How augmented reality is reshaping architecture

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Alice Cruickshank

Since the term was first coined in 1990, augmented reality has gone from a futuristic ideal to a very real and exciting new technology, which holds great potential for architects and property developers.

From visualising new developments in existing landscapes, to trialling fixtures and fittings pre-installation, augmented reality offers developers and their clients a chance to immerse themselves in a property long before the completion date.

So what is augmented reality exactly?

Not to be confused with the better known virtual reality, which creates a whole new visual world, augmented reality places items ‘on top’ of the user’s real world view, be it textual information about the building, or a whole development projected into a potential site.

Pokemon Go! helped parachute this technology into the mainstream. Even though its popularity was somewhat short lived, the app showcased how accessible augmented reality can be, and that it need not solely be the reserve of ‘techy’ people, but can be straightforward – and entertaining – to use.

Some home improvement brands have already adopted this technology for consumers. Paint brand Dulux offers customers a chance to test its colours on their walls using its Visualizer app, while IKEA Place lets users trial the company’s furniture in their homes before purchasing.

These fun apps offer an opportunity to experiment with interior design, but the technology within them is relatively simple compared to emerging augmented reality developments, created specifically for property professionals.

Microsoft Hololens

One of the most prominent of these is Microsoft HoloLens. Launched in 2016, this headset allows architects to create a 3D design using Trimble SketchUp software, and then see the building in front of their eyes in the form of a hologram, offering an opportunity to walk around and explore their creation. They can also expand the hologram to such a scale that the architect can walk inside to check internal parts of the structure, flagging potential issues using hand gestures or their voice.

HoloLens creator Microsoft launched a year-long partnership with the Royal Institute of British Architects in March 2017, with the intention of providing organisations within the architectural, engineering and construction industries advice on how to utilise the latest technologies to digitally transform their operations.

One British architectural firm currently using the Hololens in its projects is Gensler.

Richard Jacob, an architect from Gensler, explains: “As architects and designers, we have spent years learning how best to translate our conceptual design ideas into two dimensional plans, sections and elevations. However, quite often our clients don’t have the technical training to decode our drawings and fully comprehend how they could be interpreted into real space.

“At Gensler, we are using augmented reality to circumvent this barrier, allowing us to easily show our clients, and the wider public, what we are designing. They can really see, experience and feel the spaces we are trying to create for them and how these spaces reflect their goals and ambitions in a more tangible manner.”

New horizons

But using augmented reality to design buildings is only the start. In the future it could be the architect’s job not only to create the physical structures of the building, but also the data providing the augmented reality experience within the premises. For this reason, not everyone is so welcoming of augmented reality in the realm of architecture.

Owen Hopkins is a British architecture historian, author and curator. He worries that as augmented reality progresses, people will be able to see structures in whatever way they like by projecting a new façade onto its exterior, thus rendering the architect’s design irrelevant.

“There’s quite a long history of using screens or even loudspeakers to offer some kind of dynamic layer to buildings,” reasons Hopkins. “The key difference with AR is that these screens or layers will exist digitally rather than physically. This means that they have the potential to be personalised, so what we see can be entirely tailored to our own likes, interests, even political persuasions, just like social media is now.

“On one level this situation poses an existential threat to the architectural profession as we know it,” Hopkins continues. “Why bother designing anything more than the most rudimentary structure when every surface can be overlaid with some kind of digital layer?

“At the same time, however, I think there’s a huge opportunity here for architects to reverse the marginalisation that they’ve experienced over the last few decades and lead the way in shaping what form these digital layers will take.”

Whatever their stance on the benefits of augmented reality, all those in the know agree that this new tech has the power to change the architectural process irrevocably. Whether that be improving the client-architect relationship with a tangible rendering of designs, or even reimagining the architect’s role altogether by moving to data layer creation as opposed to designing physical constructs. Augmented reality must surely be considered one of the most exciting proptech developments so far.

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