CMU architects make virtual view

Jackson Lane Feb 27, 2012

“Bring the restaurant out further,” said David Bear, a fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry, gesturing to a virtual dining area on the computer screen. “We’re going to need more room for the kitchen.”

As fourth-year architecture major Dan Rapoport moved virtual objects around the screen, Bear explained, “Not only do you need to serve the bar, the restaurant, and the cafeteria, but if there’s an event upstairs, you’re going to need [space in the kitchen] for catering.”

Bear is leading the High Point Park Investigation, a proposal to build an environmentally friendly and publicly accessible facility on the roof of the U.S. Steel Tower, downtown Pittsburgh’s tallest skyscraper.

Although a real-life facility is still being reviewed and considered by the city and potential financial backers, teams from the School of Architecture and the Entertainment Technology Center are building a detailed virtual replica of the facility so that online users can get a feel for what it would be like when built.

“The goal is to make this as realistic a virtual experience as possible,” Bear said. “We perceive the virtual destination as in itself something that’s unique and worth visiting.”

High Point Park started in 2010, when students and faculty from Carnegie Mellon participated in a sketch design competition for ways to use the approximately one acre of space at the top of the U.S. Steel Tower.

“We generated a lot of ideas and creativity, but not a lot of it was really actionable,” Bear said. “We needed to figure out what could be done, and that suggested to us the notion of a virtual architectural workshop. When I became familiar with the capabilities of [computer-aided design] and what they were doing down at the Entertainment Technology Center ... we really allowed our collective imaginations to soar.”

Rapoport is a member of the team designing the virtual facility. “The primary focus will be the view,” he said. “We’ve taken this Gigapan photograph from the roof of the building, and when you look out any of the windows, you’ll see what you would see if you were looking out the actual building.”

Rapoport is also making space in the building for other, more interactive features, such as guided tours, virtual restaurants and meals, art shows, and stage performances.

“There’s going be a large triangular stage here,” Rapoport said, pointing out an outdoor theater on the computer screen. “There will be some doors for the actors and actresses to come out of, and this part will act as a curtain. We’ll have dressing rooms for the actors back here.”

“We’re going to have the virtual place for several years before the real place is built, and our intention is to take advantage of that virtual venue and to have events, music, plays, and things that will attract visitors,” Bear said. “And then there’s no reason not to continue it after the real place is built.”

The team expects to release a prototype for feedback and public beta testing in early March. By the end of the semester, the group plans to have a single-user simulation online.

The Entertainment Technology Center team’s producer, Sean McChesney, said that the project is starting out small given tight time constraints.

“Guests will not see other real visitors, but will be able to see NPCs, non-player characters, that will be animated and speak to give a sense of liveliness to the space,” McChesney said. “The sheer amount of work involved, coupled with our 15-week time frame and a four-man team, will not allow us to create a multi-user experience, but we have documentation on how to create such an experience that we will hopefully get to pass along to the next contingent of students in order to realize this goal.”

As the man responsible for implementing all of the features proposed by Rapoport and Bear, McChesney knows the project’s scope well. “It is ambitious for a mere demonstration, but we are making much more than that,” McChesney said. “This is designed to be a simulation like no other that is currently available. The simulation is built to give the guests a unique experience and opportunity to visit a location to which only a few people in the world have access.”