The Urban Simulation Team at UCLA is making it possible for
people to drive, walk or even fly through Los Angeles without the
hassle of traffic, all from the convenience of their personal
The main focus of UST’s Virtual Los Angeles project
“is a long-term effort to build a real-time virtual reality
model of the entire Los Angeles basin,” according to its Web
“It’s valuable because we can effectively
communicate very large amounts of information … in a very short
amount of time,” said UST director William Jepson.
Jepson and his team have already modeled about 20 square miles
of Los Angeles, including almost all of the Downtown area, the Pico
Union district, El Pueblo, Wilshire’s “Miracle Mile,”
Los Angeles International Airport, Westwood, a portion of South
Central and much of the UCLA campus.
They have a lot left to do, however. Los Angeles is about 500
square miles in area, and the county consists of about 4,000 square
miles. Each city block takes about 50 to 60 hours to model,
according to Jepson.
The UST members combine global coordinates, aerial photographs
and street level imagery with 3-D geometry to create realistic 3-D
images of streets, buildings, benches, signs, trees, even
“Everything is accurate ““ plus or minus a
half-foot,” Jepson said.
The team gathers information from a number of municipal
departments, including the sewage department, useful for
To create the images, modelers start with simple geometrical
shapes to simulate the basic shape of the buildings. They then
overlay detailed textures rendered from photographs and video onto
the simple shapes.
Storing such large amounts of information and images requires a
large amount of memory. UCLA Professor Richard Muntz and his team
developed a system that allows Jepson to create and store larger
models and seamlessly blend them all together. For instance, models
such as UCLA and LAX are stored as separate models, but
Muntz’s system allows viewers to go between the two as if
they were the same model.
It is a lot like a road map:
The larger map is divided into specific regions on separate
pages, but all the regions can be viewed together as well, Muntz
UST currently uses the simulations to conduct interactive
demonstrations for community leaders, architects and urban
planners, among others.
On Sept. 16 Jepson and his team conducted such a demonstration
for State Assembly District 40 candidate Lloyd Levine.
Virtual Los Angeles allows people to more concretely understand
a planner’s or architect’s vision for a certain building design,
“I think it’s incredibly useful,” Levine said after
“I think part of the problem … in development is that
people view the worst case scenario. (With Virtual Los Angeles) you
can come in and demonstrate actually what it will look like,”
Objects can be added to or removed from the scene, simulating
new constructions and potential projects, such as a controversial
new recreational center in Downtown Los Angeles or the new athletic
center by Pauley Pavilion currently under construction.
Someday soon, Jepson hopes to apply the project to emergency
response. The technology would allow firefighters, for example, to
see the exact location of a fire within a particular building and
the best route to the scene, using a laptop computer connected to a
Virtual Los Angeles already allows users to access the floor
plans of and virtually tour many of the interiors.
The team models the areas on a “project-specific
basis,” Jepson said. Various groups fund UST to model a small
piece of the city, usually around four to eight blocks, because
they have a vested interest in that area.
For example, Los Angeles was interested in putting in a 30-story
hotel and an entertainment complex by Staples Center, so it gave
UST the money to model the potential plans for the complex to see
how it fit in with the surrounding buildings.
"We’ll get called on to create a model of whatever this new
project is going to be, stick it into the existing Virtual Los
Angeles database, and then it can be evaluated from any and all
perspectives," Jepson said.
Looking at buildings this way is more straightforward and
understandable than blueprints or architectural models, he
UST has modeled about 85 percent of the UCLA campus, and Jepson
estimates that the rest will be done within a year. The simulation
includes models of the fraternities and some of the apartments
along Gayley Avenue.
As UCLA and Los Angeles continue to change, Virtual Los Angeles
remains a work in progress.
“It’s kind of like the golden gate bridge,” Jepson
“They spent a lot of time building it, but once they were
done, they started painting it. Once they got to the end, they
started over,” he added.