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    Six Augmented Reality (AR) products that could change the way we design and build

    Geraldine Chua

    ‘Augmented’ and ‘reality’, put together in that order, are two words you’ve probably heard a lot of, and will continue hearing in the coming years. Commonly known as AR, augmented reality refers to technology that duplicate real-world environments while augmenting (rather than replacing) a user’s view of their physical surroundings with computer-generated sensory input, such as video, graphics, sound and even GPS data.

    AR innovations are in no way new – the term AR was first coined by researcher Tom Caudell in the 1990s – but in recent times have been increasingly adopted by a myriad of industries, including music, retail, games (like Google’s ‘Ingress’), and even racing (Jaguar revealed a new virtual windscreen concept in 2014 ) and print media.

    But while realistic computer-generated renders are now a go-to weapon in every architect’s arsenal, AR has yet to catch on, despite its potential in the design and construction sectors. For instance, the technology can be used to aid in the visualisation of projects, with proposed full-scale models of an unbuilt structure superimposed into a real life view of a site. According to Sydney based architect Rana Abboud, this enhances the design experience .

    “Applications [of mobile AR, or MAR] may inform the design process by bringing greater contextual awareness during design review, and may communicate architectural narrative,” says Abboud.

    In construction, MAR applications may also geo-locate BIM data directly on the construction site to aid in site set-out.

    “Task support applications may guide users through complex assembly procedures, and MAR applications for real-time field reporting can allow the direct geo-tagging of elements while on site,” Abboud adds. Uses may also extend to site navigation and way-finding, in post-completion for facilities management, and maintenance tasks.

    AR may also be used by city planners in a wide range of scenarios. An often cited example is the Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand. In the aftermath of the disaster, planners and engineers were able to visualise which buildings were destroyed and gauge the level of devastation with the help of the University of Canterbury’s CityViewAR app.

    This idea was replicated and tweaked for an app the University of Newcastle released in 2012 (pictured left), which allowed users walking through the city’s streets to view images of buildings that no longer exist .

    While the uptake of AR within the industry, particularly in Australia, remains slow, with Abboud attributing this inertia to a number of elements such as technological challenges and financial constraints, there is no shortage of augmented reality tools being developed. 

    Here are five cool products that could change the way you design and manage a project:

    ‘Augmented 3D printing’ by Inition

    3D technology company Inition’s AR iPad app allows static, physical architectural models to come to ‘life’, complete with visualisations on wind flows around the design, internal floorplans and systems, and geographical location. This was first showcased in a collaboration with Zaha Hadid Architects.

    In the project, Inition first 3D printed a scale model of The Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum by Zaha Hadid. They then developed several layers to the model so that, when viewed with an iPad, would overlay the physical model with graphics.

    The visual experience is made seamless by a marker (a patterned mat) that the model is positioned on, which allows the iPad to keep track of the model as the user moves around.

    “We believe this to be the first time these technologies have been combined in this way and could be particularly useful for architects when reviewing their designs or presenting to clients,” said Inition.

    FlexSense by Microsoft

    Microsoft’s research division unveiled a prototype for a smart surface that essentially acts as a transparent digital piece of paper last year. Named FlexSense, the new input surface technology is based on printed piezoelectric sensors that detect deformations of the plastic sheet, and translate it to software without the need for cameras or external tracking.

    In simpler words, users can place FlexSense on top of a tablet and work on a digital architectural rendering, and peel back the image they are editing to reveal the original picture underneath.

    Skip to 2:00 for potential applications.

    FlexSense remains a research project, and there is no indication yet when or if it will be manufactured.

    ARki by Dark Design

    Image: ARki

    ARki is another service for real-time AR visualisation of architectural models. It overlays 3D models onto existing 2D floor plans, but goes further by incorporating several interactive functionalities such as real-time shadow analysis and material selection.

    Custom applications are created for each project by incorporating existing 3D models using standard file formats such as .fbx, .3ds, and .obj. These models are rendered in real-time, allowing materials and lighting to be defined within ARki at runtime.

    By viewing models in AR, ARki also provides the option of capturing and recording custom views of models in both movie and 2D still format. Users can then save or share their recorded visualisations via email or social media. 

    Dulux Visualizer by AkzoNobel

    “Picture it before you paint it” is the idea behind AkzoNobel’s new app, Dulux Visualizer. Developed by String for use on interior walls, the free app gives consumers the ability to re-visualise and colour their walls as they move from room to room with a mobile device.

    Apart from allowing users to choose, store and view colours and colour schemes, as well as save screenshots to be shared with friends, the app shows Dulux stores that are located near to a user. Consumers can also order paint testers and stock online through the app. 


    Innovation Design Engineering students at the Royal College of Art, London, are in the process of manufacturing Gravity, a pen and pad that allows 3D objects to be drawn in mid-air. The pad is used as a 3D plane that can be rotated to sketch new facets of an object, while AR glasses allow your creations to be revealed in front of you. 

    Bonus: Google Glass

    Even though the product has so far failed to impress, we couldn’t leave out Google Glass, a voice and touchpad controlled computer than you can basically see through. Displaying information in a smartphone-like, hands free format, it can be controlled using a touchpad or voice commands, such as “take a picture” or even “Google, give me directions to the Sydney Opera House”.

    Despite not yet taking off, and with no plans yet for a general consumer release, Google Glass does shed light on the potential future similar but improved products could have for the construction sector – it is hands free, creates better communication channels, and makes the capturing and sending of images and videos easy. Equipment World also points out that Google Glass allows workers to access plans, safety documents and even machine or tool instructions without having to drop what they’re doing.

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