Thinking outside the box with Cube Cities

Greg Angevine spent the last several years surveying some of the largest and most intricately detailed cities across the globe. As founder of Cube Cities, Greg (with the help of his team) has endeavoured to produce highly useful, floor-level visualizations for the geospatial industry. Let’s take a deeper look at this unique use of data visualization from the man himself.

Data visualization is a fascinating industry. Tell us about your company, Cube Cities, and what led you to this industry in the first place.

Cube Cities was founded in 2010 in order to create and develop a floor-level visualization platform that shows the transparency within real estate markets. It was clear to us that the ability to quickly visualize real estate data in 3D was incredibly compelling to real estate organizations and Cube Cities was the missing piece. That shockingly powerful graphic of a real estate market changing (trending up or down) brings a tremendous amount of interest to what we do.

How did you get into the real estate market/modeling industry before forming Cube Cities?

I previously worked with a commercial real estate brokerage in a research capacity where I learned how firms sourced and maintained their data. It also gave me insight into how brokers analyze data to produce research that serves to communicate market trends. Because of the highly competitive nature of commercial real estate, high-quality data is challenging to acquire. To help overcome that obstacle, we built a system where users could load their own data and provided them with interactive tools to create their own visualizations.

Developing a technology to quickly create thousands of floor-level building models was very important to getting users onto our system. When we looked into the 3D modeling industry, no one was creating floor-level city models. Traditional GIS shapefiles didn’t convert nicely to floor-level building models and we needed a process that would work anywhere in the world. We also needed the ability to visually interact with our SketchUp models. So, we had to develop our own 3D mapping technology and ultimately patent it.

Building information for 444 Fifth Avenue in Calgary, Alberta.

How did you know 3D modeling was the best route to take in this industry?

Real estate is all about location. The best way to communicate it is to highlight the project: the office tower, retail strip, apartment building, etc, on a 3D map within the context of the city. The next natural step is to highlight individual floors to articulate additional detail, but that’s substantially more complex.

Available Toronto office spaces.

What was one of your most challenging cities to model and how did SketchUp help with that process?

New York, of course! Humans will never create another Manhattan. There are few cities in the world that have experienced so many new waves of urban development; producing so much density as a result. New York also offers such a diverse building inventory, and SketchUp is ideal for modeling those iconic skyscrapers, better than any autogenerated process. Think of the dense urban corridors of Midtown or Lower Manhattan where aerial imagery capture will never provide sufficient detail. SketchUp is the only solution in those cases.

What kinds of problems does SketchUp allow you to solve when combining GIS (geographic information system) information, property data, and 3D models?

SketchUp provides the ability to use 3D buildings with accurate geometry and high-quality photographic textures in our applications. In many countries around the world it's difficult or impossible to collect aerial imagery to create photorealistic models, but almost every jurisdiction allows you to walk around with a camera. Maintaining a network of photographers in select cities and a team of SketchUp modelers allows us to create high-quality models wherever and whenever we need content.

What other software or extensions do you use in creating Cube Cities and how does SketchUp fit in?

We currently use Cesium as our mapping platform by migrating SketchUp models into it using SketchUp’s glTF export extension. When we need to work with a multitude of SketchUp models that might be impractical to load with unique javascript calls, there are additional technologies that the team at Cesium can bring to bear such as its 3D Tile Server, which increases the loading speed and performance of large collections of models.

We also work with Matterport, which allows us to see inside a building and tour around to examine the real conditions of a space. The Cube Cities technology ends up being an ideal method for joining the floors or windows of a SketchUp model to virtual tour content from Matterport. What’s easier than just flying inside an apartment for rent by clicking the actual space on the floor?

What future aspects of Cube Cities are you and your team most excited for?

Indoor location finding, or the ability to identify what floor or what partial area of a floor something or someone is located on, is a significant opportunity for Cube Cities. Precisely identifying where an incident is occurring inside a building remains a difficult problem to solve, and solving that problem is important not only to the real estate world but to nascent industries like augmented reality. Additionally, public safety regulators in the United States are compelling wireless service operators to enhance their ability to geolocate mobile phone users to assist first responders. That’s very exciting if you own a huge database of floor location data.

Areas served by NYFD companies across Midtown Manhattan.

Any last thoughts?

I’m very excited about how easy it is now to combine our technology at Cube Cities with SketchUp, Cesium, and mobile devices. Cube Cities supplies the geospatial real estate data, SketchUp is the artistic tool that produces photorealistic buildings and Cesium drives it within a 3D globe, all very efficiently on an iPad. Combined, it's a very versatile platform that makes real estate data accessible in a way that all users can easily interact with and understand.