Posts about: Enterprise

A VR walkthrough of Europe’s largest gardening project

3 August 2020

Founded in 1804, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is the UK’s leading gardening charity. It promotes horticulture through flower shows and by sponsoring gardening projects throughout the UK.

The RHS is currently involved in a project to transform the grounds at Worsley New Hall—a historic 19th-century mansion in the heart of Salford—into a new 154-acre garden. Due to open in the spring of 2021, the £30 million-plus site has been designed by renowned landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith and will be one of the largest gardens in Europe.

The University of Salford’s THINKlab was asked to help visualize the new site as part of the initial planning process. The team there created a VR model of three sections of the RHS Bridgewater Garden including the Orchard Garden, Community Garden, and Kitchen Garden.

“With the garden yet to be completed, the VR work has been invaluable, allowing us to experience it ahead of time,” says Richard Green, Head of RHS Garden Bridgewater. “We’ve been able to walk around the virtual Orchard Garden of the future, to see the grasses swaying and hear the birds singing, to see the fruit trees matured in 10 years’ time, and also to experience the garden through the seasons.”

A fast and easy-to-learn visualization tool

THINKlab is part of the University of Salford’s School of Science, Engineering & Environment (SEE). It drives research across a number of fields including ICT platforms for urban regeneration, engineering, and smart city applications, with a strong emphasis on industry and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Dr Simon Campion is a VR project manager at THINKlab and looks after the commercial VR projects it undertakes for industry partners, as well as across the wider University. His team has been using Unreal Engine on visualization projects since the release of UE4.

In 2019, Campion and his team stumbled upon a news article about Twinmotion and decided to try out the platform. “We were not disappointed,” he recalls. “For projects which require pure visualization without the need for complex interactions, it’s an extremely quick solution.” 

The team set about learning the new software and were taken aback with how quickly they could get to grips with it. “I can honestly say it’s an extremely easy application to learn,” says Campion. “Within minutes I was exploring a scene and after a couple of hours I was setting up more complex scenes and playing with additional advanced settings. This was without looking at a tutorial, illustrating how simple it to understand the user interface.”

Having grown comfortable creating visualizations using the software, Campion’s team was soon to put Twinmotion through its paces on the large-scale landscaping project for RHS. 

RHS Garden Bridgewater in immersive VR

The centerpiece of RHS Garden Bridgewater is the 11-acre Weston Walled Garden, one of the UK’s biggest, measuring the size of six soccer pitches and comprising 11 individual gardens.

THINKlab visualized the buildings within the environment using a combination of photogrammetry, 3D sculpting, and standard 3D modelling techniques, before plants and trees were added in Twinmotion to complete the VR experience.

The team quickly started seeing an ROI benefit from using the tool. Traditionally, it has found that creating detailed outdoor scenes with large amounts of foliage requires the purchase of multiple assets and the sparing application of their use—particularly for virtual reality environments where too many assets being used might result in a reduction of frame rate.

What’s more, depending on the asset, it might previously have been necessary to create level-of-detail models for them. “This additional work would have been problematic, because time spent on optimization of scenes would drive up project complexity and therefore costs,” explains Campion. “It was very satisfying for us to be able to work on this project and not worry about any of this, because it was all being handled by Twinmotion seamlessly in the background.”

Not having to get involved in processes like this has freed up time for creative and technical challenges. “The speed with which it is possible to put a scene together in Twinmotion and the simplicity of its drag-and-drop system for assets gives creative developers and artists more time to work on content creation, scene dressing, and composition,” says Campion. “It also frees our programmers from working on technically straightforward visualization projects, allowing them to focus on more challenging development interests.”

The VR model enables the RHS to experience the space and new garden designs from any angle, at any time of day, and even through the seasons. The work will be used as a discussion piece for engaging with key stakeholders about the design, in addition to marketing the gardens. 

