Envisioning Urban Futures Through An Old-Fashioned Viewfinder

In San Francisco, new versions of classic devices will help residents see planned changes for their city.

This is how Tristan Randall envisions the future: you’re walking down a city street, and you come across a gadget that looks like an old-fashioned viewfinder. But this gadget isn’t coin-operated, and the binoculars don’t zoom in on anything in the real world. The binoculars let you see the future of the spot you’re standing on–or at least one version of it.


Randall, the construction industry manager at Autodesk, is taking steps towards making this vision happen. Last week, the city of San Francisco held a series of public workshops to share design options for its Better Market Street project, which is working on ways to increase pedestrian and bike traffic and reduce vehicular traffic in the downtown area.

Attendees had the opportunity to see the design options in 3-D by looking through a viewfinder (when I recently stopped by Autodesk, one of the two viewfinders was in the process of being 3-D printed) hooked up to an iPad Mini. When users tilt the viewfinder, the iPad’s gyroscope kicks in, causing the screen’s image to tilt as well.

The 3-D images seen by attendees are made possible by Autodesk Infraworks, a new platform that lets users create high-quality visualizations without paying the $50,000 to $100,000 that quality visualizations often cost. The viewfinder device–called an Owl–is built from scratch using Autodesk’s Fusion 360 3-D printing tool. It’s the brainchild of Owlized, a San Francisco startup that’s working with Autodesk on prototyping the tool. “Ultimately, Owlized is the one that wants to take this to market commercially,” says Randall.

Workshop attendees will see three visions for a future Market Street when they look through the viewfinders: a shared bike lane, a dedicated bike lane, and a shared bike lane on Market plus a dedicated bike lane on Mission Street (a nearby street). “This project doesn’t have a design yet, so to speak,” explains Randall. “We chose a representative block and a showed concept of what we’re looking at.”

The Market Street project is so early in the design process that a visualization normally wouldn’t even have been created yet. But building a visualization so early has had its advantages. Randall explains: “As we began the process of building in 3-D, it forced us to start making assumptions and decisions about details that wouldn’t pop up unless you were using this technology. It drove the design thinking.”

Randall hopes that one day, Owls will be placed along city streets in San Francisco and elsewhere. Instead of putting up posters showing what urban revitalization projects will look like, cities could instead install viewfinders. Security will be an issue–it’s not hard to imagine people trying to break open an Owl to get to the iPad mini.


Autodesk and Owlized are looking at a number of options, including putting the Owls on movable dollies that can be removed at night and placing the devices only in areas that have additional security. But first, the Owls need to move out of the prototype stage. 3-D printing may end up not being the most affordable option–and in any case, the Owls will ultimately need to be made of more durable materials than the resin used in Autodesk’s 3-D printers.

“We’re not trying to replace high-end visualization, we’re trying to democratize visualization. We want get to an 80% level of quality, and basically allow users to do it for free. The cost is whatever it is to develop the design plus nothing,” says Randall. And the cost of InfraWorks, of course.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.