A system Architecture and Simulation Environment for Building Information Modeling in Virtual Worlds

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A System Architecture and Simulation Environment for Building Information Modeling in Virtual Worlds

John Oerter


Wyatt Suddarth wsuddarth@unomaha.edu

Matthew Morhardt mmorhardt@unomaha.edu

James Gehringer jgehringer@unomaha.edu

Michael L. McGinnis mmcginnis@nebraska.edu

Johnnie Shockley


Army Corps of Engineers

Peter Kiewit Institute,

University of Nebraska

1110 S. 67th Street

Omaha, NE 68182-0694

Allison Baysa



6825 Pine St., # B10

Omaha, NE 68106

Keywords: Building Information Modeling, BIM, Virtual Worlds, Virtual Environments


This paper describes building information modeling (BIM) research by students and faculty of the University of Nebraska (NU) Peter Kiewit Institute (PKI) in partnership with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). The objective of this on-going research is to create a virtual modeling environment where architects and architectural engineers can present building concepts and design options to customers in a way that is more easily envisioned by the client. The software used for this research project is Autodesk® Revit, Autodesk® 3DS Max, SAIC’s 3-dimensional (3D) virtual world called Online Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE), versions 2.4.0 and 3.0, and a proprietary game engine called Unity developed by Unity Technologies based in San Francisco, California. This paper overviews development of a system architecture in which BIM will be integrated with a virtual simulation environment built in OLIVE and research results to date.


PKI occupies a 192,000 square foot building on the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) south campus. The Institute is home to approximately 85 faculty and 11 academic programs serving 1,800 students from two colleges: University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) College of Engineering and the UNO College of Information Science and Technology. Other units operating out of the Institute are the Holland High Performance Computing Center and the Peter Kiewit Institute Technology Development

Corporation. Schools and research centers based at PKI include the Charles W. Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, the School for Interdisciplinary Informatics and the Nebraska University Center for Information Assurance among others.

A literature review identified various papers on virtual environments used to enhance building information modeling (see [1], [6], [7] and [9]). The literature review also revealed other applications not directly related to BIM but which may have relevance to architects, engineers and educators working in areas such as building sustainability and energy harvesting, first responder training, and interactive online education. Alahmad, Nader, Cho, Shi and Neal [1], for example, presented research and findings on building information models developed to monitor energy consumption. Ruppel and Schatz [7] discussed integrating BIM and virtual environments to create a realistic training simulation where firefighters can practice how to clear buildings or train on firefighting techniques while navigating through virtual buildings. Ku and Mahabaleshwarkar [6] discussed merging BIM and gaming worlds which the research team found particularly helpful to their collective understanding of how to couple BIM and OLIVE. Finally, Shen, Jiang, Grosskopf and Berryman [9] discussed using Unity as a virtual platform to explore HVAC systems in virtual worlds and present their research on educational constructs for achieving intended educational outcome goals using virtual worlds.

1.1.PKI Establishes SCS Student Chapter

In September 2010, PKI students interested in modeling and simulation (M&S) research proposed to establish a student chapter of the Society of Computer Simulation and Modeling (SCS) at PKI. In October 2010, a draft constitution and by-laws were submitted for review to SCS Associate Vice President of Student Chapters, Professor Emeritus Tuncer Oren at the University of Ottawa, Canada. The PKI SCS Student Chapter was approved by the SCS Board of Directors on January 31, 2011 thereby establishing the second SCS Student Chapter in the United States. Students elected to key positions included John Oerter, President; Matthew Morhardt, Vice President; Wyatt Suddarth, Secretary; and Jacob Partusch, Treasurer. In April 2011, Student Chapter President John Oerter attended the SCS Spring Simulation Conference in Boston, MA and was introduced to the symposium attendees during the Plenary Session. The SCS Student Chapter was an important initial step to attracting additional PKI students to M&S research which formed a critical mass of manpower and talent that attracted the interest of industry partners to work with PKI in this area.

1.2.Mutual Benefits of forming Research Partnerships

Industry companies and government agencies from various sectors such as architecture, architectural engineering, civil engineering, construction engineering and construction management, transportation and logistics and the US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) from Department of Defense all showed interest in collaborating with PKI on M&S research. Discussions with the companies and agencies were helpful to identifying a number of mutual benefits to forming a research partnership.