Less time coding, more time being creative 

With less time spent thinking behind the scenes, the team at THINKlab are now able to concentrate on other things. On the RHS Bridgewater Garden project, the time saved was put towards creating custom photogrammetry assets. “Standard visualization can be achieved without the need for any coding, and this allows more effort to be applied to the creation of environments,” says Campion. “There is also a reduction in rendering time, and the VR functionality works out of the box.”

Campion has also begun exploring novel ways to leverage Twinmotion, using it in parallel with Unreal Engine. “I’ve really enjoyed taking models that will eventually be used in Unreal Engine and dropping them into Twinmotion to evaluate them, identify errors, fix them in a modelling package, and then refresh the model within Twinmotion,” he says. “I’ve found this a nice way to quickly evaluate and identify any issues before handing models to programmers.”

Campion goes on to say that additional benefits he’s seen include the ability to demonstrate day and night cycles, set up lighting from a specific geolocation, and change the weather and seasons. “The addition of a time element for tree growth in Twinmotion 2020 is fantastic, enabling users to develop an understanding of how vistas might change over time,” he concludes. 

Real-time visualization for AEC

Having experienced the ease of creating visualizations with Twinmotion firsthand, Campion is looking forward to putting the tools to use on future projects. “The simplicity of lighting and rendering your scene make it a fantastic tool for very quickly setting up professional 2D renders, 360° renders, and VR output,” he says. “If you work in AEC with BIM or CAD data and are interested in real-time visualization, Twinmotion is a fantastic addition to your toolkit.”

Thank you to Twinmotion who ran this article on 22 July 2020.

Read more about the digital work with industry partners.

Bringing the fourth dimension to track renewal scheduling

15 June 2020

SALFORD University’s industry link-up THINKlab has been working with Network Rail to develop a 4D simulation tool for track renewal. The system is built on Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) platform and uses gaming visualisation to aid planners as they explore options when scheduling works. THINKlab director Professor Terrence Fernando spoke to Abigail Tomkins about the new program.

First things first, what’s THINKlab?

THINKlab was established about 14 years ago to support interdisciplinary research with industry partners. It is about exploring possibilities – people come to us to see what new technology and concepts are available and how they can use that knowledge to enhance their competitiveness through innovation.

In the past, we would publish our research findings in journals. However, we realised that in order to have lasting impact in society and industry, we have to go the final mile with the end users. You have to take that research knowledge, package it and apply it in industry contexts.

How does this work in rail track renewal?

The rail industry has experienced overruns in track renewal programmes, mainly because planning errors are not identified before starting work on site. This has cost the industry financially, as well as its reputation with customers and commuters through disruption to train services, and it has an impact on the UK economy. We’ve seen the aerospace and automotive industries use advanced modelling, simulation and visualisation technology to avoid such errors and improve efficiencies – we are taking this approach to track renewal scheduling in 4D.

Lots of complex engineering activities need to be considered both in time and space during scheduling. Planners need to explore various options and choose the most efficient and cost effective. Furthermore, track renewal scheduling needs to interface with upgrades to signalling and OLE (overhead line equipment). Teams involved in these disciplines need to work together, otherwise you could get situations where the PWay engineers take the track out and there are no tracks for the engineers putting in the OLE.

How did you come to work with Network Rail?

Network Rail approached us around five years ago to provide modelling support. They were looking at a nine-day blockade on a track renewal programme, and wanted to demonstrate why it had to happen and how it was going to be handled. Track renewal is a complex process. It involves heavy plant, and health and safety and space requirements need to be considered. You need to have a sequence of activities – first bring in the machines, take the tracks out, flatten it and go through layers to reconstruct it. There can be lots of clashes between various tasks involving machines. Many parallel and sequential tasks need to be managed in time and space to run the renewal process without any errors. The standard approach was to use 2D drawings, PowerPoint and animations to explain to the team what was going to happen. But often by the time the animation was delivered, the schedule had changed, and it was no longer valid. This kind of system did not allow you to explore any space-time clashes or different alternatives.

