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Augmented Reality in Urban Planning

Photo by Federico Beccari on Unsplash

You’ve been wandering through the historic downtown of Halifax, a medium sized city in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia for a while when you come upon the Public Gardens. It’s July, everything must be in bloom! Time to check it out. You’re wearing the new Augmented Reality glasses that came out earlier in the year and they’ve helped you not get lost in the city’s downtown and find some good information on this historical city along the way. As you wander into the spectacularly well maintained gardens, you almost forget you’re surrounded by towering buildings. You see interesting trees, plants and flowers and each time you look, your AR glasses pop up some interesting factoids on them. You’re even saving bits to your smartphone for later, then taking pictures with your smartphone, sharing them to your friends on social media. You get a little lost, but the glasses tell you how to navigate and even pop up a discount code for the ice cream stall on the edge of the gardens. Perfect! It’s hot out!

This may just be one way we navigate through urban and even rural centres in the near future. Perhaps even on hikes in areas close to data services via cellular 5G or similar networks. Since the launch of smartphones just over a decade ago, we’ve incorporated them deep into our lives. From personal uses such as note taking, task management and finances to more social activities via social media. Most smartphones today are capable of some interesting feats using Augmented Reality (AR) as well. But consumer uptake of AR remains extremely low and very much relegated to small use-case scenarios.

Google hoped it would take-off with the introduction of Glass, but that failed with consumers while it won with industrial applications. Snap launched their version, but those too remain niche in use. Rumours abound that Apple is set to launch their own. Perhaps. But uses of AR remain fairly limited to gaming, medicine, some navigation and industrial purposes.

But it could play a key role in urban planning and architecture. There is one company that uses AR to walk clients through a building under construction, to see what the finished outcome will be. Perhaps real-estate agents will use it to help potential buyers see what they can do with a home?

Urban planners could use AR to place bridges, view traffic intersections up for redevelopment or get visuals on how wind may impact building development and pedestrian movement on a street. Working with landscape designers they could see projects at ground level in the real world with AR overlays. Potentially large urban planning projects could be overlaid for citizens who go to the area, such as those who live in the neighbourhood, to see and give feedback on the project. This could enable greater citizen participation in such projects.

Additional layers of information could be implemented to help in wayfinding through a city, giving tourists information on buildings as they walk around, or make queries for nearby museums, restaurants and shops.

For now however, the use of AR in urban planning and design remains fairly limited. Some trials of products and technologies have been tried in Europe and North America, but they’ve largely been driven by academia and no clear commercial apps have come to the forefront. Some architects are starting to look at options, but urban planners often work within limited budgets and such technologies still remain expensive to develop and deploy. There is also the question of inclusivity for those who can’t afford a smartphone, let along smartglasses.

While there are exciting opportunities and applications, AR still remains on the cusp of major consumer acceptance and usage. It took a decade for smartphones to become so deeply intertwined in our daily lives. Even smarthome technology is stalled and not seeing much growth.

Technologies can take a while to become absorbed into society and the rapid pace of developments today is far outpacing society’s ability to find the value, socially and individually, to how it fits into culture and the systems of our current world. AR is untapped, but holds tremendous potential in the smart cities of the future.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious