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Adding to reality

By Michael Willoughby
Augmented reality techniques are still in their infancy,  but their potential is enormous.

Earlier this year, the world appeared to hover in a car park in Warwickshire. It was summoned by Keysoft Solutions whose employees, looking though their mobile devices, could walk across the surface and even look underneath it. The sample 3D model was geotagged to a location within the car park and allowed the viewer to look at the object from any angle. 

This was an outcome from Keysoft Solutions Innovation Week, where developers were experimenting with a technology called augmented reality (AR). The company typically creates AutoCAD-based design and database applications for landscape, traffic management, road safety, street lighting and highways maintenance engineering.

It is obvious that AR has the potential to offer enormous benefits to the landscape profession. Substitute the world in the car park for a line of poplars in the grounds of a house or benches in an urban residential development, swap the employees for clients or stakeholders, and the benefits of inserting digital items into a real landscape are clear to see. 

Imagine how useful it would be to approach and look at your design up close then stroll back and take it in from afar. You could move items simply by clicking and dragging them up or down, or push them further into the field of your touchscreen. Two fingers turned around each other could rotate the object on its axis in any direction. By double-clicking, you could ‘lock’ the item into the view and then you could bring another asset into the picture. 

The technology could be used at any stage of the pitch, consultation and design process: to help a designer win a bid by giving clients a look-ahead at exactly what the interventions might look like; to allow stakeholders to play around with a public scheme and provide accurate input; or for experienced designers to carry out the actual process of creating the new planned environment. You could invite collaborators or commissioners to see what you were seeing and get their input or intervention. 

The direction of travel is clearly indicated by software applications such as Augment, an augmented technology platform based in Paris with more than 30,000 architects and designers on the platform around the world (many of these are product designers, as Augment is used to see how packaging might look on the shelf.)

‘The biggest challenge in designing for a space is bringing the idea to life from 2D into 3D and helping the client and end-users buy into that vision,’ says Lindsay Boyajian, its chief marketing officer. ‘Design professionals are brilliant at thinking and seeing things in 3D, but it’s harder for clients. Augment lets commissioner and practitioner share a common vision of the project.’ 

A limited version of Augment is free to download and use via Android and Apple App Store, so I gave it a try. After installing, I was able to download and erect a digital Christmas tree in the corner of my living room and take a picture in which the camera on my Samsung S6 Edge would not properly focus.

Additionally, my 3D Christmas tree was rather hard to situate, could only turn on the y-axis and tended to drift - although it was impressive that even when I turned the phone away from my v-tree, it was still more or less in the same place. The thing I found most frustrating was that I could not lock my tree into place and wander up to it or add another element next to it. 

Festive greenery apart, Augment’s library of architectural and construction objects contains everything from models of the Guggenheim and Globe Theatre to beds, steel frames, rosebushes, bus-shelters and palm trees. In other words it’s a motley collection of 3D renders that various users have uploaded out of the goodness of their heart. It’s fun for a play around but of little practical use to landscape professionals.

The inter-phone technology does more heavy lifting when users are able to create their own objects or designs in AutoCAD, Rhino3D or any number of other design packages. You can also import a 3D scan of an actual model. For £300 a month, licensees can port 3D models into the Augment environment and situate them within the image or live-view and take a screen-grab. 

However, the most useful feature of Augment is the ability to print the 3D model onto a ‘tracker’: a 2D print-out of a 3D model that your portable device reads as if it was 3D. Point your device at the paper and you can walk around and look at it from all angles. The tracker can include animations – you can lift a roof off a building. Or you pinch-zoom and see inside hollow structures. 

Inition, a production company specialising in immersive, installation-based experiences, created a tracker for architect, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners’ Riverlight development brochures. The fold-out AR markers transform into a detailed 3D model of the complex, including animated people, when viewed through a mobile device.     

One thing that this type of AR lacks is the ability to be geolocated. It is only fixed by the photo and then gone or else it is a free-floating model on a piece of paper. This geolocation is key to the success of Pokémon GO, the game which helped bring AR to greater public consciousness. Millions of ‘trainers’ have tracked and captured digital beings in real-world environments. Its rules are also interactive: trainers can ‘place’ digital items in the real world in order to attract Pokémon characters to an area. Working en masse, trainers can kick off a Pokémon-catching extravaganza, as happened at a July ‘meet-up’ in San Francisco when hundreds of gamers turned up in the city. 

Clearly, a practice that could create a geotagged digital object on site for everyone with the viewing software to visit and walk around rather than on a desk would have a terrific advantage: they would be able to walk people around something that looked like the finished site before it was completed. 