There are some commercial 4D simulation tools for building construction, however these require you to break down the building information model into various sub models and bring them into project planning software. We’ve found this approach is not intuitive to the planner. It takes a lot of cognitive load and time to deconstruct the model to prepare a visual schedule. For rail, it is overkill. We wanted to create an environment which is in line with planners’ thinking. We felt that it needed to be a 4D planning package that allows users to think in 3D and plan in 3D in an intuitive manner, linked to the planner’s thinking process.

How does the system work?

You begin by bringing in site data – digital elevation models, aerial photographs and track data – into a virtual workspace, which is built in the Unreal game engine. You could use Bentley software or any other system to draw your tracks, the only thing you need to import is the centre line. You can then bring in elements like temporary facilities, entrance points, bridges and OLEs to create a realistic view of your site. The data could come from many sources, including Network Rail’s Geo-RINM system which holds GIS, track and OLE data.

Once the site is prepared, the underlying logical network of the rails is automatically constructed to handle various movements of plant on this virtual site. There are plant and task libraries, which allow you to define the task schedule using a time-distance diagram, and as you plan you can really see what’s happening visually in front of you. The planner can use the task and plant libraries to define the schedule and attach appropriate resources against each task. Once the tasks are specified, the planner can play with various schedule and resource options and make sure the schedule is clash free and cost effective. As the planner makes changes to the schedule, the resulting animation is updated straight away.

What difference has gaming technology brought to the system?

It’s all about visual realism. We use Unreal Engine for nearly all of THINKlab’s visualisation work. We started migrating most of our projects to UE4 shortly after it became public, as it provides much easier and faster iteration of our scenes.

Where is the system being used now?

Currently, the system is being used at North Wembley. The Central Alliance has done a very comprehensive planning process using our platform. It’s been applied to look at which part of the track is going to be taken possession of, which plant is going to be used, for how long and what space it is going to operate in. It’s not just about plant manoeuvring. Certain sections need to be blocked to support welding and the safety aspect around that.

How hard is it bringing innovation to the rail industry?

Innovation within major industry sectors takes a long time. As academics, we go from project to project, because we cannot wait until the industry catches up with the innovations that we create through our research. However, we managed to keep the team on this one for about five years, with around 15 projects coming through from Network Rail, which gave us some funding to enhance the functionality. We are now at the stage where we have brought really pioneering work into Network Rail, and our challenge is about how we turn this into a product.

What’s next?

To bring this innovation throughout an organisation like Network Rail, you are going to have to train people in a new way of working. We’re doing lots of presentations and providing training to those alliance partners and contractors who work with Network Rail.

We are also in discussions with rail organisations in France and Denmark because, internationally, it’s a very similar problem that people are facing. Going forward, we’re looking at the huge possibilities of the system in terms of supporting design reviews and maintenance in the rail industry.

Professor Terrence Fernando, Director, THINKlab, University of Salford, was talking to Abigail Tomkins for Civil Engineering Surveyor, June 2020.


Twitter: @THINKlabSalford

A simulation of the program at North Wembley can be viewed at:

Read more about the digital work with industry partners.

THINKlab develop ‘Virtual Chernobyl’ to mark 34th anniversary

11 May 2020

THINKlab are excited to be working with University of Salford partners to develop the second phase of the Virtual Chernobyl virtual reality digital programme.

The platform will enable users to ‘visit’ Chernobyl where they can interact and learn more about the radioactive ‘exclusion zone’ in Ukraine. Users will be able to travel through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and explore the abandoned landscape where they can understand more about the people and animals affected by the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Developed by the University of Salford’s Professor Mike Wood and Prof Nick Beresford, from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, in collaboration with colleagues across the University, the first phase of Virtual Chernobyl meant audiences around the world could experience what it is like to walk within the radioactive wilderness and venture into areas of the exclusion zone which others seldom visit.  

