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Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175

GeoVR: a web-based tool for virtual reality presentation

from 2D GIS data
Bo Huang*, Hui Lin
Department of Geography and Joint Laboratory for GeoInformation Science, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T.,
Hong Kong
Received 19 February 1999; received in revised form 16 June 1999; accepted 16 June 1999


A tool called GeoVR has been designed and developed under a client/server architecture to enable the interactive
creation of a 3D scene and virtual reality modeling language (VRML) model from 2D spatial data by integrating
Internet geographical information system (GIS) and HTML programming. The client front-end of this tool provides
an HTML form to set properties for building 3D scenes, while the server back-end supported by o-the-shelf
software: ArcView Internet Map Server and ArcView 3D Analyst through Avenue programming, processes the
parameters and generates a 3D scene. This 3D scene is then transformed into a VRML model, which, together with
its legend, is sent back to the VRML-enabled WWW browser for display and navigation. It is demonstrated that
this tool, not only automates the conversion of the conventional 2D GIS data into VRML, but also adapts the
current GIS 3D capabilities to the increasingly popular Web environment. The development of GeoVR oers new
opportunities for geoscientists to build applications that benet from virtual reality presentation based upon the
existing GIS spatial databases.
1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.


Geographical information system; Virtual reality; Virtual reality modeling language; World Wide Web; Client/server;

1. Introduction

There has been considerable interest in spatial data

visualization employing geographical information system (GIS), scientic visualization (SciVis) and virtual
reality (VR) technology (Hearnshaw and Unwin, 1994;
MacEachren and Kraak, 1997; Rhyne, 1997; Unwin,

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +852-2609-6528; fax: +8522603-5006.
E-mail addresses: (B. Huang), (H. Lin).
0098-3004/99/$ - see front matter
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1997). As the Internet is now becoming popular, GIS,

SciVis and VR similarly integrate with Web technology
to allow wide access to geo-referenced data. These
technologies provide an advanced means to assist with
visual data exploration and decision making.
Fairbairn and Parsley (1997) examined the use of
VR technology and virtual reality modeling language
(VRML) for cartographic presentation, and provided
several examples to demonstrate virtual campus construction. Martin and Higgs (1997) discussed the use
of `realistic' environments for the visualization of statistical and socio-economic data associated with GIS
spatial features and demonstrated the use of VR tools
for the visualization of urban environment. They
further suggested that the integration of GIS and VR

# 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.


Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175

opens up the potential of new ways for interacting

with existing GIS databases. Recently, Batty et al.
(1998) and Doyle et al. (1998) have described the
`Virtual London' project that marries a range of VR
and Internet GIS technologies. A virtual city on the
Internet provides planners with an environment to
interface with the complex physical and social data for
planning and managing cities in meaningful and intuitive ways.
Besides the above applications of VR or VRML,
there are also a number of other instances for landscape and environmental applications on the WWW
While these sites oer a graphic interface to the related
VRML les, the applications are static in nature.
There are very few that try to integrate VR technology
with the spatial databases held within GIS interactively
to create what we see as virtual environment. This
paper aims to explore the design and development of a
tool, called GeoVR, that can provide an environment
in which users can generate virtual environments interactively from existing GIS databases, and browse the
corresponding VRML models within the Web environment.
A similar visualization tool, Geo-VRML visualization system, has been developed (Rhyne and Fowler,
1998). This is mainly employed to select ARC/INFO
digital elevation model (DEM) data sets over the
Internet and create customized y-bys of DEM data
sets. Ahead of Geo-VRML visualization system, AVSARC [Http://], an integration of visualization toolkits was discovered and
applied to geographic visualization problems. While
AVS and ARC/INFO are powerful scientic visualization and spatial data processing tools, the process of
moving from ARC/INFO to AVS to VRML was
found to be cumbersome.
Alternative approaches for virtual reality presentation using Java external authoring interface (EAI)
can be found in the `Virtual Field Course' project
[Http://]. This project was
addressed to provide a virtual environment for exploring spatially referenced information in the eld, within
which a series of software components have been
developed. For example, the tool Urban Modeller can
be employed to present urban town scapes on a oor
by oor and building by building basis, while the tool
LandSerf coded in Java/OpenGL allows users to analyse and visualize terrain interactively in three dimensions.
While these tools are very useful for VRML worlds
presentation and interaction, the tool discussed in this
paper focuses on applying the common gateway interface (CGI) method for interactive creation of 3D
scenes and VRML models from multilayer 2D spatial
or thematic data held within desktop GIS databases.

