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A bit on BITS in the Architecture of the 21st century

(c) Rohit Singh 1998


Bits vs. Bricks

How can Bits Build ?

Virtual Reality in Architecture

Virtual Stonehenghe

Adam's house in Cyburbia

Tangible Bits



Bits vs. Bricks

The battle of the 21st Century

The world of atoms is no longer superior to the world of bits. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the role of architecture as the mediator between man and nature has been increasingly usurped by technological invention. The human body, the historic measure of architecture, is now free from the bondages imposed by the physical laws of nature and man can now sink into the depths of the minds' eye; he can float above in the world of his dreams. Thanks to the bit, you can, or I can build the Architecture I want.

In the comparison that follows, the brick is representative of building materials ordinarily being used in the construction industry today like cement, steel, concrete and of course, bricks. The bit, albeit, is a bit different. It represents the world of Virtual Reality, a world of make believe, a terrestrial sphere much like ours where everyone is what he is not, but what he pretends he is; which makes me think... isn't the real world more virtual than the virtual world ?



Occupies space and has weight Occupies no space; doesn't weigh either
Costly Rs 2 = 1 brick Cheap Rs 2 = 140,000 bits
Subject to damage due to

corrosion, environ. factors, etc.

No damage due to such factors.
Cannot be cloned without going

deep into physics

Just needs a "Copy" command.

Keep some backups, though

Fixed in space and time. Free from space and time.
Hazards may occur... asbestosis, accidents Relatively hazard free
Fixed properties Variable properties
Exists in real space Exists in virtual space

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How can Bits build ?

Methodology for Design of Virtual Spaces

The development of Virtual Spaces includes model construction, display, and interface with high- performance graphics systems and immersive technologies. The CAD models of complex geometries are composed of hundreds of millions of primitive solid primitives represented by nonlinear mathematical functions and combined together by Boolean operations. That's what is called Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG) Modeling. A cornucopia of CAD softwares is available for making our job easier, AutoCAD being one of the popular tools. Once the accurate CAD models are fabricated, they need to be painted with texture maps of the objects they are composed of. Bump maps, reflection maps and the like make the surfaces come out alive and now it is left to "immersive technologies" to allow us to take a plunge into the virtual spaces and live in them. By immersive technologies, I mean the system which makes us experience the virtual spaces... they can range from the Star-Trek popularized "Virtual Reality Goggles" to the full fledged VR environments with tactile suits, holographic screens, controlled HVAC... the list is endless !

The graphic literature includes numerous techniques for rendering solid-models, including direct rendering, polygonization and ray tracing. The systems for direct rendering either restrict the number of Boolean operations, or the number of primitives, or they cannot render complex models. Ray-tracing produces photorealism, but the mathematical maze to be traversed is still considered a hard nut to crack by the mini monsters (read Pentium-II processors) of computers today. The trade off between computer speed and image quality is reached when we use polygonisation techniques and high speed systems like Silicon Graphics Reality Engine and Pixel-Planes 5 which can render upto 2 million triangles per second. Some future systems like Pixelflow, currently under development at the University of North Carolina, are expected to improve this performance by one order of magnitude. Still, the geometric complexity of large solid models (which all architectural models invariably are) requires the development of appropriate model representations, algorithms, and systems for display at interactive frame rates (that is, more than 15 frames per second).

Research on "Interactive Display of Large Solid Models for Walkthroughs" by Professors Subodh Kumar, Shankar Krishnan and Dinesh Malhotra at the University of North Carolina seems to promise rewards in this promising field.

Latest information in this field is available from their websites at .

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Virtual Reality in Architecture

"The challenge for architecture now is to step beyond the physical threshold that governs the conventional spaces of the home and into the phenomenal or simulated spaces of the mind." - Michael Ostwald, Adam's House in Cyburbia

The confines of the real world are no longer binding on the man of the twenty first century, thanks to technologies' third wave. The arrival of virtual reality has set him free from the bondage imposed on him by the physical laws of this terrestrial sphere. In this paper we shall discuss the possibilities of virtual reality in architecture. By no means is this an exhaustive list. The possibilities are endless and the mind is now your canvas.