Benefits to industry:

  • Enhance in-house research capabilities;

  • Teaming could potentially lead to new business and collaboration opportunities;

  • Creating and acquiring rights to intellectual property from research;

  • Avoid making expensive capital investments of company and agency funds into research infrastructure, technologies and laboratories;

  • Access to faculty expertise;

  • Student internships leading to possible new employee hires;

  • Possible leveraging of funds from other sources by jointly pursuing research grants.

Benefits to PKI faculty and students:

  • Access to real-world problems;

  • Exposure to project phases from concept development, engineering, construction and manufacturing;

  • Exposure to business and other ways of thinking;

  • Awareness and importance of costs, timelines and deliverables;

  • Creation of new course content for enriching academic programs;

  • Job opportunities for students through internships and hiring.

1.3.SAIC and PKI Research Partnership

Throughout this period, SAIC was the one entity more than any other that committed to forming a research partnership with PKI. This was primarily attributable to perseverance of two SAIC executives who championed this effort: Ms. Beverly Seay and Mr. Alfred Buckles. Ms. Seay was then Senior Vice President for SAIC’s Analysis, Simulation Systems Engineering and Training (ASSET) business unit and Mr. Buckles is the Vice President for Omaha Operations and the USSTRATCOM account manager. After discussing possible research areas, a formal teaming agreement between PKI and SAIC was put in place that gave PKI students access to SAIC modeling and simulation software to learn and gain experience in modeling and simulation. Additionally, SAIC and PKI agreed to jointly fund student support and development including year-round internships. SAIC also agreed to provide part time, on-site liaison at PKI which was filled by Mrs. Allison Baysa. Allison ensures students are provided with the proper equipment, software, instruction, training, information and other resources for them to conduct research and to ensure the program’s success.

2.Research objective

The primary goals of this research are to (1) develop a software system architecture that couples BIM, a virtual world simulation environment, and a gaming engine, and (2) develop a prototype software system in which architects and engineers can design and develop 3-dimensional renderings of built environments. The development environments selected for this research were Autodesk® Revit, Autodesk® 3DS Max [2], SAIC’s 3-dimensional virtual world called Online Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE) [8], versions 2.4.0 and 3.0, and a gaming engine called Unity developed by Unity Technologies from San Francisco, California [10].

2.1.Specific Research Objectives

A major research objective of this project has been to create an intuitive, efficient and user-friendly virtual world tool that allows users to design and modify architectural objects rendered in BIM and then ported into a virtual simulation environment without losing engineering level specifications which will require exact management of object attributes such as orientation, position, size and texture.

Another research objective is to give users the ability to customize attributes on-the-fly according to user or client preferences, constraints or prerequisites. Building design attributes such as interior and exterior dimensions and finishes or the structural design of a building would be easily and quickly changed or modified without sacrificing high quality visualization, graphics and resolution of the rendered object.

A final key, high-level design objective is to provide developers with an asynchronous development and collaboration environment where simulationists, software engineers and system users will be able to collaborate online as individuals or groups from distributed locations.

2.2.Significance of Research to the Engineering and Academic Communities

Architectural and engineering firms frequently use BIM tools such as Autodesk® Revit, Autodesk® 3DS Max and Bentley Building Applications, among others, to design and plan new buildings and for renovation projects ([2], [3]). BIM computer software programs enable architects and engineers to visualize new or renovated structures in 3D spaces. These tools, however, are not well suited for making changes to existing architectural drawings or building designs that architects could use to help their clients visualize newly designed or renovated spaces. Architectural teams typically work around this problem by creating artistic renderings of the designed spaces for clients. The major drawbacks with artistic renderings are the expense and time required to create or modify them.

This research proposes a new architectural design environment that integrates BIM with a virtual simulation environment and gaming engine to give architects and engineers a virtual world in which to design spaces for clients with an intuitive, natural way in which the spaces can be explored and modified. A new virtual world BIM environment is intended to save architects, engineers, clients and other stakeholders’ time and money by giving them the opportunity to make design changes and explore designed space functionality before construction.

In addition to serving architecture and architectural engineering industries, this research will also benefit academia and educational enterprises. Students studying architecture, architectural engineering, civil engineering, and construction will be well served by learning more effective ways to visualize and demonstrate important design concepts and processes.

