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Vrban: virtual reality urban planning from Brooklyn dev

Angel Say, a developer who works out of Red Hook, won this year's Tech Crunch Disrupt hackathon with vrban, a virtual reality city planning hardware tool.

Brooklyn dev Angel Say receiving the grand prize check at the 2014 Tech Crunch Disrupt hackathon for his vrban project. Photo crop courtesy of Tech Crunch
A tool that allows users to explore and manipulate real urban environments for planning won last week’s annual Tech Crunch Disrupt Hackathon, and the project was built by Angel Say, who works in Red Hook.

Named vrban for “virtual reality + urban,” Say’s creation uses Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset from the manufacturer that was recently acquired by Facebook for $2 billion.

Say, a recent Columbia University graduate and Manhattan resident who is working on a startup at Red Hook-based PioneerWorks, spoke to Techincally Brooklyn about his winning hack and his vision for the future.

Edited for length and clarity.

 What inspired vrban?

When I was a student at Columbia, a new science building was erected that currently obstructs about two-thirds of our campus observatory’s view of the night sky. I wanted to make something that would allow people to find these things out before concrete is laid down and it’s too late. I know there are 3D tools out there to model buildings, but nothing really lets you fully experience the impact of your design decisions until they’re actually complete at which point its too late to do anything.

What’s your favorite part about the project and its potential?

It allows people to immerse themselves in environments that are both real and simulated. So I could be exploring a virtual environment that accurately represents NYC, but with buildings that don’t even exist yet, but it feels as if they do. Meanwhile, people in the non-virtual world can tweak the settings of the virtual environment and ask for real-time feedback.

Imagine being able to simulate the construction of a new building by Central Park and seeing how much sunlight it would take from the park, how it would look as you’re biking across the bridges, how it looks from Brooklyn, and the Oculus really gives you a sense of presence that you don’t get with 3D models rendered on a 2D screen.

Watch Say’s demo at Disrupt below.

What is your draw to hardware tech?

I have an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and did a lot of robotics while I was in school. I’ve always enjoyed working on hardware the improves people’s lives in one way or another. My senior year I worked with three other undergrads to build a robotic arm controlled by facial muscles.

I’m also really fascinated by the “Internet of Things.” Having intelligent pieces of hardware talk to each other will certainly revolutionize a lot of industries and our way of living.

In the last couple of years we’ve gathered a lot of useful data and have also gotten better at acquiring more data, which will have a significant impact on our lives. For instance, we can monitor our daily activity through various fitness bands, but now we need our kitchens, gyms, etc. to respond actively to this data and guide us in our day to day decisions.

The same goes for urban environments. There’s a lot of public data on cities and with hardware like the Oculus Rift that can take this data a step further and that’s what I’d like to explore.

Where do you want to take the vrban hack from here?

For the summer, I’d really like to explore the urban planning industry a bit more and see what the needs are and how vrban could improve upon existing solutions.

Given that we’re in New York City, there are many projects that could benefit from something like vrban and I’d like to work with the city or private developers to grow vrban side by side a real development project.

I’ve been invited to speak at the Esri International User Conference [Editor’s Note: Esri is an influential mapping software company] in July to talk about vrban and its relevance to Smart 3D Cities, so I’ll be working on developing the platform and understanding the problem space between now and then.

Do you have long term goal for the project yet?

With something like vrban one can “iterate” through cities — a concept that doesn’t make sense now — but in a virtual world might be possible.

Additionally, there’s a lot to be learned about designing applications for virtual reality. It’s a nascent platform, and it will be challenging, but fun to see what works for people and what doesn’t. Making use of the Oculus Rift and the copious amounts of city data available, I’m really excited to see where this could go.

Companies: TechCrunch
Series: Brooklyn

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