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3D visualization helps transportation engineers present ideas.

Byline: Brian Johnson

When it comes to gathering feedback for a highway or bridge project, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and engineering consultants are finding a lot to like in 3D visualizations and other emerging technology.

Though visualizations and virtual reality have been around for a long time, experts say such technology has become more sophisticated and nimble in recent years as seen on projects such as the $63.4 million bridge under construction in Red Wing.

Chad Hanson, a MnDOT senior design engineer for the Red Wing Bridge project, said the department used visualizations on the project to give the public a virtual ride across the new span before construction began.

That proved to be a valuable tool in the run-up to construction as the project team gathered stakeholders' perspectives and made design decisions, Hanson said.

"We could get their feedback, modify the design, and present it again pretty quickly" at future public meetings, said Hanson, who added that such technology represents about a tenth of a percent of the overall engineering cost.

Golden Valley-based WSB, an engineering firm with extensive experience in the transportation sector, is sold on the technology. WSB made a presentation on 3D visualization and virtual reality at a recent transportation conference in St. Paul.

On the transportation spectrum, WSB offers visualization services related to everything from interchange development to roundabout design, according to its website. But the technology also applies to manufacturing, life sciences, marketing and other sectors.

Among its current work, WSB is creating real-time visualizations for an interchange project at Highways 169 and 41 in Scott County.

"It's a great tool for MnDOT, most importantly on the public engagement side," said Jeff Christiansen, visualization studio manager for WSB. "It allows everyone in the room to grasp the design."

How do you gauge the public's ability to grasp the details of a design? Perhaps that's best measured by how many questions arise after a presentation.

"I have been to public hearings where the questions can last five, six hours," Christiansen said. "They won't stop the meeting until all the questions are answered.

"When we started showing the visualizations, I have been at public hearings where there are zero questions. The reason being, they understand what is being done at a specific intersection. It's a lot easier for MnDOT to move forward."

Equally important, visualization technology has evolved to the point where design changes can be shown in minutes instead of weeks or months.

In the past, technicians would have to painstakingly adjust visualizations, then render frame by frame to reflect a design change, Christiansen said. Each high-definition frame can take up to two hours to "render." That's a big deal because visualizations include 30 frames per second.

"You are going from sometimes a month of renderings down to minutes," Christiansen said. "That is the power."

For the Red Wing Bridge project, MnDOT worked with a Florida-based visualization consultant. Hanson said the project team in Minnesota would make a Skype call to the consultant, who would listen to the feedback and make changes on the fly.

During a public meeting, for example, residents showed interest in a natural limestone design element. The project team took that feedback and incorporated it into 3D models, which were presented at the next meeting, Hanson said.

"We could really get their feedback, modify the design and present it again pretty quickly," Hanson said.

Another emerging technology, augmented reality, promises to push the boundaries even further. In a 2018 newsletter, the Federal Highway Administration said augmented reality combines "virtual computer-generated information with the real environment in real-time performance."

"Such information can assist project managers and engineers with the safer delivery and accuracy of their construction projects and in a timelier manner, resulting in greater efficiency," the FHWA said.

Christiansen concurs.

"We are working on that, as well," he said. "Augmented reality is definitely the future."


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Publication:Finance and Commerce
Date:May 10, 2019
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