Getting Real With Augmented Reality

New technologies that blend digital information with real life will change how cities communicate with the public. 

Airports that alert travelers when to leave for a flight to minimize wait time. City maintenance departments that use crowdsourcing to create work orders for road and streetlight repairs. These are two of the countless ways that smart cities can use intelligent infrastructure to make the world a more user-friendly place. And with the help of augmented reality (AR) technologies, it’s all closer than you might think.

Augmented reality: What is it?

AR offers a more innovative way of looking at reality by placing digital information over an image or map that's being viewed on a device. Think of a mobile device with apps that use GPS technology to identify user location. By adding a layer of projected digital information to our real-life experiences, these new technologies shift our attention from the screens in our hands to the world around us. Think of AR as a computer’s way of communicating with gestures.

Why are smart cities interested in AR?

The addition of sensors and internet connectivity to everything from airports to bus stops creates endless opportunities for cities to collect and analyze data that can be of great use to the public, explains Zach Wassenberg, an assistant electrical engineer who works with augmented reality technologies at Burns & McDonnell. 

“The data generated by smart infrastructure is only valuable if a city can communicate it to people when and where they need it, and in a way that is meaningful to them,” Wassenberg says. “AR makes all that possible.”

How does it work?

Consider how AR might transform the humble bus stop. By opening an AR-enabled smart city app on their mobile devices, passengers might someday find a floating image of the next bus’s current schedule. They’ll tap the virtual screen to indicate their destination. 

The app will then notify the public transit computer navigation system about the waiting passenger. Adding this information to other passenger and bus data, the system will update bus schedules and optimize routes systemwide instantly. Drivers will learn of any route changes on their bus’s AR windshield. Back at the bus stop, the passenger will receive a notice of expected wait and travel times. 

“The use of AR not only increases passenger satisfaction but also improves the efficiency of the city’s public transportation system,” Wassenberg says.

How else might a city use AR?

Once its population is enabled with AR smartphones and apps, a smart city has endless ways to create a digitized future. Smart windshields can be designed to display a driver’s best route to work each day. Tourists can tap into an AR app that serves as a virtual walking tour guide, complete with menus of the restaurants they pass by on their route. And that’s just the beginning.

When will this happen?

It already is. Denver, Colorado, is implementing systems with the potential to route semis away from high-volume traffic. Columbus, Ohio, is looking at ways to allow emergency vehicles to interact with traffic signals to increase safety and reduce response time.

“Cities already are collecting data,” Wassenberg says. “The challenge is in creating the public-private partnerships with groups that have much to gain from everything smart city technology has
to offer.”

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Zach Wassenberg Assistant Electrical Engineer 816-844-4476
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