It's a familiar trope in cyberpunk fiction, like William Gibson's Neuromancer — the city as a giant data construct, existing online as a massively complex simulation in which information flows like great rivers through a virtual metropolis.

Navigating this terrain is gradually evolving from science fiction to fact, as 3D modeling and virtual reality technology play an increasingly critical part in modern urban planning. And nowhere is the concept more dramatically illustrated than in the fast-forward digital architecture project known as Virtual Singapore.

Set to launch within the year, Virtual Singapore is an ambitious data visualization model developed by Singapore's National Research Foundation in collaboration with French software company Dassault Systèmes and several other private companies and government agencies. The idea is to create a virtual replica of the city itself, built out of the infinite bits and bytes of digital information.

Think of it as a kind of SimCity interface, but with every technical spec you can think of — and many more that you can't — cranked to eleven.

The $73 million 3DExperience City project will allow city planners to navigate through a virtual representation of the city in real time while accessing all sorts information on the population and built environment. A city architect, for example, might hover her cursor above a building and click to see how much energy the facility is using, the number of inhabitants or the amount of data flowing through local wireless networks.

Information would be superimposed on the 3D imagery in real time, creating digital representations that can help municipal planners visualize their plans. Live video feeds from security cameras, satellite imagery or archival photos mined by AI agents offer ways to enhance the 3D model of the building and the surrounding area.

In a promotional video released last year, Singapore Land Authority official Ng Siau Yong explains how the virtual city will help the government test out ideas.

"Singapore is a city-state and there is very little room that actually we can experiment with our plans," Ng says. "Virtual Singapore eliminates the necessity of trying these plans out in actual, physical environments in which we have very little space."

Image via Dassault Systèmes / YouTube

City officials in Rio and Los Angeles have launched interactive digital representations, according to Wired, but Singapore's appears to be the most sophisticated and ambitious. Virtual Singapore will be used initially by city planners. But officials plan to allow private businesses — architecture firms, utility providers, transportation companies — to use the platform. And Dassault Systèmes is already working to develop digital versions of other major world cities.

"This virtual city is going to be a first in the world," says Dassault vice president Bernard Charles in the video. "It's going to be a game changer."

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