Insights From The Blog

The World’s Cities Are Starting to Take Advantage of AR and VR

You know that any new innovation is going mainstream when it starts to be picked up by users who are not normally habitually interested in the technology, but can see that it will benefit them in some way.  Mobile communications as a good example of this with non-traditional users seeing the potential benefits of such systems and integrating them into new innovations. Today, we cannot possibly imagine a world where we do not have routine connectivity and our lives are enriched because of it.  AR and VR are similar innovations which started off as potential gaming-only technologies but have been embraced by a growing number of unrelated industries and users who can see the value in adopting such technologies.

We have seen AR/VR grow from being slight oddities in areas such as medicine and manufacturing to become essential tools for design, diagnosis and healing purposes, but less mainstream or obvious users are starting to get interested in AR/VR. One of the most exciting areas of development is that of virtual mapping of real areas to create realistic representations that can be traversed as in with the area. One of the most complete to date is London, which is available via the Google Maps App, and allows the user to get an immersive view of the capital and see it like never before.  Make no mistake, this isn’t just a slightly different view akin to the normal google maps, but a fully developed continuous 3D model that can be viewed from all manner of angles, heights and zoom levels.  This is a fully immersive view of the city and is a great way to explore places that you want to go to or to navigate around the city – even parts that Google have not been able to access by the car-mounted cameras.  The system is being generated by manipulation of data obtained from car cameras and LIDAR information taken from drones and other camera systems, and amalgamated to create a very highly detailed virtual model. While the system is currently not available on desktop computers, it can be accessed directly from mobile devices.  Simply:

  • Open Google Maps, and ensure that you have the latest version.
  • Navigate to a tourist area in London, such as Piccadilly Circus of Buckingham Palace.
  • If that area has been fully mapped, the Immersive View card will pop up under the main map.
  • Tap on the Immersive View and explore the area like never before.

The immersive feature does not yet cover the entire city – St Pauls Cathedral area is fully interactive while the Shard area isn’t yet – but this is ongoing work and more is being constantly added.  The detail is astounding and it’s refreshing to see iconic buildings in beautiful but virtual detail.  And, of course, once it is digitised, it is there for life, and the model can then be used as a basis for other VR/AR interactions.

With a growing number of cities and urban areas following London’s lead, and a strong growth in tech-based businesses investing in the development of these, the potential for the entire world being developed as a digital twin is growing. This notion is attracting many developers because, once digitised, the area can be modified and adapted as far as the imagination can go. Furthermore, real examples of digital buildings can be copied and incorporated into other Metaverse constructions.  Imagine copying The Tower of London onto virtual land that you own in Decentraland and using at your home.  Or maybe The White House, or The Pyramids of Giza.  Once digitised and available for public use, the prospects become almost endless.

But there is also a number of other reasons to digitise a city.  For a start, in creating a digital twin, city planners can not only work on future developments, and inspect their impact with far greater accuracy and knowledge. With a highly detailed virtual model available, the ability for scientists to study air passage and heat effects becomes so much easier, and the model can be subject to a range of outside influences – such as earthquakes and typhoons – can be evaluated.  While London doesn’t currently suffer from either of those, there are other cities around the world in which powerful environmental dangers are a part of everyday life, and having reliable digital models can help designers and scientists understand their effects and plan for them.

Over in Orlando, the city’s Economic Partnership are showcasing the city and surrounding area – including the theme parks – by using a digital twin, and showing potential investors how the area is planning to expand and embrace new developments.  In New York, the available digital twin is being used to analyse and plan the city’s traffic-flow problems.  Legendary in its complexity, New York’s traffic problem could not be effectively tackled with out the use of a virtual environment to identify traffic hotspots and seek alternatives.  Ultimately, the team intends to implement adaptive traffic signal control, informed by real-time traffic data collected by Internet of Things sensors, in order to coordinate traffic lights along a corridor and a subregion in order to move traffic more efficiently with fewer pauses or bottlenecks.  By employing IoT subsystems, the traffic coordinators will be able to control traffic signals to allow for a smooth transition of traffic through the city – something that every New York driver would like to see.

The rise in AR equipment such as the Apple Vision Pro will allow users to engage with these virtual cities on a real-time basis, and are likely to become the main driving tools in not only the development but also user interaction with virtual cities.   With Google currently working on the development of fifteen virtual cities, with more in the offing, and it also hopes to start work on other, non-urban areas too, eventually bringing everything together to create a digital twin world. Exciting stuff..!