Constructing virtual reality

As ambitious feats of architecture begin to dot the country's skyline, a few local designers are using their spare time to recreate the buildings digitally in Google Earth.

The Google Earth replication of the Sheikh Zayed Road skyline.
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On a recent Friday afternoon at the Starbucks in Marina Mall, Chris Bence began building the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. The 24-year-old oilfield engineer powered up his laptop, switched between a number of software applications and, with near-surgical precision, constructed each minaret, arch and central dome, as the din of the coffee shop bustled around him. At one point Bence noticed something was not quite right. He needed more photos to digitally warp into the mosque's walls. Packing up his equipment, Bence left the mall, went to the mosque and took more pictures. Ten hours later, he completed the building and uploaded his work to the internet for everyone to see.

Of course, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the largest mosque in the UAE, opened in 2007, 12 years after construction began and at an estimated cost of Dh2 billion. It certainly wasn't the work of one day, like Bence's photo-realistic, three-dimensional replica for Google Earth. He is one of many helping Google create an online replica of the world. The programme allows users to browse, pan and magnify the virtual Earth, constructed with the help of satellite images. The software has a feel of a video-game, where users can fly from Delhi to Dallas in a matter of seconds. And, on a recent flight through, it was obvious that Bence's Grand Mosque is not the only virtual copy of the local landmarks. Dozens of enthusiasts have designed more than 100 three-dimensional replicas of famous UAE structures - from the Burj Al Arab to flats on the Corniche. As construction workers hurriedly build the ambitious skylines of the region brick by brick, a small but growing group of digital architects are rebuilding the same structures byte by byte. Some are even being paid to rebuild cities online.

"I was totally that kid in high school that daydreamed and doodled instead of paying attention in class," says Bence, who recently moved back to the US for a new job after working in the UAE for less than two years. Before he left, he says designing Google Earth buildings offered a welcome break from his 12-hour shifts at Schlumberger, an oilfield and information services company. Design has occupied Bence's free time since he was a teenager. "I've got a stack of about 30 notebooks with designs for new car parts and a bunch of ideas I want to get patented," he says.

In terms of virtual design, the capital offered a lot of opportunities to fill his lazy Friday afternoons. "The thing about Abu Dhabi is that it changes so much, so in five years, you might have to build the city all over again," says Bence with a laugh. He has created about 30 buildings in the past two years. When Google Earth came out in 2005, users took delight in zooming through a seemingly isometric view of our home planet, zipping through satellite imagery and trying to find out where we live. But the virtual world remained flat and the buildings were drab and grey.

Two years later, Google unveiled a software update that included photo-realistic buildings in a few cities. It wasn't much at first, but it began to spur the interest of the application's burgeoning fan-base. "There's a certain cool factor flying from space to where you live," says Bruce Polderman, Google's business product manager for Google Earth 3D Warehouse. "But after you get over that cool factor, you need buildings to get a better idea of your environment."

Today, tens of thousands of lifelike virtual buildings around the world litter Google's 3D Warehouse database. The buildings are detailed, featuring items as small as railings, weather antennas and beach chairs. They are created using SketchUp, a 3D building application, and are available for anyone to download free of charge. The best designs, vetted by Google, are automatically embedded in future updates of Google Earth, which has 500 million users.

If Bence is the most prolific local designer of Google Earth's UAE buildings, he faces stiff competition from Anis Tumallah, a quiet 16-year-old student in Sharjah. Beginning with his family's house, Tumallah has created about two dozen 3D buildings in the Emirates, many of them located on Sheikh Zayed Road. "I was browsing Google Earth two years ago and noticed there weren't many 3D buildings in Dubai," says Tumallah, whose parents are from Jordan. "When I go out with my family to Dubai, I sometimes take photos of the buildings, so I thought it'd be pretty easy to make my own 3D buildings."

Tumallah estimates that it takes two days to design buildings like the National Bank of Dubai, the Dubai Trade Centre, the API World Tower and the Chelsea Tower. He considers the Rose Rotana Hotel building on Sheikh Zayed Road, with its complex side panels, his most challenging creation. It took more than a week to complete. The results of his and other hobbyist designers are extraordinary. Each has been painstakingly rendered to replicate its real-life counterpart, from the sail curves of the Burj Al Arab to the colour of Al Yacoob Tower's roof design to the proportions of Abu Dhabi's Corniche apartment buildings. Most of the skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road are available, and moving your cursor to pan the strip feels eerily like speeding down the road at 120kph.

Tumallah's efforts have not gone unnoticed. The teenager says a local businessman recently commissioned him to design more than 1,000 buildings in Google Earth. He has finished only one so far, the Al Attar Tower on Sheikh Zayed Road, and pledges to complete the task after his exams are over this month. "It's fun," says Tumallah. "Maybe I go to college later and study [architecture] after I finish school... my family says what I'm doing is good and that I should keep working on this. Maybe I'll become an engineer or something."

Like his Sharjah counterpart, Bence has also had inquiries about his hobby. During job interviews, companies often skipped over other parts of his CV to inquire about his Google Earth projects. "It's good exposure for me," he says. "A lot of companies I've interviewed with skip over things in my resume like 'Jet Propulsion Class' and point at Google Earth and ask about it." Designing virtual worlds also keeps Bence's skills in check. He used to work as a designer for Nike and believes that playing with SketchUp, Photoshop and Google Earth is a way for him to keep up to date with the latest 3D design methods.

"It keeps me fresh," he says. Although Tumallah hasn't finalised a contract with his future employer, some designers have already been paid to build in Google Earth. The Jumeirah Group recently commissioned White Paper Media, a German-based firm, to build five models, including the Mina Al Salam boutique hotel in Madinat Jumeirah. "Seeing our designs in Google Earth is an incredible feeling," said Bodo von Laffert, White Paper Media's president and founder. "It's something that has never been there before. You find yourself in the virtual world that's actually existing."

Although von Laffert could not say how much the company was paid for these projects, they generally charge about US$400 (Dh 1,470) for a simple model to US$15,000 (Dh55,080) for a building as complex as the Mina Al Salam.   Digital architecture is becoming lucrative, in part because there lies a great opportunity for municipalities and property designers to promote cities in an new light. "You see things through a new perspective," von Laffert says. "Before I go on vacation, I make sure I go to Google Earth and see what my surroundings are."

Several towns around the world, such as Amherst, Massachusetts, and Westport, Ireland, have found success after partnering with Google to promote their towns to "virtual tourists" on Google Earth. The same could be true for places with great architectural ambition like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, if it is done well. "There are people creating works of art, spending hours getting the image just right," says Google's Polderman. "It's like just sculpture, in a way. Except these buildings are clickable."