The interactivity includes the change of presentation

parameters such as extrusion, base height, vertical
exaggeration factor and shading. This tool is implemented by using a suite of ArcView products
through Avenue and HTML programming. This paper
highlights the integration of Internet GIS and VR
technology, and introduces the framework of GeoVR.

2. Integration of Internet GIS and VR

The recent years have witnessed an explosive development of the Internet, which has now become an important means for acquiring and disseminating
information. Most GIS vendors and some commercial
spatial data providers have realized that the WWW
will be the next-generation GIS platform, providing a
powerful medium for geographic information distribution, as well as a particularly lucrative new market
to exploit (Doyle et al., 1998). Correspondingly, a
number of Internet GIS solutions for deploying maps
have been developed. Plewe (1997) provides a timely
review of the integration of Internet mapping and GIS,
and discusses the possible services that such integration
could oer.
Computer graphics techniques have been extensively
used in GIS. However, VR technology, which enables
users to move towards a ner emulation of the complexities of the `real world', oers new and exciting
opportunities to visualize and explore GIS spatial
databases (Faust, 1995; Fairbairn and Parsley, 1997;
Verbree et al., 1998). Recent developments on the
WWW provide a cost-eective alternative for the application of VR technology. The commonly used solution is based on the VRML standard (Rhyne, 1997).
VRML is a language or a le format for describing
3D objects or `worlds' to be experienced on the WWW
authors can construct entire worlds, together with
links to text, audio or video les, HTML les or sites,
or links to other VRML worlds. A VRML model can
be viewed by any Web browser that has a VRML
plug-in pre-installed.
This emergence of aordable virtual reality toolkits
(Fairbairn and Parsley, 1997) and Internet GIS is providing a fundamental infrastructure to set up a generic
tool that can oer an interactive environment for
Web-based visualization of GIS data, whether in 2D
or 3D form.
ArcView Internet Map Server (IMS) (ESRI, 1997a),
developed by Environmental Systems Research
Institute (ESRI), is one of the most popular Internet
GIS products. As an extension of ArcView, it enables
users to put maps and interactive mapping applications
on the Web. A user can employ this extension to create information services based on dynamic maps and

Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175


Fig. 1. Three-tier client/server architecture of GeoVR.

GIS data. Besides ArcView IMS, ArcView also has

several other extensions, which include ArcView 3D
Analyst (ESRI, 1997b), allowing users to create, analyze, and display surface data. Unique features of
ArcView 3D Analyst include support for triangulated
irregular networks (TINs), interactive perspective viewing, VRML creation, and simple three-dimensional
vector geometry. Additionally, ArcView also provides
the object-oriented Macro Language Avenue (ESRI,
1996) for customizing users specic applications. These
are some of the advantages that ArcView products are
selected as a basis to build the GeoVR tool.

3. Client/server architecture of GeoVR

GeoVR, based on the client/server model, has a typical three-tier conguration consisting of (Fig. 1):
. A WWW client residing with the Web browser
(Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator).
. A Web server (Microsoft Peer Web Services for
Windows NT Workstation).
. A 2D/3D visualization server using ArcView IMS
and ArcView 3D Analyst.
The client side of GeoVR provides an HTML form
which allows users to dene properties of 3D scenes,
and then submits the request to the visualization server
via the Web server. After receiving and processing the
request, the visualization server delivers a 2D map or
3D VRML model to the client for navigation and interaction. In this communication process, ArcView
IMS plays an important role because its ESRIMap
web server extension (esrimap.dll) (ESRI, 1997a) is responsible for checking that an ArcView session with

the appropriate map is currently available, forwarding

the request to that ArcView session, obtaining the response from Avenue scripts, and passing it to the Web
server so that it can be sent over the Web.

4. Implementation of GeoVR

GeoVR splits its application in both the client and

server sides. Since the server side needs to browse a 2D
map, and generate 3D scene and VRML representation, the implementation of GeoVR primarily consists of three processes: (a) Setting 3D scene properties
in the HTML form, (b) Browsing 2D GIS data; and
(c) Creating 3D scene and VRML. They are described
next. The datasets used are related to the TsingYi
Island of Hong Kong.

