In universities across the world, the library has been historically regarded as a centre of knowledge. But with more information available digitally, they now look more like social hubs than quiet sanctuaries.

The National University of Singapore has redesigned its libraries to adapt to these changing habits. “We have to understand how you could facilitate engagement, interactions with people, and make the space much friendlier environment,” says Lawrence Wong, Professor in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Wong is co-leading a team to build VirtualNUS, a 3D virtual model of the campus that will allow it to test other such ideas to keep students more engaged in campus life, while also cutting energy use.

Imagining the future

At the broadest level, Virtual NUS will help the university imagine, test and plan new ideas for the campus’ future. It allows officials to create “what-if scenarios” and simulations to actually see what a new building would look like. “A visual story is always very appealing,” Wong adds. “When it’s all in words, it’s hard to imagine what’s going on, and that’s part of the appeal of having a 3D campus.”

It will allow planners and architects to find the best designs for future buildings and facilities, for instance. “In the future when you want to do a redevelopment of that space, how would you position the buildings, and the shape of the buildings that you want,” explains Wong. He is leading the project together with Andrew Lim, Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

The university is looking to create more “social hubs” where students can study and work in groups, for instance. The 3D model and the data underpinning it will help planners understand which spaces are already used by students. Based on data from campus wifi hotspots (pictured above), “we can actually tell how crowded is each floor, for example; how many devices have been detected? We can visualise this three dimensionally,” Wong says.

Autonomous shuttles?

Transport is another area where the virtual model will help the university find better ways to move students and staff from one part of the campus to another.

The campus has already become a testing ground for autonomous vehicles run by companies and researchers. The university can trial – digitally – how shuttle buses could give way to more personalised transport in the future, Wong says. “Things related to PMD [personal mobility devices], autonomous vehicles – these are all things that are all still in this very early stage, but 10 years from now, you don’t know,” he says.

Meanwhile, crowd data can help staff make bus schedules and routes more efficient. “Have we got the most optimal bus scheduling in the entire campus where you want to optimise the utilisation of the rooms, minimise commuting?,” he says.

Cutting energy use

Data and 3D visualisation can also help the university cut energy use on its campus. It plans to reduce energy use intensity and improve water efficiency, both by 20% from 2012 to 2020. “Smart buildings”, for instance, can use data on building occupancy to cut down on air conditioning and lighting at different times of the day.

The university is also looking to expand the use of solar panels for renewable energy. The virtual model will help find rooftops with the greatest exposure to sunlight and plan out solar panels accordingly, Wong adds. A new “zero energy building” is already planned to open in 2019. 1,200 solar panels on its roof will allow it to produce all of the energy it needs from sunlight.

Meanwhile, Wong is also looking at how augmented reality could be used to plug leaky pipes underground. “The plan is that if we have sensors in the pipes, we can detect leakages and when you know where the leakage is you can just go to where you need to repair the leaks,” he adds.

Even building designs play a role in cutting energy use. New parts of the campus have been designed to make better use of natural light and wind, using less energy to run air-conditioning and lights. In the digital model of the campus, planners can see which buildings are cutting off natural windflow and creating “heat islands” (pictured above). “What we are trying to do here with every new redevelopment of the campus is to reduce our carbon footprint”, Wong says.

This efficiency in energy and water use will translate into savings: “money that you can use for other things”, he says.

With 200 buildings, public bus routes, health centres, and 50,000 people, the campus is a “microcosm of a city”, Wong says. Community engagement, transport, and energy efficiency are all areas that the Virtual NUS project will look to transform – and the lessons will provide valuable insights for university and city officials alike.

Main image by National University of Singapore, Facebook
VirtualNUS images from Smart Systems Institute, National University of Singapore