The disaster which took place 34 years ago on 26 April 1986 saw 120,000 people, including farm animals evacuated from the 5000 km2 area around the reactor site, which is still abandoned today. The second phase of Virtual Chernobyl, developed in partnership with the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management, has built on feedback and will mean developments will let users see how animals including bears, wolves, elk and wild boar have increased in population and are making it their home.

The Director of THINKlab, Professor Terrence Fernando commented: “We are excited to further improve the Virtual Chernobyl experience. The developments in hardware for capturing full 360-degree video in much higher resolution, paired with display resolution, and portability advances of virtual reality head mounted displays, will result in a richer user experience. We are excited to co-create this new release with Mike and Nick allowing them to better disseminate their scientific findings to a wider audience.”

Prof Mike Wood said: “Advances in photographic and acoustic recording techniques mean we are now able to estimate the number of animals by observing them directly rather than looking at their tracks. We have embarked on a project using motion-activated cameras and sound recorders to investigate wildlife in different areas of the exclusion zone and evaluate the influence of radiation on animal populations.  Through ‘Virtual Chernobyl’ people can get a real sense of the truly unique Chernobyl environment, from which people have been excluded.”

The Chernobyl wildlife research has been featured on the BBC and Channel 4 News, with ‘Virtual Chernobyl’ being showcased at the Manchester Science Festival, Museum of Science & Industry, various scientific meetings and at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.  ‘Virtual Chernobyl’ has also been used to support research-led undergraduate and postgraduate teaching at Salford.

THINKlab digital simulation transforms maintenance planning for UK railways

27 March 2020

The University of Salford’s THINKlab has designed and developed a UE4-powered 4D simulation tool which can help dramatically improve Network Rail’s track renewal programs.

The UK’s railways carry about four million people a day, and with those numbers set to increase, it’s imperative that improvements and modernizations are carried out to deliver more frequent, reliable, and safe services, while causing minimal disruption to passengers. 

For Network Rail, a publicly owned infrastructure manager which maintains large swathes of Britain’s train tracks, this means track renewal programs must be carefully planned and designed to avoid major service disruption, and The THINKLab’s new simulation tool can evaluate rail works in a virtual simulation environment.

With this innovative software, Network Rail can dramatically improve the efficiency, cost, and the time it takes to deliver a project. “In the past it would take a full week to plan a weekend’s work,” says Steve Naybour, Head of Transformation at the Network Rail South Alliance. “This effort can now be reduced to a few hours using the new tool.” 

The THINKLab’s simulation tool enables Network Rail to build a 3D model of any site from a range of data sources. Virtual tracks are positioned onto 3D digital terrain from CAD or laser-scanned track data. Building Information Modelling (BIM) models of overhead line equipment, ballast, sleepers, rails, and signalling apparatus can be imported for a more accurate representation of the physical site. And a library of plant equipment assets provides excavators and diggers to include in the simulation. 

Users can define the resources needed to complete the project and build a timeline of activities, with task interdependencies mapped. Costing functionality in the software provides an accurate view of the financial impact of choices. As planning decisions are made and data is input, the software automatically simulates the work, offering views from a number of camera angles, at different levels of magnification, and at different speeds. 

Any changes in the planning inputs are immediately represented in the simulation. This results in much shorter feedback loops compared to the conventional approach to computer modeling, because engineers, designers and planners don’t have to rely on computer-modeling specialists to see the implications of changes to their plans. 

The tool could prove invaluable for assigning the right amount of resources to Network Rail’s track renewal programs. “Whereas we might have used five pieces of equipment for a job, we can often use two or three,” says Stephen Kearney, Head of Development at S&C Alliance South East. “With this package, we can see and prove what we will need in advance.”

Leveraging Blueprints to improve workflow efficiency

Unreal Engine is the go-to solution for nearly all of THINKlab’s visualization work. “We started migrating most of our projects to UE4 shortly after it became public, as it provided vastly superior image quality out-of-the-box and allowed much easier and faster iteration of our scenes,” says Michal Cieciura, Lead Developer at THINKlab. “The licensing model was fantastic, and we were getting a top-tier engine for next to nothing.”

