A feature for the April 2019 issue of ICON 190 that explores the impact of VR and AR technology on the future of cities, collective identity and urban design.
Picture the following: It’s 2022 and you’re walking along the riverbank of a global city. A siege of construction cranes dots the horizon; the old city is peppered with a handful of glossy high-rises while others remain invisible—but not for long. With a flick of the wrist or tilt of the head, a fantastical scene materializes from thin air as dozens of skyscrapers fill the void in front of you. A live-update data cloud surrounds each one, laying out in plain sight its expected completion date, total cost of construction, plus the developers, architects, and principal investors of the project.
This is the future utopia of urban development with Extended Reality (XR) technology. But how great is the lag time between this ideal and our present computing power, and with the inevitable monopolization of digital space by large corporations, is a truly democratic digital commons ever really achievable? Could XR actually enable a deeper connection with our cities, ourselves, and each other, or is it doomed to become just another tool to harvest capital?
It depends on who you ask, and to what ends they’re using it. “In two to three years,” says Tomislav Žigo, President of Virtual Design and Construction for Clayco, “our technology will be glitch-free.” Founded in 1984, the Chicago-based global construction and engineering firm has always had a knack for innovation, from being among the first to use full-room computer servers, to the cloud-based construction site it is pioneering today.
At the building site of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s future research facility in St Louis, Missouri, workers strap on Augmented Reality (AR) headsets to bypass the cumbersome use of blueprints. Using a combination of CAD renderings and laser projections visualised by the Microsoft HoloLens, workers can see where future walls and stairs will go and determine if any leveling needs to be made mid-construction. “Imagine someone has eyesight that immediately identifies any building contours,” says Žigo. “This technology is like a superhuman power that enables unimaginable savings.”
A similar “superpower” is entering the training stores of American phone giant Sprint, whose 20,000 new employees brought in annually no longer require human interaction before taking the floor. “Sprint wants to make training quick, memorable, and fun,” explains Jamie Fleming, the CEO of the digital production agency Studio 216. “And when people use muscle memory while learning new tasks, they retain information better.” Using their Hololens-compatible mixed reality software, Altoura, Studio 216 created a “digital twin” of a Sprint retail store populated by avatar customers in order to teach retail staff good customer service skills.
In addition to simulated training facilities, Studio 216 creates bespoke renderings and walkable worlds where retailers can design their boutique stores or prospective tenants can admire the views from their top-floor penthouse office before the copper-clad display cases are manufactured or the site is ever broken. In 2017, Studio 216 worked with the development company Skanska to create a virtual leasing center for an elevated 38-story office tower in downtown Seattle. In addition to 650,000 square feet of office space, the chief selling point of this development is a 24,000 square foot outdoor “urban village” at the base of the high-rise that offers cultural activities, dining, and retail activities to the public.
“Skanska’s brokers were looking for an innovative way to tell the building’s story and get people to see how incredible it would be,” says Fleming. “So they commissioned us to design a mixed-reality (MR) experience to attract people to the project.” A key selling point of MR is the ability for multiple clients (and brokers) to use the technology simultaneously and even interact within that hybrid virtual-real world environment, suggests Fleming. “Your mind fills in missing data and you forget that you’re seeing a screen in front of you, so it feels much more immersive.”
But can this new technology break out of its predominantly profit-driven trajectory? Studio 216’s immersive visual environment for Skanska’s public plaza is an opportunity for AR/MR to better inform the public about planned developments and their future impact on urban space. But so far, this experience remains limited to affluent investors and those already involved in the tech community, attests Nat Martin, co-founder of LITHO, an innovative AR device comprised of a ring controller and its own user interface that proposes an alternative to the headset industry standard.
Limited public access to AR environments is not just a financial issue, he explains, but extends into questions of authorship and ownership. Who has the right to control and disseminate information in mixed virtual-physical space, and who has the right to view it, has yet to be determined. Because AR behaves as an extra layer of information superimposed on the real world, this technology remains bound to pre-existing regulations governing physical space. “While augmented and mixed realities have the potential to take tech in a less depressing direction,” Martin suggests, “They don’t change the operating logic of digital space, or the problems of digital ownership.”
In fact, the so-called “digital-physical” landrush of augmented reality has already begun. Google Maps, Uber, and other leaders of the emerging digital mapping economy are utilizing autonomous cars to gather 3D scans of the world, producing a mesh of space that maps perfectly onto the physical world. Eventually, this mesh will reach a universal standard, and from there, other platforms will unfold—the AR cloud, AR internet, and AR Wikipedia (already in beta phase by Apple), says Martin. Seen through this lens, the “digital twin” analogy for AR offered by Studio 216 is not such a fantastical concept.
