@Esri @CityEngine What is it?

This past few weeks I’ve been trying to do some clever augmented reality stuff with Unity involving putting objects on the floor and ensuring it doesn’t wobble when you walk around it (Yay for SLAM in mobile devices). Although in software like Unreal and Unity, you can download or buy models, what do you do when you want something bespoke you have built-in GIS? Or how about when you want to use a coordinate system to keep bits of your model the right distance?

Although I work with one of the worlds most prominent CItyEngine gurus’, I, like many of you, have been put off by the way it sounds and also that it is blatantly referred to as “not a GIS”. How many of you have asked what CityEngine actually is, only to hear the confusing phrase: “It’s a procedural modelling tool”….To me, that sounds like saying that GIS is a geospatial configuration and analysis tool, not very helpful to the masses. BUT here is the thing, having used it a few times over the last few weeks, I wouldn’t be without it, so if you read on, I’ll run through what it actually is, what it does and why it will be useful not only to the GIS people out there but also the architects, technicians and construction industries too, to name only a few.

“It’s a procedural modelling tool”

What is procedural modelling? By definition, it is creating 3D models from a set of rules, this is just as confusing as the term, so let’s look at it another way…How would you go about creating a 3D city from scratch? It doesn’t have to be real but have a lot of the generic features. You can do this by using rules, for example, you could say that if certain buildings are x tall, then they should look like this, or you could say that if a certain area was green, then fill it with a mix of trees. By using rules in this way it is easy to quickly build an entire city without having to drag out the editing tools. Building in this way, by using rules, is what is defined by “procedural modelling” and is widely used by the film industry for creating realistic cities due to how easily convincing areas can be built, destroyed, manipulated and recreated relatively quickly. To date CityEngine has been used in Cars 2, Total Recall, Big Hero 6, Man of Steel, Independence Day 2 and Zootopia but don’t think that you can just open it up and create you’re own film, there is a fair bit of studio work that goes into turning the virtual city into what you see on screen…that isn’t to say you can’t and that is what makes this so great.


Let’s have a think about the film Zootopia, it centres around a city of animals from the smallest to the largest, each with their own style of habitat and environment. Modelling this in a conventional way would be extremely time consuming but using this rule based system you can easily apply rules to govern what species live near another or how they interact. Yes, it is a tool for building cities, but it provides the means to bring them to life and give them validity.

It’s not all urban design

Although this is a tool designed for Urban Design and Planners, there is a lot of other functionality which is overlooked, for example, those cities you see in the images above, have coordinate systems. From a GIS point of view, this means that I can build a pretend city quickly using a local coordinate system and then export it over to my 3D GIS OR I can create a real town based on the footprints and very quickly populate it using a generic building type and export it over to the GIS.

This brings me to the next interesting piece of functionality which nobody knows about…the sheer amount of modelling formats you can interchange with. Sure, there are software which allows you to convert between formats but I’ve not seen one that uses File Geodatabase or 3D Shapefile and converts it to Collada or FBX, ready for use in Unity, Unreal, or even Blender. Here is a list of formats which CityEngine consumes:

  • .dae
  • .dxf
  • .fbx
  • .gdb
  • .kml
  • .kmz
  • .obj
  • .osm (import only)
  • .vob (export only)
  • .abc (export only
  • .rib (export only)
  • Unreal engine (export only)
  • .3ws (CityEngine webscene)
  • .3VR (standard VR format – export only)

Unlike exporting these data from a GIS, you can specify whether you want to retain materials and textures, whether you need to write the normals or even triangulate the meshes, the sheer amount of functionality with the 3D model data is akin to a gaming software. I can certainly see this being useful for rendering captured data or bringing information to life, also as an easy way of creating virtual reality environments whereby you can simply import your data and then export (after a little tidying) to VR.

Another nice little touch, which I can imagine being useful to architects and modellers is the “Facade wizard”, not widely known but this tool allows you to quickly apply facades to model objects. Another is the “Normals” tools, how many times have you been building something in Sketchup, ArcGIS Pro, Blender or other, only to find that when you are drawing it up, you see the faces are inside out or that it looks shaded in the wrong places? The “Normals” function within CityEngine make this so much easier, you can select faces or whole cities and click on “reverse normals” and it simply rectifies them, furthermore it is clear which are reversed and which are clean.

London Modeled in CityEngine
A gateway to GIS

Esri sells CityEngine as an urban planning tool but in my mind there is a lot more to be found here. As a casual modeller, building geospatial cities, towns and other areas I’ve found it invaluable in getting the models tidied and visually correct, ready to be imported into the next software, allowing me to use one set of models for multiple purposes, whether it is GIS, gaming, VR, AR or visualisation.

Don’t let the term “CityEngine” blind you, you can work with a single building, a pool of cars or whatever vector models you wish, though it does have the capability of coping with cities. Yes, it is “procedural”, so you can learn a little CGA code (or copy and paste it) and build large environments from very little data. BUT you can also use this software as a translator and modelling tool between your vector geospatial data and your other work, a phrase which I have heard recently is that for urban designers and modellers, this has become a gateway to GIS.

….we just need to convince Esri there is more to this than urban planning!


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