Applications of VR :

Virtual Reality Interactive Models :

With the advent and popularization of the Internet, it is expected that Cyber-travel will replace its real world counterpart in many a cases. The day is not far when you shall be roaming around in the Great Pyramids of Gizeh in the coziness of your bedroom. Don't be surprised to see other visitors like yourself also exploring the site, for the cyberspace will be a buzy place then ! And in case you haven't done your homework by going through the relevant CDROM, don't feel disheartened, cyber guides will always be there. Libraries and Museums with multimedia content waiting to quench the insatiable thirst for erudition in you shall be the order of the day. And you won't know how fast and how far you have gone in cyberspace.

Architectural Visualization :

Virtual Reality can be used as a powerful Design and Visualization tool in architecture. Virtual Reality study models are more captivating and give better feedback to the designer / client and costly mistakes can be nipped in the bud in the design stage itself. VR Walkthroughs can also be used to judge and select between various entries for a competition project. They can be put on the web and public opinion be taken. No matter who wins or loses the competitions, we can be sure of one thing, Architecture shall be triumphant in the end.

Architectural Conservation and Reconstruction Tool :

Reconstruction and Archaeological Conservation have always been at the storm center of controversies with innumerable schools of thoughts giving their piece of advice regarding how "correct conservation and reconstruction" should be accomplished. Then, if that is not enough, public debates about these issues never seem to cease. Thanks to virtual reality, we can now let the buildings stay in peace, and do all what we want with Virtual Models and reconstructions. The goals of a research project in Ephesus include using the data and the computer images to aid in the partial reconstruction of a building that crumpled more than 1,500 years ago. Austrian and Turkish researchers are cooperating on a project to preserve and partially restore the ancient theater building at Ephesus on the west coast of Turkey. And just in case you're interested, you may like to fire your web browsers and have a walkabout in Virtual Stonehenge on Intel's site (


Prince of Persia in Virtual Persia and Doom in Virtual Hell, the computer games never seemed to be more exhilarating ! Thanks to Virtual Reality, virtual travel makes you go to any place in the world ...oops! I should've said "cyburbia".

Vicarious Pleasure :

Architects need no longer feel bad if their architecture is not built in this big bad world. They can now turn to cyberspace and sculpt their cognitions using bits... doesn't cost a penny and it's as good as the real thing ! Unrealized or truncated projects (like John Utzon's auditorium at the Sydney Harbour which they said could never be built) can now be sculpted in cyberspace.

...and the list goes on

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Virtual Stonehenge

Researchers and developers creating a VR model of Stonehenge worked to create a painstakingly accurate model that not only portrayed the stones to within a centimeter, but also included an accurate representation of the night sky above the Salisbury Plain, as viewed on any given day of the year.

This is particularly interesting since the initial goal of this 3D model was as much to inspire as it was to educate or entertain. The model is a part of a bid to create Stonehenge Millennium Park, a planned 4,000 acre reserve on the Salisbury Plain of about 450 ancient monuments built between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago.

English Heritage, a UK government agency responsible for the conservation and management of many of England's top tourists and historical attractions, is spearheading the drive to create the park. English Heritage archaeologists worked with a development team at VR solutions Ltd. of Salford, UK to build the model. They used data from a 1993-1994 effort by English Heritage's Ancient Monument Laboratory to reassess the results of 20th century excavations at Stonehenge.

The developers built two VR models. A photorealistic VR model accurate to the centimeter details the monument and includes the surrounding landscape and the position of stars relative to the monument on any day of the year. The model also lets users trace the development of the monument over the past 10,000 years and offers an interactive guided tour.

English Heritage showed this model on June 20, 1996 at the London Planetarium, as part of a media event promoting the development of the park. The model showed what that the area looked like now and how it might look after removing man made artifacts such as roads and fences. Today, World Wide Web users can view a second, less detailed model in a VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) environment on the internet. Using the Viscape VRML plug-in, web users could explore Virtual Stonehenge on Intel's site in cyberspace (, where it was being rendered on a 166 Mhz Pentium processor. This VRML model takes about 800 Kbytes, compressed to 240 Kbytes for download.

