3D isn’t new, but it is definitely the future

3D isn’t new, but it is definitely the future


When we talk about 3D and three-dimensional representation, there is an automatic assumption that it is a new thing. How would you feel if I told you that a Boeing engineer called William Fetter not only created computer aided 3D animations in the 1960s but was also head of the Boeing CAD department yes you read that right, CAD department.

You see, whilst we think of the computer revolution starting in the 1980s with home computers like the ZX80 and the Commodore 64, it actually started in the 1960s with one of the first vector graphic drawing programs called Sketchpad which was created by Ivan Sutherland of Utah University. He later (1968) teamed with David Evans and founded Evans & Sutherland, who, in their time, had well-known employees, such as the founder of Pixar’s, Ed Catmull.


Even in 1972, a full decade before the release of the first-ever commercial version of AutoCAD, Ed Catmull and Fred Parke released a video which would later get used in the 1978 film Westworld, of a (moving) computer-animated representation of Eds left hand.

You get the idea. 3D isn’t new and even when we consider the idea of vector graphics and drawing, it has still been around for over 30 years. What is new, is the integration of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which is a little unusual, considering how old our knowledge of Geodesy is. 3D analysis has been an integral part of the planning process and survey process for many years, many of us have had to run a line of site or viewshed analysis, if not interpolated a surface or bathymetry but the use of the results has rarely been in all three dimensions. It has only really been the last decade that the likes of Google Earth and ArcScene have shown us how useful it is to be able to visualise real world problems in three dimensions.

Right now is the golden era for 3D GIS

The geospatial community is now making the link between survey, analysis and presentation of data which means that software companies are now integrating geodetic math, real world lighting and time-based analysis to 3D globes based on almost any coordinate system you could ask for.

Off the shelf systems like ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro and AutoCAD’s Map 3D provide such a complete experience that going from capture of data to rendering and presentation of the data accurately, can be reduced from weeks, to mere hours.

Data capture is almost always 3D, as it is important to understand the topography and also geology of an area. Even if you aren’t planning, there is a need to avoid severe changes in elevation or, if you are working offshore you need to understand the hidden elements beneath the surface. For years, we have used admiralty charts or 2D representations to display profiles of the surface which would take days if not weeks to churn through in specialist software. With current 3D GIS, we are able to take LiDAR, multibeam, laserscan, singlebeam and other cloud point formats (like CODA etc) directly into our systems, sometimes without any need for manipulation to manage sizes, thus giving us an almost immediate view of the issues at hand.

Things get more exciting still when you realise that this information can then be realised almost immediately too. Since the release of HTML5, we have had WebGL and the ability to render 3D objects and information using the internet. This means that the information can be related to whole teams involved in the project rapidly, with tools like CesiumJS, ArcGIS online, Potree and Threejs, we can export the data almost directly out of our 3D GIS and onto a 3D Web map so that teams can collaborate on the information immediately. With the ability to overlay expected issues and potential new issues alongside the collected data, it is an extremely powerful workflow and it is not difficult to see why the tools around this workflow are developing so rapidly. Suddenly 3D goes from “gimmick” to necessary tool.


3D analysis becomes a whole new experience when it is used in a 3D GIS, you can interact and refine the parameters of the analysis much more efficiently when you can move around and measure the information in front of you. When performing line of sight or viewshed, it is possible to verify the analysis through the interface, with the right GIS, shadow analysis can be verified on the fly, my personal favourite is with volumetric analysis, having the ability to look & measure the volume which is being analysed. Furthermore, using 3D analysis within a 3D environment provides reassurance as you can easily see the information which you are analysing. Using 2D GIS for 3D analysis was always a struggle for me, there were many times when I would have to interpolate a surface or extract a profile several times, mostly due to not being able to correctly view the data and a misconception occurring – This is quite common when kriging or inverse distance weighting a surface to ensure the points are correctly referenced.

3D is the new 2D

It isn’t hard to see that 3D GIS has many, many benefits and reading this, you may think that I have specialised or studied this at university but the truth is that my use of 3D came from a need of my employer. You see, for the last 8 years I worked for a renewable energy company who consulted with many of the big names in wind & solar farms. One of the primary issues, whether offshore or onshore was the sight of these turbines, therefore viewsheds and photomontages were frequently used but in all honestly, it doesn’t really convey how everything interacts. Other issues that occurred were mitigating for birds and their potential flights near to where the turbine(s) will be placed, or another show stopper would be the proximity of a turbine to a house or airport (flight path issues).

On paper, these issues can look severe, in two dimensions, a flight path can rule out a wind farm site. Think about how that would look in 3D though, it can be easily shown how the issues really happen and often aviation and bird issues can be mitigated with a simple (3D) map.


The world was waking up to the fact that we weren’t looking at the whole picture, very quickly the renewables industry was using 3D GIS for a lot of their analysis and this opened my eyes.

Last year, I moved to Garsdale Design Limited, a planning & architecture consultancy near to Lake Windermere as they have been at the forefront of 3D GIS and especially, procedural modelling.

Procedural modelling is having the ability to set rules to create large amounts of information, we (Garsdale) use this to create whole cities in 3D. These rules are then converted to sliders by the software so that large areas can be adjusted on the fly. This has been very popular in the middle east where smartcities have had to develop fast as it reduces the time to build out a city from months to weeks.

Of course, I am not a planner, nor do I ever think I will be, I have been busy working on other ways Garsdale Design can help others with their 3D issues. One area that has been growing is the coastal modelling and analysis. One thing that many GIS can’t do is work above and below the water, which is a pain when you are analysing the installation of a wind turbine or the scour on a breakwater but this has changed over the last year and I’ve been demonstrating coastal models showing onshore and offshore data whereby you can “dive” under the water and see the issues on the seabed which may be affecting the shipping and potential seabed installations. A demonstration we ran on an offshore wreck showed how you can integrate this into storymaps to show not only the history but the change over time of a site.

Where to now?

Things are moving fast and of late virtual reality has become a talking point and this, I believe, will form the future of GIS, with companies like ESRI and AutoCAD already demonstrating some form of VR in the near future though not, perhaps in the way that you may think. Having spoken on this with Ordnance Survey’s’ tech lab and with the industries who may use the technology, it becomes apparent that it will be Mixed Reality (MR) which will be the winning technology. There is a need in the current market for a way to “overlay” information on the real world. This could help with planning, hazardous sites and utilities to remove the risk by showing the area or item of issue overlaid on what the user is looking at, thus removing the chance for error which is quite common in the underground utilities and offshore industries where it can be quite easy to misread a diagram or get confused between multiple similar items.


How far away are we from this?…What if I told you that we can already overlay information on your phone with surprising accuracy, see Layla Gordon’s AR demonstrations on the Ordnance Survey website. How about if I told you that ESRI have posted several blogs on their trials of a Microsoft Hololens? The time is now, we just need to change the way we look at the world.

For further information on procedural modelling, VR, MR, AR, 3D modelling or help with getting started with 3D GIS, you can contact Garsdale Design Ltd via email – info@garsdaledesign.co.uk