California is in the midst of constructing one of the most ambitious transportation projects in North America: the California High-Speed Rail (CHSR). The mammoth venture—approved by voters in 2008 as a $10 billion bond measure—will connect northern and southern California with a European and Asian-style high-speed train capable of operating at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, completing the journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours.
With a project this complex and far-reaching, it’s challenging to maintain public support over a prolonged timeline—especially when the public has never reaped the benefits of high-speed rail. Enter virtual reality (VR).
Seeing Is Believing
Recognizing an opportunity to tap technology to boost both public confidence and legislative buy-in, a skunkworks team of infrastructure experts from WSP, HNTB, Neytive, and Autodesk partnered with nonprofit organization US High-Speed Rail Association to develop an immersive, 360-degree simulator of the high-speed train ride between California’s two greatest cities.
“Several years ago, we started a campaign to better communicate the value of high-speed rail to people who have never ridden one in Europe or Asia,” says Peter Gertler, senior vice president at HNTB. “That eventually evolved to a VR experience.”
With The California Experience, “There were two things we wanted to do,” says Bart Ney, owner of Neytive and spokesman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “Build a VR model that could be used to help the outreach effort for CHSR and use the experience to help convey the complex visuals and feel for what high-speed rail is.”
More specifically, the team wanted to provide a simulation that was as close as possible to the real thing. “We wanted to get across what it’s like riding on a train at 220 miles per hour and simulate the passenger experience and amenities at a conceptual high-speed rail station,” Gertler says. “VR is a strong tool that has a significant ‘wow’ factor when people try it for the first time.”
To develop The California Experience, a team of a dozen specialists from the four companies collaborated to release the project in two phased versions. “A small team from Autodesk visited the Rail Museum in Sacramento after-hours to scan a Siemens exhibit car and then passed the [Autodesk] Revit Live data onto WSP,” Ney says. “We identified a few 3D panoramic photos that could act as our California locations, and then HNTB took the baton during phase two to upgrade the experience with additional modeling and a very cool station for users to explore.”
The VR experience lets users explore the entire train, inside and out, and even sit in the pilot’s seat. To convey the feeling of moving at incredibly high speeds, the environment guides participants to look out the train-car window at the world passing by. One of the early VR challenges was creating the sensation of moving at 220 miles per hour yet standing still in the train car. “Parallax scrolling, a technique where background images are made to move more slowly than foreground images, helped us get the timing right for viewing objects in perspective through the train windows,” Ney explains.
Spreading the Message
The VR experience has already been shared with several hundred stakeholders at industry events, and, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s approval, will become a tool to educate the public.
“The next steps are to refine the experience, bring it into the [rail] program, so that you could potentially take this to community meetings where difficult subjects are being addressed,” Ney says. “And then there will be a better understanding of just what it is they’re going to get, as opposed to just the impacts they’re experiencing.”
So, will the VR release help move the needle on public enthusiasm? Yes, says Ney. “It’s hard to go way back in time to when that measure first was put out and remember exactly why we’re building a high-speed rail. And, people aren’t seeing a train. By having something like this, there’s an experience they can understand: ‘Oh, okay! Now I’m open to hearing the rest of what you’re trying to tell us.’”
Gertler seconds the sentiment. “A recent poll found that there is still a majority of California voters who support the CHSR,” he says. “While there has been significant fatigue given the challenges, the project is under construction and there is excitement and results in terms of job creation.”
Ney points to the power of competing entities such as WSP and HNTB joining forces in the name of industry progress. “It takes a big project to potentially bring those two titans together,” he says. “On the infrastructure side, we’re very, very slow to move into this stuff. So you really have to guide the whole industry by grabbing them by the hand and taking them there, and that’s what these people tried to do.”
The success of VR is extending to other public-works projects, Gertler says, given its ability to more effectively communicate the taxpayer benefits of investing early in large-scale projects.
“More and more firms are looking for the ‘it’ factor, and VR is shaping up to be that innovative piece of technology that up-levels project proposals,” adds Nigel Peters, software developer at Autodesk. “It really tells the story of the project so much better than traditional methods, and we’re seeing that once a firm completes one VR experience, it wants to do it for all of its projects.”
Today, the California High Speed Rail is moving forward and, Ney says, is proving the benefits of VR. “I think it’s one of the biggest communication tools going forward on projects where constituents need a better visual and spatial understanding of what the deliverable will ultimately be.”
To make the VR experience even better, though, Gertler argues that it needs to scale up. “As of right now, VR still needs a dedicated operator for one person to experience,” he says. “To really get the message across, we need to be able to use the technology in larger group settings such as town halls and other meetings so it’s not just a one-person-at-a-time experience.”
Still, one-to-one is better than none. In that regard, VR is a win for not only those hoping to convey the benefits of infrastructure projects but also specifically to a California high-speed rail that’s already underway.