Augmented Reality Is Here: Are Your Buildings Ready?

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We are quickly approaching a future where Augmented Reality plays a prevalent part in our daily lives.

In this future, people will be able to simultaneously experience two worlds: the digital world, consisting of location-based information, artifacts, and holograms; and the real, physical world of buildings, streets, spaces, and things.

Through the use of mixed reality headsets (such as Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 announcement at MWC Barcelona last month), wearable devices, and mobile device cameras, these two worlds will coexist to its viewers in seamless alignment. This experience of the digital within the physical will enable people to interact with their physical environments and with one another in ways that we’re just beginning to imagine today.

At the very tip of this iceberg, some of today’s use cases for augmented reality apps in the built environment include:

  • An AR Walking Mode in Google Maps that draws arrows and signage on your smartphone camera’s view of the real world to make sure you’re heading the right way
  • Monocle, a feature within Yelp’s mobile app, which superimposes real-time reviews of local restaurants and businesses over your smartphone’s camera view
  • and of course, who could forget 2016’s Pokémon Go craze, which got gamers off their couches and into their communities to search for Pokémon hiding in plain sight, visible only to the lens of their smartphone cameras
HoloLens 2. Source: Microsoft

While the average person wouldn’t depend on each of these use cases every day, they illustrate the beginning of a new way of interacting with our built environment — and major tech companies like Apple, Cisco, and Google are placing their bets on this future, making significant investments in the technology.

Widespread adoption of mixed reality will come with the coming convergence of three technology trends:

  • the increasing popularity of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is expected to exceed 50 billion connected devices by 2020. These IoT-connected devices include sensors, appliances, and equipment capable of creating unprecedented amounts of location-specific data.
  • the advent of 5G mobile networks, capable of transmitting data 20 times faster than today’s 4G
  • approximately 800 million smartphones and devices in use today that have both an OS with dedicated AR support (ARKit for Apple iOS and ARCore for Android) and sufficiently powerful hardware to power them

With this technology rapidly finding its way into the hands of everyday consumers, we can expect to see a demand for buildings to support AR experiences for its users — whether these users are office employees, apartment tenants, restaurant and retail customers, or passengers waiting to board their flight or train.

While the building industry is beginning to adopt augmented reality in construction and design phases (take a look at firms like PCL Construction, Perkins+Will, Corgan, and KPF), the greatest potential for this technology exists after construction is finished and the building is in use. Consumers will want the augmented reality app experiences they enjoy and depend on to extend into the buildings and spaces they use every day, working in ways like showing us how many seconds until the next elevator arrives, helping us find and reserve available conference rooms, control lighting and temperature, and locate our friends and colleagues within a building or campus.

How can building owners prepare for this future?

A fascinating Wired article published last month describes a future “mirrorworld”, where “every place and thing in the real world—every street, lamppost, building, and room—will have its full-size digital twin… For the mirrorworld to come fully online, we don’t just need everything to have a digital twin; we also need to build a 3D model of physical reality in which to place those twins.”

In other words, compelling mixed reality experiences aren’t possible without a map. Without a map, there isn’t a base onto which we can place holographic navigation arrows, data displays, and other digital artifacts for viewers to find and interact with.

The Yelp Monocle, Google Maps AR, and Pokémon Go use cases have two main things in common: each experience is developed using Google Maps as a base, and as a result, each experience is mostly limited to outdoor use.

Fortunately, a vast majority of design and construction teams in North America already create these kinds of 3D models as a by-product of their standard Building Information Modeling (BIM) project delivery workflows.

  • 99% of large architecture firms (50 or more employees) and 72% of mid-sized firms (10-49 employees) use BIM for billable projects consistently. (Source: AIA Firm Survey Report 2016)
  • 55-56% of General Contractors and Construction Managers use BIM on a majority of their projects, and 64-69% of mechanical and HVAC trade subcontractors produce their own BIM models. (Source: 2012 and 2017 surveys by Dodge Data & Analytics)

With the right handover requirements in place, owners can receive from their consultants and contractors a 3D model of the built asset, reflecting each of its systems, equipment, and components. With the right Digital Twin software platform in place, these 3D models can be linked to asset registers, live sensor data and building control systems (BMS/BAS, lighting control, physical access control, smart metering, and IoT networks), and used in a variety of ways that benefit a wide variety of stakeholder groups including asset managers, facilities managers, maintenance engineers, and the building’s tenants and occupants.

This 3D model of a building isn’t limited to augmented reality apps — the same geometry that an augmented reality platform uses to host holograms can support digital twins technology driven by IoT. In the near future, these models will help guide robots that automatically perform cleaning, maintenance, and security surveillance tasks throughout a building or campus. Owners will be able to point to a location in these models to designate buildings’ landing points for package delivery drones. With a Digital Twin, owners can future-proof their built assets and position their property portfolios for early adoption of smart building use cases that are nearly impossible to imagine today.

Ian Siegel is a Digital Lead at Willow.

About Willow

Willow is the digital twin for the built world.

Our mission is to empower every person and organisation to connect with the built world in a whole new way.  

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