Sunday – June 17, 2018

MATC Uses Emerging Interactive Technology to Capture Future in 3-D 'Virtual Milwaukee' Project

December 2010

Wind turbines gracing the lakeshore... a cafe decorated with local artwork on the green rooftop of one of the city's tallest buildings... a modern streetcar system traveling city streets... revolutionary architectural designs for new buildings blending in with beloved city landmarks...


MATC's Annual Portfolio Night Event was held at Discovery World in May. Visitors had a chance to view the Virtual Milwaukee exhibit.

These are among countless possible future developments that look and feel very real when one steps inside Virtual Milwaukee -- a 3-D, digital recreation of downtown Milwaukee, located in a high-tech exhibit area in Milwaukee's Discovery World museum. Milwaukee Area Technical College partnered with the Discovery World museum to develop Virtual Milwaukee. MATC students, faculty and staff used data from local terrain, elevation and infrastructures to build an accurate computer-generated version of Milwaukee's current downtown and lakefront. And then they created 3-D images of many possible city improvements and additions.

In part, Virtual Milwaukee is designed to give architects, city planners, designers and engineers a chance to dream, design and envision possible futures for Milwaukee before committing large amounts of money to implement their ideas. Virtual Milwaukee is one of only a few places in the world where the public or city planners and architects can step into the middle of a simulated city and experience the look and feel of proposed changes to the landscape in 3-D glory. MATC is believed to be the only community/technical college and one of just a few educational institutions of any kind to develop a project of this sort.

"We've been gathering information, taking it and translating it into something people can use for economic development," explained Paul Krajniak, executive director of Discovery World. "For example, architects will be able to build every nut and bolt in computers and see where there might be problems before actually building." Virtual Milwaukee is open to the public as well, giving everyone a chance to see what new developments would look like long before they are built.


MATC President Dr. Michael L. Burke checks out future possibilities at Virtual Milwaukee.

MATC is a "Future Agent"
Krajniak said, "We chose to work with MATC on this because the college is known to be a future agent. It's known to be very entrepreneurial. MATC is the future of Milwaukee. College leaders have a clear vision and MATC's faculty is second to none. A student can take one class at MATC and make a difference."

The Virtual Milwaukee exhibit opened in modest form in 2007. Called the HIVE (Human Interactive Virtual Education), a circular cave-like exhibit was developed by MATC and Logan Productions, Inc., for display at Discovery World. Visitors could step into a 3-D world where they could control weather developments over the shores of Lake Michigan. Ominous virtual lighting and thunder could be commanded by the movement of a visitor's arm pointed at the screens. Visitors could also access information about mythology, history, science and health in this interactive display.

Fast forward a couple years and Virtual Milwaukee has developed into something much more complex. People wearing 3-D glasses enter the site and feel as though they are traveling above and around Downtown Milwaukee and the lakefront. With a flick of a docent's wrist, buildings, wind turbines, grazing sheep on green rooftops and new buildings appear or disappear from the landscape. Visitors can peer inside the convention center to see its proposed redesign.


Students and Instructors from many Disciplines Contribute to "Virtual Milwaukee"
Close to 50 MATC students have been involved in collecting the data to build this project. Civil engineering students used cutting-edge tools to measure dimensions of building exteriors and sculptures. Photography students took thousands of photos of the area which were integrated into EON Realty simulation software by students in graphic design, gaming and 3-D modeling programs. Interior design students contributed by developing new designs for possible use in the Frontier Airlines Center, as well as use of rooftop space for arts and entertainment venues.

Working on Virtual Milwaukee has been an extraordinary experience according to students and faculty.

"It forced my students to use a functionality of instruments they don't usually use," said Dave Langhoff, MATC civil engineering instructor. "The work they did for this project was not typical for civil engineers. They used reflectorless technology called electronic distance measurement, a new technology which is outside the normal curriculum. Civil engineers are asked to measure a lot of things, but no one is going to let anyone go on top of the 42-story US Bank Center to measure it."

Jill Kemper, MATC interior design instructor, said, "It was the most wonderful experience. My students were so energized and excited about it, and so involved. The opportunity to design something and then see it in 3-D was just astounding."

Interior design student Anne Hunt spoke with enthusiasm about her work on Virtual Milwaukee as well. "This was the singular class that made me stretch the most at MATC," she said. "It was really quite exciting. It forced me to get way ahead of the curriculum in Google SketchUp software. I worked with lighting and CAD (computer aided design) a year earlier than I planned to, just so I could work on Virtual Milwaukee. It was a real hands-on project. If you put time and energy into it, you learned so much."


Endless Possibilities for "Virtual Milwaukee"
The future of Virtual Milwaukee is wide-open, according to Jim MacDonald, MATC coordinator of the Virtual Milwaukee project and associate dean of media and creative arts. "We could do so many things with Virtual Milwaukee," he said. "We're looking at adding more sensory experiences such as scents and sounds. We could delve more deeply into interiors of buildings, and provide information as viewers 'move inside' structures. We'd like to give the viewers ownership of the experience, so they control the environment and topic. For example, students could not only recreate the interior of Milwaukee's historic Pabst Theatre, but they could arrange it so people could see listings for summer concerts or upcoming plays.

Krajniak offers other examples of possible future projects. "If Milwaukee is trying to redevelop neighborhoods, designs could be created and citizens could go into the pod and see proposed changes in their neighborhoods," he explained. "Or MATC could model the watershed of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District's deep tunnel system. A project like that would help people understand what happens when we have floods. Another possibility would be to help people plot a safe path to ride their bikes into the downtown area."

"We have a passion for supporting the needs of our students and the learning process. Virtual Milwaukee is a great outlet for that."
-- Jim MacDonald

MATC and Discovery World are seeking additional industry partners, and have written grant proposals to expand offerings at Virtual Milwaukee.

"The possibilities are endless," MacDonald explained. "We can prepare MATC students for cutting-edge jobs when they graduate and aid in city development in an innovative way. We have a passion for supporting the needs of our students and the learning process. Virtual Milwaukee is a great outlet for that."