With access to the engine’s source code, the team’s developers could familiarize themselves with the framework much faster, which allowed them to optimize the mechanics early on and to a much greater degree.

They also made good use of the Blueprint visual scripting system, the scripting language that puts tools that are ordinarily reserved for programmers into the hands of designers and other non-programmers. “The Blueprint system not only made prototyping and experimental designs a breeze for our programmers, but it also allowed the non-programming members to become more self-sufficient, as they were able to build parts of the needed functionality themselves,” says Cieciura. “This, in turn, made our workflow more efficient overall.”

Having worked with node-based interfaces in their respective modeling packages, team members on the project found the engine’s Material Editor easy to get to grips with. “What’s more, the PBR materials—in combination with Unreal Engine’s lighting solutions—have not only improved visual realism in real time, but also removed the requirement for offline rendering,” says Cieciura.

For Network Rail, the innovation has already proved worth its weight in gold. “This tool reduces the risk of incurring additional cost and time in the delivery of the work,” says Ameet Masania, Programme Manager at Network Rail. “It’s becoming an integral tool in the way we deliver railway jobs.” 

For more information please visit THINKdigital or email:

Thank you to Unreal Engine and their continued support, read more.

THINKlab showcase work as part of Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint launch event

14 February 2020

THINKlab were asked to exhibit at the launching of the Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint, a citywide initiative organised by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) which aims to help the city region’s residents lead healthier and happier lives.

The event set out a refreshed digital strategy blueprint for Greater Manchester for the next three years and included key speakers Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, Elise Wilson, Councillor and Leader of Stockport Council, Lou Cordwell, OBE and CEO of Magnetic North and Sarah Todd, Chief Executive of Trafford Council.

THINKlab showcased their recently launched MOBILISE digital platform and the work they have undertaken with the Environment Agency, namely two resilience based digital platforms which enable multi-agency collaborative working and which are aligned to the Blueprint’s five digital priorities. The digital platforms were presented on high performance equipment which allowed the team to fully engage with delegates and demonstrate how the design of the platforms build city resilience and sustainability with their partners and stakeholders.  

Director of THINKlab, Professor Terrence Fernando, said: “We’re delighted to be involved with this key event for Greater Manchester. Creating sustainable cities requires a stronger collaboration between a range of public and private sector organisations to ensure cities are safer, healthier, and are intelligent and prosperous places for citizens to experience an enhanced quality of life. We have developed a range of novel technology platforms that will allow public and private organisations in a city to utilise the power of their data intelligence to make collective evidence-based decisions to address the challenges faced by cities.

THINKlab have an experienced R&D team who can develop customised technology platforms for bringing city information into a discussion space through advanced visualisation and interaction technologies. The team have further extended the toolset available within these platforms to improve disaster resilience and help tackle the climate change challenges in different parts of the world.”

THINKlab show the value of VR collaboration at GameLab 2018

18 October 2018

THINKlab show the value of VR collaboration at GameLab 2018

THINKlab show the value of VR collaboration at GameLab 2018

THINKlab’s enterprise team are excited to be exhibiting at this year’s GameLab event, which is part of the annual Manchester Science Festival, 2018.

Taking place at MediaCityUK on Saturday 20 – Sunday 21 October, GameLab is a playground for ideas and brings together developers and industry to showcase new research, products and thought-provoking activities.

Exhibiting on both days, THINKlab will display recent work they have co-created with Siemens UK and the Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust. Both projects will demonstrate the possibilities of real-time 3d graphics and how this can be applied in collaborative engineering and interactive learning environments.

Dr Simon Campion, Commercial VR Project Manager said: “We’re thrilled to be taking some of the work we’ve produced with Siemens UK and the Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust to the show and we’re really grateful for the opportunity.

