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80 Level Digest: Great Resources on Creating Digital Twins of Real-Life Locations

For this week's 80 Level Digest, we have prepared some educational materials, tutorials, resources, and software that will help you recreate any location you desire in a 3D space.

Ever since Google and Cesium shipped Photorealistic 3D Tiles back in early May, enthusiasts and digital creators worldwide have been eagerly experimenting with the software, sparking a renewed fascination in creating digital twins of real-world places.

In its broader sense, the concept of a "digital twin" typically refers to a digital replica of a physical entity, be it an object, service, or environment, designed to closely resemble and mimic its real-world counterpart. With the remarkable progress in technology, virtually anything can now be effortlessly recreated in a digital realm, encompassing intricate mechanisms, tangible structures, and even entire cities and countries.

For years, experienced Environment Artists have been leveraging various software for creating digital twins to design gorgeous 3D scenes based on real-world locations. Those well-versed in photogrammetry techniques and software consistently demonstrate that virtually anything can be faithfully recreated in digital form, whether it's a single room or a massive building.

Nonetheless, aspiring creators may encounter difficulties when starting out with the task of replicating real-life places. They may struggle to determine which software to use and how to use it effectively. To make the learning process easier, for this week's 80 Level Digest, we have compiled a selection of educational materials, tutorials, resources, and software that will assist you in recreating any desired location within a 3D space.

Having started today's Digest with Photorealistic 3D Tiles, it would be fitting to put this incredible recently-released tool at the top of the list. Utilizing Open Geospatial Consortium’s 3D Tiles standard created by Cesium, the tool offers a seamless 3D mesh model of the real world, textured with high-res RGB optical imagery, and uses the same 3D map source as Google Earth.

Currently, the program boasts an extensive database covering more than 2,500 cities and 49 countries. This data can be accessed through an open ecosystem of 3D Tiles-enabled runtimes, including CesiumJS, Unreal Engine, Unity, and NVIDIA Omniverse, enabling the creation of immersive 3D environments ranging from individual city blocks to entire cities on a massive scale.

For a deeper understanding of the software's capabilities, we suggest delving into our recent interview with Technical Artist Nils Bakker, who explained how Photorealistic 3D Tiles was used alongside ChatGPT and Unreal Engine 5 to set up a game prototype that lets one explore the entire planet Earth in 3D.

Another great way to copy an entire city to a 3D space is to leverage a combination of Google Maps and Blender, an open-source 3D software that lets you do nearly everything related to 3D art, including modeling, texturing, rendering, VFX, animation, and more.

Using RenderDoc, a free standalone graphics debugger that allows quick and easy single-frame capture and detailed introspection of any application, and Élie Michel's MapsModelsImporter add-on, you can export Google Maps data as a 3D model and import it directly into Blender, allowing you to use real-life location as the basis for your digital scenes. To get started with this pipeline, we highly recommend checking out these amazing tutorials by Markom3D and Nicko16, who spoke about exporting Google Maps data, and Ben Moran, who explained how to recreate real-world cities with Blender in 7 practical steps.

If Blender is not your cup of tea and you would prefer to use Google Maps in combination with other programs, then Google Map 3D Grabber is exactly what you need. With this collection of individual plug-ins, software, and tools, compiled by Freedom Arts 3D, it is possible to extract 3D models from Google Maps 3D and convert them into FBX files, making them compatible with any other 3D application. Here are some of Freedom's tutorials that will help you get started with Grabber in Unreal Engine 5, Maya, and iClone:

Now that we have covered cities, it is time to progress towards the creation of digital replicas for individual buildings. The most effective approach for this task is to employ photogrammetry, a technique that extracts 3D information from photographs. By utilizing photogrammetry, the process involves capturing the necessary amount of photos, processing the data using a dedicated application, cleaning the meshes, and ultimately reconstructing the captured object within a digital environment.

One of the industry-standard solutions that you can utilize to create 1-to-1 digital twins of real-life buildings is RealityCapture, a photogrammetry software developed by Capturing Reality that lets you create 3D models out of photographs or laser scans.

