Oh! The Places You’ll Go! (In Outerra)

Today was my day, I was off to great places. The DEM was ported, and the terrain populated. But as soon as it started, work came to a halt. And pesky geo-referencing was completely at fault.

For in Unity a problem exists, that try as you might, geo data is dismissed. Of course arbitrary attributes could be assigned, but doing so would be poor archaeological design.

Nihilism set in and I was left in the lurch, til I found a pretty nifty piece of research. It’s an open-world engine by the name of Outerra, and you can go anywhere in it, Africa, America, even the French Rivera.

Im all out of rhymes so it’s time to move up, up and away, to how Outerra could be used for archeo-vis in quite a big way.

Quick Context: Outerra

Outerra is a 3D engine that progressively renders world-data from space to the surface. The world is procedurally-generated and leverages elevation (arbitrary or varied resolution) and climate data (refined through parameterized fractal refinement algorithms) to render 3D visualisations of the world which are dynamically textured using predefined materials and attributes.

As a user you can jump in and modify the fractals – manually assigning where climate transitions, vegetation, land type or textures begin and end.  Additionally you can overlay bitmaps or incorporate vector data, and if you so desire, set the fractal processes to degrade defined areas, allowing you to create artificial areas and observe them returning to the ‘natural’ over time. 

If that isn’t enough the engine can use real-time atmospheric modelling – which becomes important in rendering how altitude effects perception, vision and distortion. If you are the type who enjoys playing god you can also change time of day, intensity of sun (to reflect seasons) and even implement different fog-types.

In short. It is absolutely mind-blowing. And that’s before you take into consideration the growing library of assets, the ability to place models, the vehicle, ship and aircraft physics, the sounds, and the ability to visualise the world in the Rift.

 Babbys first steps in Outerra: Visualising Rapa Nui

Some parts are stunningly beautiful.

Some parts are stunningly beautiful.

Some parts have near vertical cliffs and more jaggedy rocks than you could possibly imagine.

Some parts have near vertical cliffs and more jaggedy rocks than you could possibly imagine.

The archaeological project that has had the most profound impact on me was the Rapa Nui agriculture, archaeology and ecology survey which I assisted on in 2011/12. The place is by far one of the most impressive and expressive landscapes – at times unforgiving and brutally rugged, and at others an idyllic pacific island paradise (your interpretation of which can change in an instant depending on the exceptionally variable weather). Whilst on the island I saw first-hand how time of day, weather, temperature and altitude can have a massive impact on how the landscape presented itself visibly, and subsequently on how you navigated, thought about and embodied the landscape. Conventional, top-down viewsheds and cost-surface analysis have difficulty in expressing these factors, often presenting static and arbitrarily confined outcomes, which may have significant merit in quantification, but are sorely lacking in their correlation to an embodied reality.

So, my first steps into Outerra were predicated on visiting locations that had been part of my 2011/12 Rapa Nui archaeological experience and seeing what sort of proxies, experiences and tangible outcomes were possible at a basic level.

Using GIS co-ordinates of environmental base stations I began navigating my way around parts of the island whilst playing around with the basic environment settings (time of day, light saturation, reflection index). And to be honest, the results do a far better job than my words ever could of demonstrating how nifty Outerra really is.

Comparing Outerra visualisation (left) and site overview photo (right).

Comparing Outerra visualisation (left) and site overview photo (right).

Comparison of times of day: Morning (Left). Midday (Middle). Evening (Right).

Comparison of times of day: Morning (Left). Midday (Middle). Evening (Right).

The implications?

So I literally had about an hour playing around and figuring out the basics, and as the results above show, there is an ability to very quickly generate reasonably accurate visualisations, and get a feeling for how a particular landscape looks. Being able to play around with time of day, time of year and lighting intensities allows for the user to observe how different lighting can influence the view and feeling of a site. Whilst I produced static images here you experience time in Outerra, so you can actively watch the sun rise and set, follow the shadows on the ground and really get a sense of the temporal – landscape interaction.

From this very, very, brief and basic interaction it is apparent that Outerra has an absolute ton of potential for archaeological applications, and its mind blowing to think that I didn’t even scratch the surface. Already its shown that there is the potential to:

  • Actively participate in a landscape
  • Interact with and observe temporal factors within the space
  • Correlate site data to the virtual world
  • Experience how visibility, sense and feeling can be influenced by time of day and year

So it seems my original Unity project is temporarily on hold for the next couple of days as I start to explore some of the following potential applications:

  • Importing vector data
  • Creating degredation and weathering
  • Using the Rift to create 360 visualisations
  • Playing around with models, photos and editing environmental factors
  • Continuing to have my mind blown

So… be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray, or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea. You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Click here to go to Outerra’s website. 

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    • It is incredible! Especially considering there’s so much more that can be done with the engine other than just the quick snaps and comparisons I have done. Should check it out for yourself if you have the time – its free to download the tech demo and its easy to pick up too.

  1. Excellent post. I will be going through some of these issues as well..

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