Virtual environments can also provide engineers, construction workers, academic professors and students with opportunities to explore related topics such as construction site safety and demonstrate how the construction team works together on projects without being exposed to unsafe conditions ([4], [5]). Real life site visits may not be possible due to access restrictions, cost, safety, and availability of students. Virtual environments will make it possible for teachers and students to examine various layers of building systems in ways that could not be done using building designs. Virtual classrooms will enable faculty and students to engage on personal and professional levels in ways that chat, texting, and cell phones will not support. Virtual worlds have the potential to profoundly make online learning more effective because students from all over the world can come together in a collaborative, virtual classroom to learn.


SAIC’s simulation software package, OLIVE, served as the research and development environment for the project. OLIVE is currently used for applications in the areas of communications, networks, intelligent and embedded training, and modeling natural and man-made disasters. This research program was launched coincidentally at the same time that SAIC had undertaken a major effort to transition OLIVE from version 2.4.0 to 3.0. The transition involved re-architecting and re-hosting OLIVE to incorporate a new gaming engine, add new functionality and create a more robust toolkit for object development.

3.1.BIM Simulation System Prototype Architecture

The system architecture below gives a high-level depiction of the major components of the BIM simulation software system. The diagram also illustrates the general process for how system components interact with one another to achieve design goals. Activities of system developers and users involved so far in the high-level design are also shown although the diagram does not necessarily portray the sequence of steps in which they occur.


Figure 3.1. High-level System Architecture

The diagram reflects the research team’s current understanding of client requirements for the prototype under development. It is expected that changes to the system’s architecture will occur as users add new requirements or modify the ways that components interact with one another. The processes and interactions between clients, design team, data bases, OLIVE and BIM are based on use cases developed to date. As additional use cases are explored, lessons will be incorporated into the software system, component design and into the system’s architecture.

3.2.OLIVE 2.4.0

The team began its research and development by becoming familiar with OLIVE 2.4.0 functionally, as well as with methods and processes for importing customer designed objects into OLIVE using Autodesk® Revit and Autodesk® 3DS Max. Autodesk objects imported into OLIVE 2.4.0 must be modified using Autodesk® Revit and Autodesk® 3DS Max to comply with specific operating requirements of the OLIVE 2.4.0 simulation engine.

Importing an object into OLIVE 2.4.0, illustrated here using a building, begins with the instantiation of a structure in Autodesk® Revit which is then exported to Autodesk® 3DS Max as a .fbx file. In Autodesk® 3DS Max, each object must be manually tagged according to a hierarchical taxonomy for grouping and coupling objects. It is also necessary to manually establish an object’s spatial references and geometric relationships between the imported object under consideration and other objects in OLIVE. These remain tedious, laborious and time consuming tasks.

Figure 3.2 below illustrates a basic building rendered by the research team in Autodesk® Revit which took the team several hours to import into OLIVE 2.4.0.

revit olive office

Figure 3.2. OLIVE 2.4.0 Building

Research and analysis to improve OLIVE 2.4.0 functionality across several areas was conducted by the team during the past year. This effort led to a number of recommendations being accepted as possible improvements to the processes outlined above and in OLIVE 3.0.

The team analyzed OLIVE’s collision mesh protocol that prevents avatars and other objects from passing through or colliding with each other or other objects. The collision mesh reference system uses up to 400 distinct vertices for rendering and positioning complex shapes [8]. Another research area was related to the level of detail (LOD) mesh used for rendering object appearances. Typically, BIM object features are specified as attributes developed in Autodesk® 3DS Max. The upper bound for the LOD mesh is approximately 8000 vertices which gives developers a significant range for attribute specification [8]; something that also significantly increases object attribute complexity. Although these remain manual processes, the team developed algorithms that simplified and streamlined the process of decomposing complex shapes into simpler objects with their own LODs and collision meshes.

Both the collision and LOD meshes must be parented to the master-root which serves as an invisible (to the user) dummy object to which object attributes are anchored within the taxonomy. This establishes a coordinate reference position relative to the master-root for each component that forms the object’s physical structure [8]. The specific attributes of each component, such as, materials, surfaces, textures and finishes must be assigned in Autodesk® 3DS Max because the direct draw surface (.dds) extension is not supported by Autodesk® Revit. This requires objects to be imported from Autodesk® 3DS Max into OLIVE as .om or .model formats using appropriate plugins. The team’s analysis of these areas led to development of new methods and guidelines for categorizing attributes and clarifying relationships between and among objects using Autodesk® 3DS Max. The research team’s new methods and processes streamlined the process of decomposing and incorporating complex objects into OLIVE.

