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What Pokemon Go can teach us about the future of architecture: Part 2

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

AR, Augmented Reality, design, innovation, Pokemon, Pokemon Go future of architecture
In our last post we discussed how, for the first time for many people, Pokemon Go introduced an augmented reality (AR) that is both mobile and interactive, seamlessly integrating digital elements with our physical surroundings. We also posited that as this technology progresses, AR will have a profound effect on the practice of architecture, both on the buildings we design and the tools and methods we use to design them. For this post, we’d like to share a few ideas from these two realms.

But first, imagine augmented reality has made the leap from the screens of our phones and TVs to wearable devices like Google’s Glass, Microsoft’s HoloLens, or the yet-to-be-released device from secretive startup Magic Leap rumored to project digital images directly onto our retinas. Imagine also that AR has advanced beyond Pokemon Go’s implementation. Instead of digital images simply being overlaid onto a video feed, imagine software that can intelligently parse what you are physically seeing and project the digital images in accordance with real-world physics. For instance, a digital Pokemon seen on a real table would appear to maintain its position, perspective, and size as you move toward and around it. It might then appear to hop off the table, land on the floor, and run through an open doorway until it disappears behind a wall. For all intents and purposes, it would feel as if it was actually there. When AR reaches this level of maturity, the following ideas may be possible.

How buildings themselves may be different
When AR wearables are as ubiquitous as smartphones and we can add new interactive, digital elements to buildings with the equivalent of an app update, what will that mean for physical components? In general, buildings may become blank slates, backdrops for the unlimited possibilities afforded by software. The artwork on the walls could be digital representations of priceless paintings, recent vacation photos, or your child’s latest drawings. Everything from A/V equipment to thermostats to light switches could potentially be replaced by an infinitely-more-flexible digital counterpart. Even more broadly, as these digital representations move out of the uncanny valley, the color and finish of all floors, walls, and surfaces could be digitally superimposed, customized by every occupant, and changeable with the tides of fashion.

Moving beyond the superficial, AR is capable of making remote interactions feel like they are occurring in-person. In the same way we can see and interact with a Pokemon that’s not really there, so can we with another person. In a healthcare context, this should help facilitate the telehealth consultations already happening today. Dedicated remote consultation rooms may replace some exam rooms. The practice of medicine and surgery may change, too. Critical vitals currently residing on screens could be projected exactly where and when surgeons need to see them. Less equipment in operating rooms could lead to new configurations. Surgeons may also be able to see how sanitary their equipment is. Clean clamps and scalpels might have a white aura to them but develop green spots when compromised. Medications that shouldn’t be mixed might glow red in each other’s presence. The ability to see this “metadata” for real objects will likely lead to new workflows and layouts.

In education, remote classrooms like Harvard Business School’s HBX Live! designed by Shepley Bulfinch in 2015 will evolve and become more commonplace. Conversely, when students actually attend lectures in person, the classrooms may not look like anything we have today. When we can conjure up three-dimensional, annotated models of an engine or a human brain or anything else, will professors still use slideshows? Classrooms for lecture-style content may come to resemble roundtables where a professor stands with an interactive digital projection in the middle of a circle of students, showing a concept in action as it is being taught.

How we practice architecture may be different
In the same way more natural-feeling remote interactions will change healthcare and education, so too will it change the practice of architecture. Remote collaboration will be much more effective and getting the right person “in the room” will be easier than ever.

Creating architectural drawings may feel much more natural when you can “draw” directly on the surface of your desk and use hand gestures to quickly convert drawings into 3D models. Once you have a virtual 3D model on your desk that you can rotate and zoom in and out of, imagine how different it will feel compared to drawings and models stuck on the two-dimensional screens of today. Later in the process, low-fidelity cardboard mockups augmented with digital additions may obviate the need for high-fidelity mockups. AR may also provide the flexibility to recreate many different simulated events in a room without having to source multitudes of equipment.

These ideas merely scratch the surface of how architecture may change. When people can see things that aren’t really there, supporting information in the context of when it’s needed, and real things that our eyes could never detect (e.g. heat, Wi-Fi strength, or cleanliness), what sort of new behaviors might we have? How will our environments need to change to accommodate these new behaviors? At this early stage, we have more questions than answers. However, here at Shepley Bulfinch we are excited about the future of augmented reality and its impact on architecture. As with all emerging technologies, we will continue to think critically about the new opportunities for creative solutions they pose.

-Brewer Palmer

Brewer Palmer is a Design Strategist at Shepley Bulfinch

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