4.1. Setting 3D scene properties in the HTML form

GeoVR uses an HTML form to provide an interactive front-end for 2D map browsing or 3D scene generation. Like the example shown in Fig. 2, the user is
rst with the parameter input and selection page. This
HTML form connects with the visualization server via
the common gateway interface (CGI) program, i.e. the
ESRIMap web server extension running on the Web
This form comprises seven items, which are properties for building a 3D scene from 2D GIS data. The
rst item is the selection of a 2D GIS data theme for
viewing in perspective. This can be a shapele, coverage, image, or any other ArcView-compatible le format. Once the 2D theme is selected, it can be browsed
without the input of the following parameters. The sec-


Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175

Fig. 2. Parameters input for creating a 3D scene and VRML model.

ond item assigns base height to the selected 2D theme

as reference information. It can be a value, an expression or a surface name. In Fig. 2, `tytin' is a TIN
surface representing the terrain. The data here can also
be a GRID surface because both the TIN and GRID
models are supported by ArcView 3D Analyst. The
third item adds an oset height to the base height by
value or expression. The fourth item allows the user to
give a height (z-value) by value or expression to the
spatial features in the 2D theme. The `stories' is an
attribute of the selected `Tybldg.shp' theme, and the
`[stories]34' stands for the vertical value, which is the
multiplication of the storey number of any spatial feature in the `Tybldg.shp' theme by 4 m. Such an extru-

sion changes the form of a feature. Points become

vertical lines, lines become vertical walls, and polygons
become 3D blocks. Sun azimuth and altitude are respectively set by the fth and sixth item to dene sun
position for shading. The vertical exaggeration factor
for the 3D scene is dened by the seventh item.
In addition to the seven items, there are three buttons in the form. `Browse 2D Map' browses the
selected 2D theme, `Create 3D-VRML' generates the
3D scene and its VRML model, and `Reset' sets all the
parameters with their default values. All the items,
including their names and values, are encoded in the
uniform resource locator (URL) when the form is submitted. The URL is parsed by an Avenue script in the

Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175


Fig. 3. Identifying a selected feature when browsing the selected 2D map.

visualization server to invoke dierent executions. This

Avenue script can identify which button is selected,
whether it is `Browse 2D Map', `Create 3D-VRML' or

4.2. Browsing 2D GIS data

After a 2D theme is selected in the rst item of the
HTML form, it can be viewed with a Web browser by
pushing the `Browse 2D Map' button. By clicking one
of the four `radio' buttons, the user can pan, zoom in,
zoom out or identify a feature on the map. The `identify' option is used to show the attributes of a selected
feature in a table underneath the map (Fig. 3). These

attributes can be employed in dening the properties

of 3D scenes.
The function of browsing 2D map is realized by a
set of Avenue scripts, which include the following.
Connect: establishes communications between
ArcView and the Web server.
Dispatch: parses URL requests received from the
Page1: generates the rst HTML page of the
selected 2D map the user sees.
Makemap: generates the map that appears on the
HTML page.
Mapclick: applies the action specied by the user to
the map.


Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175

Fig. 4. A VRML presentation of buildings on top of a terrain model.

Getmappoint: transforms the user's click on the

map image into geographic coordinates.
Makehtml: generates each subsequent HTML page.
After a `Browse 2D Map' command is issued, the
rst request that the visualization server receives contains the Cmd=Page1 parameter to launch the Page1
script. This generates an HTML page and sends it
over the Internet to the client. This HTML page contains a form with four radio buttons and a clickable
image, which is provided by a URL containing the
Cmd=Makemap parameter. This URL request
invokes the Makemap script which returns a map,
using the extent coordinates contained in the URL.
The URL request containing the Cmd=Makehtml
parameter includes the four radio button options that
were active when the form was submitted. It also con-

tains the current extent of the map so that ArcView

can draw the view using this extent before applying the
map action to it. The Makehtml script generates an
HTML page with the same contents as the one generated by the Page1 script. The dierence is that the
Page1 script only generates the rst HTML page,
whereas Makehtml generates the next and all subsequent HTML pages for the client session.