But for AR to take on a truly democratic, open-access role (such as the urban development mapper proposed in the beginning of this article), digital-physical space would need to be owned by everyone, explains Martin. “Right now, the only companies with facilities to stake out a claim in the digital mapping economy are tech giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google—and it will probably be them eventually owning that space.”
Turns out, this might not be such a bad thing. Apple has already standardized some AR formats, and is currently developing a Wikipedia-style augmented reality where anyone can place information anywhere. Sensing the potential profit at stake, tech giants are also lending business support to startups taking more radical approaches to this technology. Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt has vocalised support of RNDR, a blockchain-based rendering platform that intends to democratize AR by bringing it onto the blockchain. By creating the world’s largest distributed peer-to-peer network of Graphics Processing Units, RNDR has developed an ultra-efficient network able to meet the needs of the virtual and mixed reality sector—which is expected to become a $692 billion dollar industry by 2025.
Moving beyond the money, Martin believes AR’s inherent qualities as a a “beautiful, trippy, and fundamentally social piece of technology” make it particularly well suited to popular taste. “What makes something viral is its ability to be consumed all the time, which is a double-edged sword,” he cautions. For Martin, the Pokemon Go craze was the first real instance to reveal the mass appeal and potential pitfalls of such forays into digital-physical space. The highly popular smartphone game worked by overlaying reality with a digital critter safari.
In their quest to catch them all, players walked into cars and organized crime zones. But it also empowered players with social anxiety and depression to leave their homes for the first time in weeks and experience reality in a different light. “Multiplayer XR gets people out and creates a better, more interactive community,” suggests Martin. But this technology can be dangerous precisely because it is so lifelike, cautions Martin; it can distract us as much as it enhances our experience of the world.
Unfortunately, the majority of these critical concerns about XR technologies get sidelined by profit margins. “As soon as you enter the startup ecosystem, it’s hard to maintain any of these philosophical values,” laments Martin, who graduated two years ago from the RCA and has experienced this shift in value first hand. Even from the outside, the overwhelming homogeneity of clients and services and the corporate aesthetic permeating XR architecture comes with bleak implications.
It remains up to those less tied to the system, such as architect-turned-artist Lawrence Lek, to critique the direction XR urbanism is headed. In Lek’s Nøtel, conceived in collaboration with Kode9, viewers can experience a fully automated luxury hotel in virtual reality. The sprawling O-shaped building riffs off more archaic themes of spiritual completion as well as contemporary classics like the eerily perfect Foster-designed Apple Park. It contains a world manned by drones, where humans are made essentially redundant, and leisure becomes a full-time lifestyle.
Recent iterations of the project at Arebyte in London City Island and Stoom Den Hag in The Hague have seen the gallery transformed into a hyper-local marketing suite for the speculative company. By combining the hyper-stimulated experience of VR with a level of self-awareness typically omitted from corporate developers’ uncannily similar aesthetic, Nøtel uncovers a haunting near-future alter-reality with stark implications about the future use of this technology, and the situations it could put us in when rendering becomes real.
Ironically, it’s virtual reality—commonly derided by those in the tech industry as the most primitive and isolating of XR systems—that’s currently most able to make a difference. Easily the most advanced of the three, VR is also the most affordable: a good headset costs a few hundred pounds. Perhaps it is due to VR’s total separation from reality that it has such a transformative potential. Far from serving as a tool for escapism, VR is currently being adopted in mental health support as well as trauma therapy initiatives led by the NHS.
In the summer of 2018, a year after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the NHS established the Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service in order to offer mental health support to the survivors, bereaved and the affected community. Through curbside VR demonstrations, the NHS discovered that Grenfell locals who engaged with the VR exercise were more receptive toward referrals for future mental health support. Similarly, following a VR experience at a community event, victims were more comfortable sharing what they knew, saw or felt about the fire.
With depression and anxiety diagnoses rising steadily in cities worldwide, this technology’s ability to improve mental health resources in future urban environments cannot be overstated. And while XR is largely still a niche xfield, it carries enough weight to seriously question the political, economic, and social forces governing our present reality as it gradually enters mainstream society.
With the arrival of the new digital-physical frontier of mixed reality, we will have a chance to remap the operational superstructures anchoring society today. But navigating our future extended realities is not as simple as strapping on a pair of goggles (or twiddling a ring) and diving in. “We are battling 100,000 years of human evolution and our senses by reprogramming our way of using reality,” cautions Žigo. “That can’t just happen overnight.” Only by acknowledging the pitfalls of this technology while seeking out its revolutionary potential, will we be able to develop a XR future that improves reality instead of running from it.