However, the wobble that I found in my Christmas tree is a clear and present issue for this kind of solution. Mike Shilton, product director at Keysoft and chair of the Landscape Institute Working Group, says the problem is to do with current satellite technology. So far, we use the US GPS (global positioning system) to know where we or other objects are, and this is accurate up to a few metres. This should improve: a new network of 30 satellites, Galileo, has the potential to offer accuracy up to a few centimetres, when it starts coming online between 2017 and 2020.

There are other ways to help lock the image to the view-frame: Costain and Network Rail came up with a workaround solution on the London Bridge Station project where the public could ‘see’ the result of planned shop fronts via a mobile device. The app used anchor points from the visual information in order to generate the digital masks. Then it calculated the viewer’s position, orientation, and pitch and aligned the 3D model accordingly. Costain was easily able to show that important assets (such as other shop fronts) would not be obscured by the work.

Yet highly accurate geotagging would have another benefit. It would boost AR in QR (Quick Response matrix barcode) enabled products which linked real-world assets to information in the cloud. One called Histree helps landscape professionals gain information about green assets, holding information on their attributes and information about their maintenance or care in the cloud. If the garden staff carries out a task such as pruning, this is recorded onto the QR code. Obviously, it would be much easier to be able to access information just by standing next to the asset. 

‘If companies needed proof that work had been done on a particular asset by an employee, they could upload a geotagged pic of the work,’ points out Paul Wilkinson, a construction technology marketing consultant with his own firm, Pwcom.co.uk

A number of wireless sensors around a site could help fix an asset to a fixed location, points out Shilton. 

However, Microsoft may have stolen a march on more sophisticated geotagged devices. Its new HoloLens wrap-around goggles arrangement combines GPS with additional sensors which can build up a ‘point cloud’ of items, helping improving accuracy. 

Stuart Cupit, Inition chief technology officer and co-founder says the current level of accuracy (to five or ten metres) is sufficient for many purposes – i.e. for showing members of the public a new building. However, it is not going to be enough for a professional who is trying to dig a trench in a certain area. 

‘It’s important to be aware of who is using AR and what for,’ he says. ‘For example, some people need photorealism, or 30–60 frames per second – hard in a mobile device; others are happy to know there is a wall there.’ 

The level of live-streamed data to make the experience of AR satisfying is also currently limiting its application in outdoor projects. The number of polygons – the tiny flat digital planes that go into creating an apparently 3D object – is currently limited to 1 million, confirms Augment’s Boyajian. 

‘In landscape, you have a scale issue,’ says Shaun Collins, associate director, landscape architecture within design and engineering firm, AECOM, which is at the forefront of experimenting with the emerging technology. ‘In large projects, the file size is really large, more so than on buildings. We started finding limitations with a real-time view.’ 

One option, says delete Shilton, would be fractalisation, which means that objects are more detailed the closer you are and less clearly drawn when further away; at the moment, programmes tend to try to render every polygon no matter how large the digital image. 

It is clear that there are a number of problems which must be overcome before you can walk your client through your fully rendered real-time external space on-site seeing the design overlaying the real world and together be able to shift a flowerbed from here to there. At the same time, much of the technology is coming close to fruition.

‘It’s not that far away,’ confirms Cupit. In fact, says Eric Hallquist, principal director, landscape architecture at AECOM, the current problem is overwhelming clients with the technology rather than underwhelming them. ‘They put on their headsets and go “ooh,” instead of paying attending to the content.’ he says. 

The headset revolution
AR is often confused with virtual reality (VR). VR immerses users in a totally encompassing digital world through viewers such as the Oculus Rift, whereas AR applications overlay digital objects or info onto a background of what can be seen through the lens or overlaid on a previous photograph. As a result, most AR applications run on portable devices. 

However, for a price, you can view the world through a specialised headset. Google Glass (£750) was an early example of a retail product which incorporates mixed reality although the projections on the lens don’t make any particular attempt to ‘fit in’ with their surroundings. 

Microsoft’s HoloLens has just become available in the UK (starting at just over £2,700) and this device provides a more satisfying combination of the real world and its 3D (so-called ‘holographic’) interventions, so users feel as though game characters are coming out of the walls at them. Both Google and Microsoft’s products use headphones and microphones to enable communication and interactivity with the user’s device and internal computer, respectively. 

Engineers from AECOM, which provides professional engineering, consulting and project management services for infrastructure projects, used the hardware to help with visualisation and design reviews on the Serpentine Pavilion project.

‘With extremely tight programme constraints, the mixed reality headsets helped speed up the engineering design process on the tightly curved steel and timber structure of Barkow Leibinger’s Summer House.  

‘It would have taken a long time to methodically check the model without HoloLens technology. Importantly, using mixed reality technology encouraged greater clarity of communication in the design review process on an extremely complex design,’ says AECOM’s optimisation manager, Samuel Adams.

Michael Willoughby is a writer who specialises in the construction industry.

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