Augmented Reality and the evolution of place – how AR will change our town centres

Augmented Reality is coming to towns and cities. The promise of “real life” data overlaying the world around us is compelling, but what might it look like? What are the opportunities? How will this technology change our urban landscapes?

Augmented reality (AR) technology allows you to see and interact with virtual images in the real world. It’s a form of computer-generated imagery (CGI), but it also includes virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR). AR has been around for some time and may be familiar to many in terms of smaller personal phone experiences; placing a character or animation on a table or scanning a QR code on a product to trigger a marketing animation. But things are changing quickly, with AR now seen as leading future development focus by all the major tech companies across the world. 

“I am so excited about AR. I think it’s one of these very few profound technologies that we will look back on one day and go, ‘how did we live our lives without it?” – Apple CEO Tim Cook September 2021 interview with YouTuber, Justine.

Apple is developing their own AR glasses for release in the next few years, which many say will be the beginning of the end of mobile phone as the leading personal device.  

We are now entering a brave new world of AR, which is literally on a world scale! 


World Scale AR in Towns and Cities

UrbanXR talk about world scale AR a lot. It is a pretty new concept, but it’s not just for gaming or entertainment and it’s certainly not just a marketing gimmick or the latest fad for tech companies trying to figure out how to make money (don’t get us started on the Metaverse or jpeg NFT’s!).

World scale AR is about creating a persistent experience that can be enjoyed by anyone in your city or town, regardless of age or technical expertise, and brings together groups and crowds of people simultaneously.

“As a trained Architect and Urban Designer, the opportunities afforded by AR to enhance our experiences of towns and cities really excite me. We are now seeing the emergence of very accurate Visual Positioning Systems (VPS) that developers like UrbanXR can work with to place content in streets and on buildings. This has far reaching implications for retail, planning, public consultation, asset management, entertainment and tourism to name but a few.” says UrbanXR Founder, James Lee Burgess.

Snapchat, who have pioneered the use of AR filters in their social media have recently released custom landmarks, a VPS for their developer software called ‘Lense Studio’. It allows creative developers to access pre-scanned locations in major cities around the world and publish their AR experiences in said locations for everyone to see. Snapchat are also developing their own AR glasses which have only been for developers to date, but hopefully will become available to purchase in the next few years.

Niantic, who developed the world AR sensation that was Pokémon GO, have just released their Lightship VPS for developers, and Google have also released their VPS and Geospatial application for developers, allowing access to Google Maps 3D data. Even though these are all big players in the tech space, access to the technology to develop bespoke world scale cost effective AR experiences is already here.

UrbanXR and their partners have been pioneers in the AR sector, delivering the Cornhill Christmas Experience in Ipswich with a soft launch in 2021. This is a multiuser set piece 3D experience located in Ipswich central square, The Cornhill, and was one of the first publicly available multi-user outdoor AR experiences in the country working with our friends at Immersal VPS.


The Role of 3D Geometric Data in World Scale AR

The foundation of world scale Augmented Reality is the use of a scanned 3D geometric data map. The use of this geometric data allows a computer to recognise the surrounding context via its Visual Positioning Software and download and display the virtual 3D content into the view of the device camera, which can then be interacted with and seen by other people in the same space. This approach to locating 3D content in AR is centimetre accurate, which is a long way from GPS AR locating of the past which has had high levels of inaccuracy as to where the content would appear. This made persistent communal AR experiences very difficult as the content would appear in different places for different people. The use of QR codes can help this, but the experience needs to be local to the QR code so expansive immersive world scale AR was not possible. 

The scanned 3D geometric data can be captured by a mobile phone camera these days making mapping very accessible, if not time consuming! However companies like Hexagon, who own Leica Geosystems and the Immersal Visual Positioning System, are now integrating quick and expansive scanning technology from hardware such as the BLK2GO scanner to the immersal ecosystem. This will make for some very exciting opportunities for world scale AR space, allowing towns and cities to be captured quickly and efficiently.

Of course, for all of this to work, connectivity is key! 5G allows for these more complex AR experiences to be delivered to mobile phones and the AR glasses of the future. 4G will work in many instances, but with a level of latency (a lag in the animation), 5G virtually eliminates this “lag” and allows the device to transmit its location in the real world back to the VPS. This means it can amend the view of the 3D content from the cloud to match so quickly that users do not notice any change. However, even without this connectivity, experiences can be loaded onto lease devices for specific uses, such as tours, trails and training. 