3.3.OLIVE 3.0

OLIVE 3.0 does not yet offer a robust software development kit (SDK) of tools and plugins to allow users to add new or modify existing content to objects in the virtual world. However, because it is built upon the Unity gaming engine which supports many 3D file formats, such as, .3ds, .fbx, .dae and .obj, OLIVE 3.0 could make the process of importing objects much smoother and less tedious.

As part of the joint SAIC-PKI research initiative, the research team undertook development of new OLIVE capabilities. Once the capabilities are fully developed and integrated into OLIVE 3.0, it will enable users to port objects from Autodesk® Revit into OLIVE without making the necessary intermediate adjustments or refinements in Autodesk® 3DS Max in order to port objects into the virtual world.

Figure 3.5 below illustrates a building ready to be exported into OLIVE 3.0 that the team instantiated in Autodesk® 3DS Max. It was rendered, including edits, in less than 30 minutes. This illustrates a potential significant improvement of OLIVE 3.0’s development environment over 2.4.0 where it took the team several hours to develop the same building.


Figure 3.5. OLIVE 3.0 Building

Finally, building OLIVE 3.0 on the Unity game engine platform makes it widely and easily available as a web application with only a web browser required to view, edit and develop objects in OLIVE 3.0. This overcomes user limitations and restrictions which slow object development in OLIVE 2.4.0.

4.results and findings

Through the course of this project, the research team worked closely with architects and architectural engineers from academia and industry. The team learned a great deal about the design needs and requirements of these communities and, from this, identified potential solutions using the proposed BIM software system presented in this paper to meet many of those needs.

In working with the architectural and engineering communities and SAIC programmers, the team quickly found that the process of porting building information models into OLIVE 2.4.0 was far from ideal due to several factors. First, development time required for objects in Autodesk® 3DS Max is the most onerous and most difficult to overcome. Second, the burdensome requirement for OLIVE 2.4.0 files to be loaded onto user computers as a precursor to collaboration significantly limited participation during both synchronous and asynchronous work sessions. OLIVE 3.0, on the other hand, offers a much improved platform with its improved graphics, web-based access, and easy-to-use object development environment.

Although a mature capability for importing and editing objects during runtime is far from being fully developed in OLIVE 3.0, its potential to import a wide range of 3D models in varying formats and accompanying capability to rapidly develop, edit and modify object functionality and attributes such as position, size, rotation, material, and finishes of objects are significantly improved over 2.4.0. By way of illustration, two figures are presented below of a building rendered in OLIVE 2.4.0 and Unity to compare and contrast these differences. The building rendered in Unity will appear identical in OLIVE 3.0 when the system is fully integrated.

Figure 3.3 depicts outside and inside views, respectively, of a building created in OLIVE 2.4.0. It took the development team, which has become quite proficient at using OLIVE, approximately three hours to render the building in 2.4.0. From the illustrations, one can readily see the building’s lack of detail and texture which clearly illustrates a prominent shortcoming with OLIVE 2.4.0; namely, its inability to enhance object features to reflect user-desired functionality and level of detail.



Figure 3.3. OLIVE 2.4.0 Building Views

In contrast, Figure 3.4 illustrates the same building developed in Unity which shows a much richer environment for developing and customizing objects. As compared to OLIVE 2.4.0, object resolution, quality of graphics, textures and finishes and enhancements to objects are much improved in OLIVE 3.0.



Figure 3.4. OLIVE 3.0 Building Views

As mentioned, rendering a detailed OLIVE 2.4.0 object remains a tedious, manual process that requires system users to spend a significant amount of time and effort making enhancements in Autodesk® 3DS Max before a detailed object can be exported into OLIVE 2.4.0. Even a modest amount of detail for a simple building takes an experienced user several hours to organize the object’s attribute hierarchy, and to add features, materials and finishes. In OLIVE 3.0, on the other hand, it is possible to significantly reduce the time required to render the same object by up to 5-fold with much improved detail and graphics.

