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Welcome to the pleasure dome

Interactive walkthroughs and recorded images are set to revolutionise the communication process. Mark Hansford takes a trip into the virtual world.

Strapped into the pilot's seat at the University of Teesside's Virtual Reality Centre, hurtling over Lake Windermere in a fighter jet, thoughts of winning that multi-million pound contract could be temporarily thrown out the window, as more pressing survival instincts take charge.

However, winning multi-million pound projects is what the Centre is there to do.

'It is a tremendous wow factor, ' explains business developer Tracy Codner. 'With our help, you can offer clients a stunning real-time walkthrough of their project. That is so much more impressive than any drawings or scale models.

'We live in a 3D world surrounded by 3D objects, so why do we communicate with 2D tools?' she asks.

So how does it work? Codner explains that the computer generated models can be built from drawings, sketches, photographs, CAD data, or even from verbal descriptions.

When built, the models got their first showing in the centre's world renowned 'Hemispherium'. Seven projectors fire the images on to a full 6m diameter hemisphere, making Teeside's centre unique to the UK.

The facility also boasts a 'flight-chair', putting the users at the focal point of the hemisphere and allowing them to take full control of their environment. Seating for a further 22 people allows for immersive group presentations.

Once the model has been created for the Hemispherium it can be developed on to other mediums as required.

Real-time walkthroughs can be provided via a portable unit projecting on to a screen or through a PC, provided it can support the latest graphics cards. Otherwise, automated walkthroughs can be easily created for CD-Rom or video.

The time taken to put a model together depends entirely on its size and the level of detail required, but on average it takes six weeks at a cost of £12,000.

This £2,000 per week price tag effectively rules out the use of VR for small scale projects, but makes it extremely cost effective for large projects. 'It is particularly popular with PFI projects, ' said Codner.

Sir Robert McAlpine supported its bid for the PFI Hexham hospital with the help of a VR model, joining the many leading construction industry players who have embraced the technology.

One of the Centre's biggest investors has been WS Atkins which, on behalf of Middlesbrough Council, has developed a real-time model of the proposed town centre retail development, Captain Cook Square.

With help from the architects, a model based on CAD plans, photographs and artist's watercolours was developed and integrated into an existing VR model of the town centre several months before construction began on the site.

The model has demonstrated how VR can become integrated into the design process, revealing details and perspectives not offered by any other type of visualisation.

It was even able to avoid a potential construction claim, by flagging up a design flaw with the covered walkways.

Amec is stretching the limits of the Centre's supercomputer, using a VR model of the new DSS Centre at Longbenton, Newcastle, to show successive stages of development of this major project.

The simulation features three models in one, moving from the present buildings to the final complex, complete with six offices, sports arena, connecting atria, car parks and landscaping details.

So far the Centre's client base is predominantly north eastern. Opening up this marketing tool across the UK and abroad is the next challenge.

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