The photorealistic VR model requires quite a bit more horsepower to explore. If you are riding on an Intergraph TDZ graphics workstation with a Pentium-200 Mhz under your belt, you shall really fly through the Virtual Stonehenge; a 486 might bring you close to a bumpy ride to Chhedies. The version of the model with detailed textures uses about 256 Mbytes of data.

Rendering the model for different eras also presented challenges. For example, researchers believe that the model was complete 4,000 years ago, so the model for that period includes stones that are missing in it's current form. Stones have also been weathered in the more recent periods, to simulate the effect of millenia of rain, wind and sunshine.

If the Stonehenge Millenium Park is built, English Heritage hopes to use the model on site in a visitors center, as a way to better understand and explore the history of the monuments they are seeing. But, of course, the model could be hosted on any place where interested people want to explore the Salisbury Plains.

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Adam's House in Cyburbia

We all have a dual citizenship... one in our physical environment and the other in the virtual world, fondly known as cyberspace. The citizens of cyberspace fly through fields of data and drink from rivers of information. But when the storms come and the serpent offers it's bitter fruit in the form of internet viruses and unsolicited e-mails, they will seek shelter in surrogate houses in 'Cyburbia' - the interface between the real and the virtual, between the bricks and mortar of the Cartesian world and the pixels and bits of the illusory world.

Two architects from the University of Newcastle, Michael Ostwald and John Moore, have explored the idea of a primitive hut at the end of the 20th century, in the form of a 9000 frame, five minute video entitled "Adam's House in Cyburbia" and in an illustrated essay titled the same in Architecture Australia. They have also contended that "this house may be viewed only in a series of representational forms; as print-outs or on video...Adam's house in Cyburbia is wholly realized in the virtual environment of the computer." Here, we are led to a thought provoking question as to why should a house claimed to be located in 'Cyburbia' (as defined by Moore and Ostwald) be wholly realized in the virtual environment of the computer ? Aren't they contradicting themselves by placing Adam's house in the Virtual world, and not Cyburbia as is their original intention.

Possibly, Adam's house in Cyburbia has already been built - not in the world of illusions and words but in a Cyburbia called The Media Labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, in the form of 'ambientROOM', a design project under the guidance of Professors Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer. In a recent paper on Human Computer Interaction (HCI) entitled "Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits and Atoms" authored by them, a seamless interface between people, bits and atoms is proposed to bridge the gap between the real and the virtual, and to remove the dual citizenship I mentioned above.

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Tangible Bits

"Tangible Bits" is an attempt to bridge the gap between the virtual world and the real... to construct a Cyburbia like the one defined and described by Ostwald and Moore earlier in this essay. In their paper, Ishii and Ullmer have developed ways to make digital information(bits) tangible and make them accessible through the physical environment. Their key concepts are:

Interactive Surfaces : Transformation of each surface within architectural space (e.g., walls, floors, desktops, ceilings, doors, windows) into an active interface between the physical and virtual worlds;

Coupling of Bits and Atoms : Seamless coupling of everyday graspable objects with digital information that pertains to them; and

Ambient Media : Use of ambient media such as sound, light, airflow, and water movement for background interfaces with cyberspace at the periphery of human perception.

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References and further reading

1. IEEE Journal on Computer Graphics and Applications, Jan-Feb 1997, "Archaeological Models: Pretty Pictures or Research Tools?" , Michael J. Potel

2. IEEE Journal on Computer Graphics and Applications, March 1996, "Interactive Display of Large Solid Models for Walkthroughs" , Lawerence J. Rosenblum

3. IEEE Journal on Computer Graphics and Applications, March 1996, "Weather without the Weatherman" , Michael Potel

4. Architecture Australia, March 1997, "Adam's House in Cyburbia" , Michael Ostwald and John Moore

5. Architectural Design, January 1997, "Architecture in Cyberspace" , a collection of essays.

6. Indian Architect and Builder, August 1997, Issue on Architecture in Cyberspace

7. Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits and Atoms, Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer

8. "The Road Ahead" , Bill Gates

9. "The Third Wave" , Alvin Toffler

Virtual References :

Special thanks to for fetching these web-pages.

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A bit on BITS in the Architecture of The 21st century

(c) Rohit Singh, B. Arch. (IV year), I.I.T. Kharagpur . Feb. 1998