Widely employed by 3D Artists for replicating objects in a three-dimensional environment, RealityCapture will enable you to achieve nearly-perfect recreations in a quick and easy way. If you would like to learn more about RC, we highly recommend checking out this great guide by askNK, which provides a thorough overview of the software:

And here's an incredible time-lapse video that shows how RealityCapture can be used alongside ZBrush, Blender, and Unreal Engine 5 to produce a stunning recreation of a real-life haunted house located in Northern Ireland:

If you're interested in diving into RealityCapture, these three 80 Level Interviews are a great starting point to expand your knowledge about the software. The first one explains how Stargate Studios Malta managed to recreate the Chapel of St. Paul the Hermit, located in Mosta, Malta using RC and UE5:

The second one provides a comprehensive overview of the Reality VS Unreal Engine 5 project, with the project's creator Olivier "3Dystopia" Mourey explaining how several French streets were recreated with RealityCapture and rendered in UE5:

The last one examines Ivan Savić's Assetto Corsa experiment, where the artist recreated an entire city for a racing game using RealityCapture:

Another piece of software that can help you remake buildings in 3D is RealityCapture's younger brother – RealityScan. Developed by Epic Games in collaboration with Capturing Reality and Quixel, RealityScan is a 3D scanning app that allows its users to turn smartphone photos into high-fidelity 3D models. All you need to do is take photos of the object you want to replicate in 3D and the app will automatically assemble the model, which can then be downloaded and used in 3D programs.

Here are a couple of gorgeous winter-themed environments, created by Principal Environment Artist at Epic Games Pontus Ryman using RealityScan:

And here's a fantastic tutorial on RealityScan that details how the app turns images into a mesh, explains which objects scan well and which don't, and shares some tips and tricks on how to achieve the best possible results:

If you are already familiar with Adobe's Substance 3D ecosystem of tools, then there isn't better option for you than Substance 3D Sampler, the company's software that lets you transform real-life pictures into photorealistic materials, 3D objects, and HDR environments.

Thanks to its recently-introduced 3D Capture tool, the software acquired robust photogrammetry capabilities, covering all steps of a 3D capture workflow – from the dataset preparation using the auto-masking to the mesh optimization with connected processes such as decimation, AutoUV, texture reprojection, and baking Normal, Height, and AO maps.

To learn more about Sampler's 3D Capture, we highly recommend reading Lead Product Manager at Adobe Baptiste Manteau's interview, in which he shared an extensive breakdown of the novel photogrammetry feature, explained how it works, and discussed its use cases.

One more tool at your disposal to help you recreate your desired real-world scene in a digital space is 3DF Zephyr. Developed by 3Dflow, this remarkable photogrammetry software automatically reconstructs 3D models from photos and scans. With its versatile set of tools, Zephyr serves as an all-in-one solution, allowing you to process data, clean meshes, create textures, and export your results in the preferred file format.

And here are some amazing tutorials that will help you get started with Zephyr:

Up next, we've got MicMac, a free open-source photogrammetric suite suitable for various 3D reconstruction scenarios. Developed by IGN (French National Geographic Institute) and ENSG (French national school for geographic sciences), this software is ideal for capturing objects of any scale, ranging from small items to expansive buildings, cities, or natural areas. It seamlessly integrates with aerial or satellite acquisitions, making it a versatile tool for all your photogrammetry needs.

Below are some fantastic tutorials to assist you in getting started with MicMac:

Agisoft Metashape, formerly Agisoft Photoscan, is one more tool that can help you create true-to-life recreations of real-world locations. It performs photogrammetric processing of digital images and generates 3D spatial data, which can then be used in GIS applications, cultural heritage documentation, visual effects production, and for measuring objects of different scales.

And finally, for those looking to focus more on digital twins of interior scenes, we've got Prevu3D, an intuitive software that allows its users to create, edit, and explore 3D scanned replicas of real-life environments.

Using top-of-the-line photogrammetry technologies, Pervu3D allows you to thoroughly recreate any building or facility in 3D and freely explore it with Freeview, first/third-person views, or vehicles. Moreover, the tool enables its users to edit and reorganize the environments, as well as import and place various 3D and CAD models.

What software did we miss? What tutorials and resources helped you to get started with creating 1-to-1 recreations of real-world environments? What topics would you like for us to cover next? Tell us in the comments!

Also, don't forget to join our 80 Level Talent platform and our Telegram channel, follow us on Instagram and Twitter, where we share breakdowns, the latest news, awesome artworks, and more.

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