ArcGIS® Pro and 3D

ArcGIS Pro is Esri’s latest release of desktop GIS software. By all indication, it will one day take over for ArcGIS for Desktop. However, that day is not even a speck on the horizon at this time. If you are familiar with the Esri brand and with our history, you know that this type of product release is not a frequent occurrence. ArcGIS for Desktop has enjoyed a long life cycle dating back to 1999. That is a remarkably long existence for a piece of software. All the while, Esri has been documenting user suggestions, needs, and past encumbrances while developing the next great product; ArcGIS Pro.

Advent Of A New Day

ArcGIS Pro became widely available in January of 2015. It is touted as the next champion of desktop GIS. ArcGIS Pro is a synthesis of its predecessor and input from the user community, developers, technological paradigms, and the evolution of the overall ArcGIS Platform. It is different from ArcGIS for Desktop in many ways. First, it is a true 64-bit multi-threaded application. This feat could not  be fully achieved in ArcGIS for Desktop and thus became reality with the next iteration of product development. What this means is that the software and its processes will work faster and be more responsive than ever before. ArcGIS Pro is also the first product to be produced during the ArcGIS Online era. Therefore, this new software came off of the assembly line ready to integrate with ArcGIS Online as opposed to having that functionality built in after the fact. There are other smaller changes that many users have noticed, such as user interface modifications, new terms to learn, and the extremely valuable addition of tasks to guide you, or other users, through a standard process. However, all of this is underscored by the introduction of 3D. The largest functionality shift seen  in GIS software since the advent of GIS software is occurring as a new dimension is added to our industry, literally flipping the world on its axis.

If you are reading this paper, we have one thing in common:

We Use Location-Based Data To Model The Real World And Its Phenomena To Communicate, Discover, Analyze, And Predict As Well As Make Intelligent Decisions.

ArcGIS Pro’s 3D capabilities are important because they enhance our abilities to do our jobs and pursue our passions interacting with spatial data. GIS needs 3D. To be clear, ArcGIS Pro does not bring about the first use of 3D. Many have been collecting z-values for years and using them to visualize  or model real-world features in 3D. We have also been able to show protruding features in Esri and non-Esri products. However, ArcGIS Pro is the first product from Esri designed to visualize and edit 3D data and surfaces, pushing technology and the field of GIS to new heights, whereas previous 3D options were more of a cool afterthought or a temporary glimpse of the future.

New Capabilities

The art and science of data visualization has new teeth thanks to ArcGIS Pro, now that the world is on its side and we see three dimensions. We are going to start addressing the benefit of 3D by discussing the less obvious visualization opportunity. Quantitative data has a defined data value that can be quantified and verified. Traditionally, we have produced maps representing this data with various types of symbology such as color, value, opacity, saturation, density, or size to name a few. The symbolization is employed to communicate data values of various geometric features. Please examine the examples provided:


Polygons on a map showing the average temperature have a color ramp to communicate that blue polygons have the coldest average temperatures while red polygons have the hottest average temperatures. Use your imagination for what happens between blue and red.


A map showing population has dense clusters of points around cities vs. rural areas.

Value, Opacity, Or Saturation

Data points representing rainfall gauges are lighter in value, opacity, or color saturation where 0.5 inches of rain was recorded vs. points that are darker in value, opacity, or color saturation where 4 inches of rain was recorded.


The track of a hurricane features a point for every day’s recorded location at 9 a.m. The point’s size represents the hurricane’s wind speed. The largest point represents the hurricane’s highest wind speed.

The Future Is Bright

With ArcGIS Pro’s 3D capabilities, we now have a new symbolization opportunity for showing quantitative data values with height. Imagine flipping a map on its side and viewing the amount of rainfall collected with rain gauges by seeing a bar extruding from the map. Most individuals would be able to interpret that a tall point represents higher rainfall than a shorter point with ease. The interpretation of a 3D symbol displaying quantitative data is quick and intuitive. Another advantage is that it leaves the other symbolization methods mentioned above open for displaying a secondary characteristic. For instance, there is no rule against having a tall 3D point that also shows a different quantitative value through color.