For Siemens UK, visitors will be able to walk around an interactive Offshore Electrical Substation in real-time and learn how VR has been utilised from design through to product launch. This device will be using the Oculus Rift Headset offering a fully immersive experience. Don’t get too close to the edge and fall in the water!

The VR application we produced with Mersey Gateway Environmental Trust was really exciting and very unique. To achieve the final application we used digital terrain models, geo-mapping layers and drone and satellite data, to enable the user to experience the entire Upper Mersey Estuary. Areas that are difficult to access or even impossible to reach can now be clearly seen, as well as the local wildlife and ecology.”

THINKlab Director, Prof Terrence Fernando praised recent work projects: “Due to our success with several Innovate UK commercial projects, the Enterprise team has now grown to four VR experts in the THINKlab. This event is a great opportunity for us to showcase the pioneering VR work that the team has produced during the last few years that brought innovation within our industry partner organisations.”

In addition to the THINKlab’s commercial VR projects, the team will also be exhibiting a joint project created with the research team.  The Design4Energy VR application allows users to interactively design an energy efficient neighbourhood including road layout, house positions, placement of solar panels and wind turbines while in the background an algorithm works out how energy efficient the design is.

GameLab is a FREE event and open to all the family. It takes place on Saturday 20 & Sunday 21 October, 11am – 5pm at MediaCityUK campus, University of Salford, Salford Quays, M50 2HE.


THINKlab software engineer wins funding and industry recognition

16 October 2018

Point Clouds used for demonstration courtesy of Transport for London

Point Clouds used for demonstration courtesy of Transport for London

Michal Cieciura, a Principal Software Engineer at THINKlab, has recently won a funding application from this year’s 2018 Unreal Development Grants.

The award is part of the larger $5m development grant by Epic Games which was founded in 2015 to help programmers and studios that are developing the Unreal Engine 4.

Michal is one of 37 winners from a variety of teams or individual creators, who received between $5,000 and $50,000 to support the development of their games, tools, broadcast and more.

His winning entry is a Point Cloud Plugin, a free plugin for Unreal Engine 4, which he has created to help with importing, processing and rendering point clouds. Currently, the software is in beta and supports desktop and VR platforms. It is already being used for a number of individuals, commercial and academic projects in architectural visualisation, construction & engineering, games & entertainment and landscape visualisation.

Michal said: “The plugin originated as a simple tool to aid in one of our in-house projects. I decided to make it a little bit more consumer-ready and release it for free on the Unreal Engine Forums. After it received surprisingly positive feedback, I continued improving it and started recording users’ ideas and suggestions for new features. This eventually led to the creation of a streamlined, standalone plugin which it currently is.

There have been many challenges to overcome throughout the work including performance and general handling of the huge data sets the point clouds often come in. It allowed me to acquire a more in-depth understanding of the different parts of the engine, which coincidently benefited other ongoing projects, both personally and in the THINKlab.”

THINKlab Director, Prof Terrence Fernando added: “We are so happy that Michal won this prestigious award from EPIC in recognition of his contribution to the gaming community. This is an indication of the quality of the VR team within the THINKlab.”

Michal was recently invited to an exclusive event in London which was part of Unreal Engine BuildLondon’18 for Architecture. The event showcased how real-time visualisation technology is being used across the architecture and construction industries, enabling architects and their clients to experience projects in full photographic quality and, if required, in mixed reality. The event took place at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London and included a number of high profile speakers from leading agencies including Zaha Hadid, NVIDIA, Soluis Group, Garou VR and Heatherwick Studio.

Michal is the Principal Software Engineer at THINKlab working in the Enterprise Team. An experienced developer of interactive 3D environments, he has been instrumental in delivering a number of commercial projects for clients including Siemens, Network Rail and the BBC.  Outside of work, his personal interest include virtual reality, computer graphics, game engines and weightlifting!

Point Clouds used for demonstration courtesy of Dr Neil Entwistle, UoS

Point Clouds used for demonstration courtesy of Dr Neil Entwistle, UoS