of The Scalable City derives from extremely dense databases produced by geographic information systems. Brown says, "Our program uses that data as seeds for virtual experiences that use visual, aesthetic methods to engage viewers in a deeper way."
Over the past several years preliminary forms of the project have been seen in a variety of settings, from New York to Poland, but audiences at Ars Electronica will engage with The Scalable City on several levels. "Some will be active participants, others will be viewers of the situation," explains Brown. "The user becomes an aesthetic element in the piece and others in the space, as external viewers, are able to appreciate the action on their own terms."
The Scalable City will be displayed on a large-scale, three-screen environment. Although many people can view the action, only one person can navigate the virtual environment at a time. The user navigates through a barren landscape and controls a vortex made from flying automobiles. As the player moves through the environment, the road system grows itself into the landscape with so-called "L-curves" that are similar to fractals used in computer graphics. The emerging landscape is littered with architectural fragments, and as the vortex picks them up, they land in certain areas and assemble themselves into houses that line the newly sprouting roadways. The vortex can also destroy houses but, according to Brown, the destruction is a reflection that humans "have a symbiotic relationship with the cultural and natural environment that they are in."
The Scalable City was developed by Brown and a small cadre of students in the UCSD Experimental Game Lab. The team is interdisciplinary—half coming from visual arts and half from computer science. Game Lab manager Alex Dragulescu coordinated work on the project and did programming and development. Visual arts graduate student Michael Caloud developed the system for moving objects from their initial state to a goal state and for defining how those objects can move. Another visual arts grad student, Carl Burton, developed the 3D models. Computer science graduate students Joey Hammer, Erik Hill and Daniel Tracey worked on algorithms and tied the various subsystems into a single software framework. The Scalable City raises issues at the interface of media art, new technologies and social developments. It is also in keeping with Ars Electronica Center's mission of using "interactive forms of mediation to facilitate the general public's encounter with virtual reality, digital networks and modern media."