The more obvious use of ArcGIS Pro’s 3D capabilities is for real-world visualizations. For starters, picture a map tilted on its side displaying a 3D scene. This scene can include 3D representations of features such as trees and buildings. These layers appear on top of a terrain showing fluctuations in the earth’s elevation from flat coastal plains to dramatic mountain peaks. 3D scenes in ArcGIS Pro can be global, appearing at a very small map scale where it is beneficial to see the curvature of the earth or local where the map is viewed at a larger scale focusing on a much smaller area of interest, such as a town. All of this sounds great, but where is the value to the consumer? The answer to the question will be constantly evolving as users push the boundaries of ArcGIS Pro’s 3D capabilities, covering more pages than the scope of this white paper. However, we have listed some advantages to 3D real-world visualizations below for consideration.

  1. Multiple Views Interactively Linked – Imagine a map. Now imagine two maps side by side. As you pan on the first map, the second responds accordingly. Imagine map one is symbolized to communicate data differently than map two. As the user moves around in space much more, information can be communicated by seeing two different maps side by side. Now imagine map one depicts data in 2D and map two depicts data in 3D.
  2. Elevation Surfaces – 3D scenes start out with a default elevation surface known as Ground but can be assigned one or more additional surfaces to display in 3D. These surfaces affect the spatial relationships when building extruding features and raster datasets or base maps draped on top.
  3. Illumination Properties – All 3D scenes require a light source to provide illumination. This light source can be configured to achieve desired shadowing effects or provide simulated views of features during a specific time of day such as sunrise. Atmospheric effects produce increasingly accurate 3D scenes.
  4. Extrusion Controls – Advanced functionality for taking 2D points, lines, and polygons and stretching them into the third dimension.
  5. Height Characteristics – ArcGIS Pro depicts layers in 3D with characteristics such as elevation types. Features can be on the ground, such as a building; relative to the ground, such as a weather station on top of a building; have an absolute height, such as an airplane flying 35,000 feet above the earth’s surface; or on/relative to a custom surface.
  6. 3D Editing – ArcGIS Pro provides a 3D editing user experience with robust feature control and interactive feedback. This is new as ArcGIS for Desktop did not offer 3D feature controls. These allow users to build easily and manipulate a 3D geometric shape. The interactive feedback allows users to view the changing 3D feature they are editing as they make changes, as opposed to rendering the feature after a transformation is applied.
  7.  3D Models for Practical Purposes – Taking 3D data, such as buildings, trees, and streets and visualizing scenes, will greatly benefit professionals in planning, engineering, and architectural sectors. Procedural modeling can generate and apply textures to features based on predefined rules and styles. Imagine the benefits when examining zoning regulations, how the addition of a proposed building will affect the view from street level, or how various facade textures can impact an area’s style.

Maintain Integrity

With great power comes great responsibility. In this case, that great responsibility comes in two different forms. The first is the commitment to data visualization integrity that will be necessary to ensure that the third dimension does not yield a lot of confusing or misleading maps. The second is the responsibility of ArcGIS Pro users to operate this new software on computers that can handle the load, especially due to the graphic intensive nature of 3D visualization. Older workstations and servers will need to be upgraded or replaced to boost the GPU requirements needed to turn the GIS world on its side, and display another dimension. Upgrading internal workstations has proven to be a costly capital expenditure that occurs every few years as faster and better processors and other computer components become available. One advantage to ArcGIS Pro is that it is an ideal candidate for virtualization. ROK Technologies is currently advancing our infrastructure to host the next generation of ArcGIS Pro software so that organizations can take advantage of all that cloud computing has to offer. This is an area that we would love to discuss with anyone interested.


Esri’s ArcGIS Pro offers many great enhancements to the ArcGIS Platform. The paramount change lies in the product’s 3D functionality. The value created through 3D is not yet fully known and the potential appears limitless. Instant advantages that are realized focus on communication of quantitative and real-world data through 3D symbolization, interactively linked map navigation, visualization of elevation surfaces and their interaction with other features, 3D editing, and finally modeling of 3D features for planning, engineering, and architectural purposes.


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