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Virtual stadiums bring fantasy football


A bespoke, virtual reality system is helping Leicester City design its new football ground. Andrew Bolton reports.

When a football club moves to a new ground, it opens another chapter in its history. Hopes for future success emerge, amid hopes that the new, usually larger, ground will provide the atmosphere that will fuel this optimism. But as every self respecting club chairman knows, keeping the supporters in favour of the move is paramount.

If disgruntled fans desert the club, an expensive new stadium can easily turn into a financial disaster. For this reason it is vital that supporters are consulted about all aspects of the new stadium, from seating arrangements and sightlines, to bar layouts and merchandising shops.

Leicester City has taken this on board as it plans the move from its traditional Filbert Street ground to a £35M, 32,000 seat stadium on a former PowerGen site, just down the road. To do this, it has enlisted the help of software company Maelstrom, which has created a virtual stadium to allow supporters, directors and sponsors to interrogate proposed designs and suggest changes.

Maelstrom's tailor-made program allows season ticket holders to see their view of the pitch from their new seats, before the stadium is built. They can then comment on potential obstructions, perhaps even influencing the final design. In fact, supporters can examine the whole structure outside and in, from the air as well as from the ground.

The program is one of many bespoke systems developed by Maelstrom for its clients since it was set up 10 years ago. The firm's first job was to develop a virtual tour of the inside of a human body as a marketing tool for a pharmaceuticals company.

Since then it has developed 'virtual gloves' to help mechanics design bolts for Puma helicopters and a virtual training floor for the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE).

The LIFFE project had some similarities to Leicester City's, as it involved developing designs for a trading pit with clear sightlines, so that traders could see each other and trading screens. The problem LIFFE faced was frequently having to change the configuration of the pits to match the changing numbers of traders dealing in particular commodities.

'LIFFE was spending £30,000 a week changing the pits they trade in, ' says Maelstrom creative director Graham Patten.

The VR system Maelstrom developed helped LIFFE work out a flexible design to the satisfaction of its traders before starting work, avoiding problems during construction.

Patten says his designers can develop a wide range of software, depending on what the clients want.

A virtual structure program could be adapted so that images of the finished building can be stripped back to the superstructure to reveal colour coded stress points, for example. This can help engineers when they are trying to remove or relocate obstructive columns. Similarly, the software can be tweaked to help designers explore failure mechanisms resulting from the relocation of structural elements.

Meanwhile, Leicester City is preparing to take its virtual stadium to the construction stage.

Birse has been chosen as contractor and is expected to start work on site within weeks. This assumes final planning issues are resolved and that banks and lawyers can agree terms for the bond issue which will fund most of the project.

The club can then realise its aim of turning the virtual stadium into a real one in time for the start of the 2002/2003 football season.

www. maelstrom. com www. lcfc. com

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