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Pictures of the Future



Mr. Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel


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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Simulation and Virtual Reality

Scenario 2062: Utopia on a Chip

2062: To commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the construction of the Acropolis, governments have commissioned the planning and testing of a future city in the virtual world -- a city based on the human dimensions and classic architecture of ancient Athens. Long before the city is built in the physical world, future residents use deep immersion systems to visit it - including students from a massive open online course who intend to test an energy-saving hypothesis.

A virtual city brings ancient models of urban life into the future and becomes a center of learning for students who want to create the perfect urban environment.

“It’s really starting to take shape,” I said to Solon as we looked across the vast agora. Solon and I – my name’s Ligeia – are the project’s Chief Integrated Systems Architects. But hundreds of others, including historians, sociologists and all sorts of technology specialists from around the world, are also involved. We’ve been meeting in a network of powerful “deep immersion” virtual reality labs for months. The labs provide such an intense feeling of reality that some of us, Solon and I included, have started projecting ourselves in period clothing.

Optimized Aristopolis

Most of us have not physically met, but we were all recruited by the Greek and European Union governments to conceptualize, create and optimize a virtual city based on the democratic principles, human dimensions, and architectural style of ancient Athens. Designed to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the construction of the Acropolis back in 438 BC, the new city will be called Aristopolis.

Of course, for now, I’m just talking about the virtual version of the city. But it is a construction-ready, fully-functional version, complete with energy- and resource-optimized-and-integrated infrastructures from water and power to ubiquitous virtual-presence communications, and from underground-hydroponic gardening to networked transportation and predictive health care – in short, at the moment, it’s a city on a chip.

Virtual Apartments

A striking site high above the Aegean Sea for the city’s physical counterpart has been set aside and its basic below-ground infrastructures, including a subway line and pipes to an underwater desalination plant, have been installed. But before ground-level construction begins, contractors have been encouraged to build their buildings and infrastructures in the virtual world where they can be tested, analyzed, and optimized.

Around 7,000 virtual residential units have already been realized. Before signing a rental or sales agreement, future residents can use their own deep immersion units to explore the city on foot or on an electric rider, get a feel for the sights and sounds of their prospective neighborhood, meet local butchers and bakers, and re-acquaint themselves with the lost art of face-to-face contact.

Deep Immersion Learning

Thanks to its virtually limitless potential as a laboratory for urban studies, Aristopolis is already being used as a test bed for a range of MOOCs – massive open online courses. For instance, just this morning, a class that includes students from around the world submitted an algorithm for testing. Using their schools’ deep immersion systems, two boys, one from Dubai, the other from Baku, Azerbaijan, joined us – virtually, of course.

“Let’s take a look at what they’re up to,” I said to Solon, pulling a pencil-thin Scroll Viewer from my wrist holster. The boys, whose faces appeared on the viewer following a split second security check, explained that their algorithm was designed to predict the amount of energy a city can save in heating and cooling costs if it invests in a material that allows its pavements to alter their color – and thus their thermal absorption – based on ambient temperatures and seasonal conditions. “We’ve examined the leading products and built a database,” said one of the boys, who identified himself as Faruq. “We want to test our top choice on location.”

Testing an Algorithm on a Virtual City Cockpit

“Sounds like an excellent idea,” I said. “But is the product rugged enough to withstand decades of wear?” “We do not foresee a problem,” answered the young man with self assurance. “We have identified a product that consists of a transparent carbon nanotube-based microencapsulated polymer solvent. It radically changes its color based on temperature, is impervious to degradation, and can be sprayed onto most surfaces by standard automated street maintenance equipment.”

“Is it expensive?” I asked. “That depends on how much energy it saves,” answered the other student, Wahib, without missing a beat. “With your permission, we will download our algorithm into the city’s Intelligence Platform to initiate the experiment.” “They certainly came well prepared,” I said to Solon as I pulled up our 3-D Virtual City Control Center (VC3) on my Scroll-Viewer. The center is a cockpit for the city’s infrastructures. I touched the panel marked “Streets,” then dragged and dropped an icon for the boys’ algorithm over it.

We were all recruited by the Greek and European Union governments to conceptualize, create and optimize a virtual city based on the democratic principles, human dimensions, and architectural style of ancient Athens.

Pavements that Change Colors Like Sunglasses

Simulating the accelerated passage of days and months, the streets in the viewer image began darkening and brightening in rapid succession – as did the surface of the agora around us, reminding us that, after all, we too were in the virtual world. “The algorithm assumes coverage by the polymer solvent of all paved surfaces that are exposed to direct sunlight for at least 10 percent of the year,” explained Wahib. “It determines this by measuring the angle of the sun for each square meter of surface over a year, while taking the shadows cast by nearby buildings into account. It then calculates the difference in temperature over time between the current static surface and the dynamic one being tested and translates this into radiated energy and an estimate of the amount of energy saved per dwelling to maintain a comfortable temperature.”

“Does your program take lighting into account?” asked Solon. “After all, on a dark winter night you would not want to have dark paving material. That would require more energy for lighting.” “That is a subject we would like to examine in collaboration with polymer-solvent manufacturers,” interjected Faruq. “It may be possible to include a photochromic layer in the sprayed material. The pavement would then work like sunglasses that become transparent as the level of light decreases, thus returning the material to its original white complexion at night.”

Vote-with-Your-Feet Democracy

“And there is an additional advantage,” said Wahib; “since streets and sidewalks are contiguous, the carbon nanotube material, which is conductive, forms a virtual information network covering the entire city. Once connected with your VC3 – as it already is – and after a brief learning phase, the system would be able to identify patterns of movement throughout the city in real time as well as over seasons. If you think about it,” he added, “it could add up to a new kind of vote-with-your-feet democracy in which businesses and city departments would have the information to provide services based on where people really are – the modern equivalent of the ancient agora.”

Arthur F. Pease