Champion City Part 10: AR and VR: cities are ready!

IDEA New Rochelle’s Mission

Virtual Reality, an immersive technology that allows audiences to interact with imaginary worlds, has been creating a wave of excitement in the last few years. VR has been around since the 80's, but advances in computational power and motion tracking techniques have made it possible to produce sophisticated virtual experiences much more cheaply. These days you can buy a VR setup for less than the cost of a new iPhone!

VR is getting more powerful, more affordable, and with popular films like Ready Player One, more and more prominent in culture. But amidst all the renewed excitement about VR there is another related technology that most experts agree will be an even bigger deal: augmented reality. Popular recent AR projects include products like Google Glass and games such as Pokemon Go, and the field is growing fast. According to some estimates, the combined VR and AR markets will be worth more than $100 billion by 2021, with AR accounting for about 80% of market valuation.

They are growth industries; in the last 5 years, the request for VR/AR engineers has grown by 300%. We think it’s a no-brainer for cities to get involved with AR and VR for their economic benefit. Cities can bring high-paying jobs to their communities by helping to secure the facilities and resources needed to produce AR and VR apps. More importantly, if cities can introduce AR and VR to their schools in a thoughtful way, they can give their students a strong foundation in computational thinking — preparing them for many different possible career paths (some of which do not even exist yet).

Jobs and education aren’t the only ways these emerging technologies can help cities — as our work with the Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge is demonstrating, they can also be a boon for urban planning and civic engagement. AR and VR are each types of what’s called immersive media, technology that puts information (usually visual information) all around the user. You don’t just watch immersive media — you interact with it, and it becomes part of the world around you. This offers up interesting opportunities to rethink the way citizens engage with — you guessed it — the world around them.

VR and AR do this in slightly different ways. VR uses special hardware to transport users to entirely different worlds. This can be a useful way to allow people to experience what it may be like to spend time in a new park or museum, for example.

VR can be an exciting new way to experience space, AR but is its generally considered to be more accessible. While most commercially-available VR hardware requires users to don big headsets with goggles that cover the entire field of vision (not exactly a subtle experience!) AR applications can run on the same phones and tablets that people carry around every day, using computer vision algorithms to superimpose images, text, and other information on the screen.

AR is all about layering visual information on top of the real world. A great example of this is IKEA’s AR app that lets customers scan rooms to help them visualize how pieces of furniture might fit in their space or the rug example we illustrated in an earlier blog post. It’s not hard to imagine how a city might do something similar for any number of development or infrastructure projects. Think of those “artist’s rendering” drawings that are included in so many proposals, but fully immersive and interactive.

We should probably clarify what we mean by “interactive” since that term has become something of a buzzword. Most AR apps involve some type of interface whereby the user can affect some kind of change in the app — maybe they can rearrange and rotate architectural elements for example. But there is another kind of interaction that we believe is even more exciting.

What if there was an AR app that allowed people to not only visualize and imagine proposed changes to their built environment, but to actually participate in them? In other words, what if their ideas and opinions didn’t just live in the virtual space of an app, but could actually make it to the ones who are make the decisions — the architects, planners, boards of supervisors, and city councils?

Today’s immersive technologies run on machines that are already connected to the internet (phones, tablets, and computers), which opens up a cheap, accessible means of transmitting this kind of information between cities and their citizens. The technology is already here; the work now is to develop it into the right kind of tools, to design the interfaces, decide what kind of information to gather and how to integrate it into existing civic systems.

We’re working on it!