Summer Games: Student Team Develops Virtual-Reality Hoboken for Design and Disaster Planning


Sometimes games are fun and serious at the same time.

Ian Marcellana '15, an engineering management major and one of the Stevens Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship's 2014 Summer Scholars, is working on a virtual-reality environment that simulates downtown Hoboken. It's fun to watch pedestrians move through streets and automobiles struggle to negotiate the city's uniquely perplexing grid of one-way streets.

But there's something far more significant at hand, as well. Marcellana — working closely with computer science majors Sara Vitkus '17 and Alex Sabella '16, who are performing research under the auspices of the Stevens Scholars Program, as well as Ph.D. student Hugh Lester — is producing a model of the mile-square city that could one day be used by local and regional officials for disaster, flood, and urban planning.

Technology companies are taking notice.

"The company that supplies much of this software, AutoDesk, came to visit, and they were floored to learn these students are undergraduates, rather than graduate students," explains School of Systems & Enterprises (SSE) associate professor Robert Cloutier, the team's summertime advisor on the new project. "They told me that they have not seen anyone trying to do what we are doing here, and that there is a lot of potential for this research."

To create the simulation, the team deploys an impressive array of architectural, planning, and game development software. Buildings are first scanned using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) equipment. Those scans are manipulated using AutoCad and then imported into InfraWorks, an urban-design software. The result is ultimately brought into the Unity game-development environment, resulting in a complex city model.

The student development team can then create and program individual people, or 'intelligent agents,' to descend upon Hoboken Terminal for the morning commute and emerge in the evening. They can aggregate agents around shops or restaurants during prime nightlight or shopping hours, or take strolls and jogs by the river in early evening.

While Marcellana works on defining the boundaries of surfaces such as lawns, sidewalks, rivers and streets — and the complex rules that help govern what agents will 'do' when near or on these surfaces — Sabella and Vitkus 'stitch' together features in the urban landscape by painstaking rendering the LiDAR scans of the terrain into point clouds: three-dimensional, highly realistic graphical objects.  The team also works to continually refine the 'navigation mesh,' the underlying means by which the 'people' in a simulation find their ways through the virtual city according to internally programmed rules and elements of randomness.

And it's all in the service of preparing cities such as Hoboken for future development, traffic, weather and health concerns.

"A medical worker could use this technology to simulate, for example, a pandemic where you have medical workers from hospitals going building to building to do health evaluations," explains Cloutier. "We can program the intelligent agent to enter each building, and because the software knows from census data how many people live in each building or block, we can program a counter or timer to have the agent remain there — let's say it's 20 minutes per family, whatever it would be, times 'x' number of families in the building — and then exit and move on the next building.

"In this way, we get a realistic simulation of a real-time response to a real type of crisis, and we can begin to deploy personnel accordingly."

The simulations could have far wider applications, as well.

"The students have architected this so that it's part of a framework, and maybe one day we can easily plug in other models to this same framework," says Cloutier. "One day, you're looking at a medical model, but maybe the next day you're looking at a simulation of a flood in Hoboken. We can't do this yet; we are still in the early stages of exploration of what we can do. But that's the hope."

"It is definitely possible," enthuses Marcellana, who hopes to pursue work in the manufacturing field upon completing his studies.

His collaborators, Sabella and Vitkus, each expect to pursue master's degrees in systems engineering and technology careers.

"We have a great deal of creative license in this project," says Vitkus. "If we discover something cool, we are allowed and encouraged to just try it, evaluate it ourselves."

"This is different from anything I have ever done," adds Sabella.

"None of this was here when we began the summer 10 weeks ago," sums Marcellana. "The machines, the software tools, the simulation…it has all happened quickly. And the project will live on with additional student research next summer. We're all glad to have had the chance to do this."