Use Cases of AR in Towns and Cities

In our work over the last 2 years at UrbanXR, we have identified 5 key use cases that we believe will enhance our experience of towns and cities, and create more sustainable and democratic use of space and data.


Augmented Reality public events and experiences

Festivals and art installations are a key part of urban life; driving visitors and defining a sense of place and engaging with creative communities.

Enabling local creators to exhibit sculptures and art in AR means that the logistics of a traditional physical installation, along with its associated carbon heavy logistics and material uses, are avoided. We think that, if towns and cities were all able to offer a platform for AR installations that convey positive messaging and drive change, it would allow for more flexible and accessible experiences for the public. Experiences could be interchanged quickly, local groups, schools, universities etc could all have a voice with cultural diversity celebrated at a much lower overhead than a physical installation.


Heritage preservation and education

The potential for location based AR experiences to bring to life the heritage of a place through interactive storytelling is very exciting. To be able to visit a location and see a lost historic building recreated in AR in its former location, with enquiry buttons to delve deeper into its architectural features or events associated with the structures, would signal a paradigm changing shift in heritage preservation and education. Inaccessible heritage could be revealed or relocated in public spaces instead of being hidden in a basement, underground or by the side of a busy road. These experiences can then be linked together for an AR heritage tour, which would drive opportunities for tourism and education.


A new kind of retail experience

AR delivered through AR glasses and headsets has the potential to allow a new kind of pop up retail experience. By offering a site-specific high-resolution AR shopping experience in empty retail units, the logistics of transporting goods and carbon impact are vastly reduced, whilst still driving footfall to town and city centres. Many different suppliers can display goods either in short time slots or simultaneously with shoppers choosing which shop display to interact with. Videos and interactive 3D models can form part of the shopping experience which can be done with friends as a social activity, unlike online shopping. Shopping becomes a unique location specifically enabled by AR technology.


Planning development control and consultation

With a background in architecture, UrbanXR are very familiar with the challenges that planning departments, local communities and those proposing new development have in terms of communicating the proposals.

With the accuracy of visual positioning systems, we are now able to place proposals in urban environments which can be viewed by planners and designers to assess their impact. This can also be used to consult residents at an appropriate time and, when combined with 3D AR interpretations of planning policy on site, we believe would be a powerful tool. Often communities struggle to decipher plans and drawings and have become suspicious of slick CGI images. Being able to view a proposal at scale in location would immediately be comprehensible to everyone and create a level playing field for all involved in the planning and development process. This would help instil trust and support with the planning process from the very start. 


Asset management 

City and campus asset management can deliver in the field live data feeds for infrastructure viable through AR. These feeds and data sets can be permanently anchored in AR space for access when required. By using hands free AR glasses maintenance and remote assistance from experts into the glasses, problems and assessments can be quickly dealt with. Private 5G networks and or on device solutions can address security concerns.


Designing with AR  

The placing of accessible 3D content in our towns and cities is a job not to be taken lightly. The threat of information overload and overcrowding is a real one, and one that is highlighted by the short film Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda. The film shows a person’s over-stimulated and intense experiences travelling and shopping in a completely AR enabled “always on” world.

“This possible outcome of the impact of AR and hyper connectivity depicted in Hyper-Reality is a little bit away currently, but we do need to start placing the foundations for how we deliver and design our town and city experiences.”, states James Lee Burgess.

As a company founded by Architect and Urban Designer James Lee Burgess, this area of space management and curation of the digital space in towns and cities is one that interests UrbanXR greatly.

“There are established laws and regulations on how we adapt our physical environments, but none at present for the digital space. With all new and disruptive technology, there must always be a time of free development – this drives innovation and creation. But when we are considering technology that will influence how we use our physical space, leaders in urban centres need to be prepared. There is a real opportunity here for towns and cities to begin to leverage and prepare for AR technology now. The real risk is that the ability to curate and manage the AR experiences in public spaces will be lost to big technology companies. This will require some quick and agile policy work which protects our spaces, but also does not stymie the opportunities of creative access for all that AR can offer.”


Towns and cities have the chance to develop their AR place strategies now and begin to develop their own networks. The ability to set up and own AR place platforms that can offer levels of interaction from free public, to subscribed AR space rental and lease, to secure private enterprise uses is a huge opportunity for our urban centres to develop funding models for AR that can deliver a more equitable, enhanced and sustainable experience of place.

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