4.3. Creating 3D scene and VRML

After the `Create 3D-VRML' button is selected, the
URL request comprising of the seven parameters is
sent to the visualization server via the Web server.
Like the example in Fig. 2, the corresponding URL
request is thus:

Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175


Fig. 5. A VRML presentation of boreholes under a terrain model
t=[stories] 4&azimuth=45&
Since the variables such as shple, baseht and oht
are not dened in the ESRIMap web server extension
of ArcView IMS, they are automatically encoded in
the URL request by using the `POST' method.
Through parsing by the Dispatch script, the
vrmlCreDisp command (script) is invoked. The
vrmlCreDis script rst extracts the parameters for
assigning base height, oset height, feature height, sun
azimuth, altitude and vertical exaggeration factor from
the URL request, then generates a 3D scene by using
these parameters. Finally the 3D scene is transformed

into a VRML le (with.wrl extension). Meanwhile, the

legend in the JPEG image le format for the VRML
model is also created. Both the les are linked to an
HTML le and sent back to the Web browser for display. By using a Cosmo Player plug-in that has already
been established on the Web browser, the VRML
model can then be navigated and interacted. Fig. 4
shows the result of the submission of the `Create 3DVRML' button (see Fig. 2), where buildings are placed
on top of the terrain model. Certainly, if the selected
2D map is a geological layer, for example, boreholes
for detecting structure and physical properties of rock
stratum before foundation work, the VRML model
displays many vertical lines beneath the terrain surface,
from which the three dimensional distribution of boreholes can be seen more clearly (Fig. 5). In this


Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175

Fig. 6. A VRML presentation of an image draped over a terrain model.

example, the DTM is represented by gridcells. In the

next example, a multispectral SPOT image of the
TsingYi Island in the TIFF format is selected as the
2D theme, then the VRML model shows an image
draped over the terrain surface of the island (Fig. 6).
It is noted that in the above VRML les, the TIN
model for the terrain surface is mainly represented by
the IndexedFaceSet node, under which there are coord
and color exposeFields, and coordIndex and
colorIndex elds. The GRID model is represented by
the ElevationGrid node, under which there are color
exposeFields, and xSpacing, zDimension, zSpacing and
height elds. See The Virtual Reality Modeling
home.html] for more details about these representations in the VRML standard.

5. Conclusions

Over the past decades, large volumes of digital

spatial data have been created using geographic information system software, computer-aided design
(CAD), and image processing systems. For projects
involving geological data such as down boreholes, seismic sections, recumbent or complex faulted structures,
3D visualization is obviously one of the important
means for exploring this spatial data (Bonham-Carter,
This paper has explored a cost-eective solution for
developing a VR presentation tool in a Web environment based on developments of o-the-shelf Internet
GIS and its 3D visualization extensions. The design
and development of GeoVR enhances the accessibility

Bo Huang, H. Lin / Computers & Geosciences 25 (1999) 11671175

to the current GIS 3D visualization functions, and
demonstrates how ArcView 3D extension, ArcView
IMS, Avenue and HTML programming work together
to provide a convenient environment for Web-based
2D and 3D visualizations. The design of GeoVR, in
general, adopts a CGI method. The client side of
GeoVR provides an HTML form, which connects to a
set of Avenue scripts by utilizing ArcView IMS and
ArcView 3D analyst. The connection between the
HTML form, Web server and the visualization server
is primarily performed by ArcView IMS, while the 3D
scene and VRML model generation is performed by
ArcView 3D analyst through Avenue programming.
The key to this tool development lies in how to t the
parameters that are not supported by ArcView IMS
into the URL request, which is then extracted by the
server program.
Since most of the current GIS packages lack real 3D
data structure and functions, this inevitably aects the
simulation of real worlds (Raper, 1989). As GIS
evolves, it will provide a more powerful basis for
GeoVR to advance.
Current GeoVR version provides a minimal frontend. Its user friendliness can be improved by using the
Java language to facilitate formulation of some expressions in the HTML form. The interaction such as
direct queries on the VRML model for spatial database information needs to be explored.


This project is supported by the Research Grants

Council of HKSAR government under Grant No.
CUHK 150/96H and Grant No. CUHK 4334/98E and
by CUHK RAC under Grant No. 4720401. The comments from the anonymous reviewers were very helpful
in improving the paper.


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