Other advantages of OLIVE 3.0 include the following:

  • The completed 3.0 toolkit will allow users to easily and quickly position objects in the virtual environment in relation to other objects enabling the user to rapidly transition to an immersive game environment;

  • 3D objects developed or imported into 3.0 could be easily positioned in any 3.0 scene;

  • Other game objects such as lights, terrain and miscellaneous objects can be imported to enhance the quality of 3D buildings in the virtual environment in Unity and can be modified using the Unity editor;

  • Current OLIVE functionality such as mesh colliders that provide physical barriers which ‘attach’ to each object and supported file formats including those with the following extensions .fbx, .dae, and .obj are transferable from 2.4.0 to 3.0; and

  • A new graphical user interface (GUI) was developed by the team as part of this phase of research for easily and quickly changing the position, size, and rotation of any object or that is a sub-component of an existing object.

5.conclusions AND FUTURE WORK

The research goals and objectives of this project focused on exploring and creating new ways to improve how architectural and architectural engineering designs created by those who work in these fields from industry and academia are rendered and presented to clients, students and other stakeholders. Based on research to date, it is evident that OLIVE 3.0 holds potential as a viable software system to address these issues. The next phase of research will build upon results achieved to date to further develop and mature functionality and features of OLIVE 3.0.

Once the OLIVE 3.0 software development toolkit is fully developed, matured and integrated into the software system, it will present users with an efficient, robust software system for rendering and exploring the ‘as is’ and ‘to be’ designs of built environments. The end product will be a BIM software simulation system for users and clients to visualize proposed designs, explore building functionality in the virtual world, and make modifications and improvements to the designed space before construction.

Future work to be addressed by the team:

  • Develop a capability to import objects during runtime in OLIVE 3.0 to streamline objective development, reduce development cycle time, and take advantage of the improved 3.0 robustness and enhanced graphics;

  • Develop a capability to export OLIVE models into 3D BIM programs such as Autodesk® Revit, Autodesk® 3DS Max, or other commercially available 3D BIM applications to allow architects and engineers to quickly make design changes;

  • Develop a capability to quickly and seamlessly import various geographic terrain data bases and formats into both OLIVE and the Unity game engine so that solutions can be customized according to client needs and preferences;

  • Develop a OLIVE 3.0 world editor that has the following features: (1) Ability to drop and drag imported objects into at any location within the virtual environment and automatically establish the reference grid for the objects; (2) capability to decompose complex objects and then select and modify individual components of a decomposed object within a building such as a wall for example; and (4) change object position, size, rotation, materials and other attributes on the fly.


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  2. Autodesk. 2012. Autodesk® Revit and Autodesk® 3DS Max are registered trademarks of Autodesk Inc. in the United States, or certain other jurisdictions. See: http://usa.autodesk.com, http://www.autodesk.com/revit and http://www.autodesk.com/3dsmax.

  3. S. Azhar, A. Nadeem, J. Mok, B. Leung. 2008. "Building Information Modeling: A New Paradigm for Visual Interactive Modeling and Simulation for Construction Projects." In Proceedings of the First International Conference in Developing Countries, ICCIDC-I 2008. Karachi, Pakistan, August 4-5.

  4. J. Goedert, Y. Cho, M. Subramaniam, H. Guo, L. Xiao. 2011. "A framework for Virtual Interactive Construction Education (VICE)." Automation in Construction, 20 (1), pp.76-87.

  5. J. Goedert, Y. Cho, M. Subramaniam, X. Ling. 2009. “Virtual Interactive Construction Education (VICE) using BIM tools.” 3rd International Conference on Construction Engineering and Management and 6th International Conference on Construction Project Management, Jeju, Korea, May 27-30, pp. S14-6.

  6. K. Ku, P. Mahabaleshwarkar. 2011. Building Interactive Modeling for Construction Education in Virtual Worlds, Journal of Information Technology in Construction (ITcon), Vol. 16, pg. 189-208.

  7. U. Ruppel, K. Schatz. 2010. "BIM-based virtual training environment for fire-fighters." In Proceedings of the 2010 International Conference on Computing in Civil and Building Engineering, ICCCBE 2010, (Nottingham,UK ,June 30-July 2). Nottingham University Press.

  8. Science Applications International Corporation. 2010. OLIVE Artist’s Guide Version 2.4.0.

  9. Z. Shen, L. Jiang, K. Grosskopf, C. Berryman. 2012. "Creating 3D web-based game environment using BIM models for virtual on-site visiting of building HVAC systems." Construction Research Congress 2012, ASCE 2012.

  10. Unity 3D, “Asset Workflow” (last modified) August 2010. Unity Technologies: http://unity3d.com/support/documentation/Manual/Asset%20Workflow.html.

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