As with almost any industry or profession that deals with the built environment, architecture stands to benefit immensely from advances in augmented reality (AR) technologies.

AR technology involves enhancing or “augmenting” a user’s interactions with the physical world by overlaying digital information on top of what he or she perceives via an audio-visual interface.

The interfaces can assume an extremely broad range of forms, invariably those that are portable or even wearable for reasons of convenience.

These include handheld devices such as tablet computers or smart phones, as well as more specialized, wearable interfaces designed specifically to suit the purposes of augmented reality, such as head-mounted displays and smart glasses.

Thomas West

Thomas West

“A myriad of futuristic AR and VR enabled devices are entering the market beyond the standard smartphone and tablet – Oculus Rift, Epson, MoverIO, Samsung Gear and Google Glass to name a few,” said Thomas West, managing director of Australian AR provider Sydney Interactive.  “For $3 Google Cardboard can transform almost any smartphone into a wearable VR headset.

“While still fledgling technologies they are showing much promise in bridging imagination with reality.”

According to Rene Van Meeuwen, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Western Australia, the rapid pace of technological advances in the field promises to soon transform AR into a paradigm-defining tool for the architecture profession.

“Our studio is finding the sheer developments in the technology incredibly difficult to keep up with,” said Van Meeuwen. “That being said our latest generation apps are extremely high definition compared to last year’s apps. If these levels of definition increase over the long term, we could see aspects of architecture proliferate all together and remain only in augmented form.”

Irrespective of the platforms or interfaces used to bring AR to users, the benefits of the new technology for the architecture profession are demonstrable.

Rene Van Meeuwen

Rene Van Meeuwen

The most obvious advantage of AR for architects lies in the area of design visualisation – particularly when it comes to communicating concepts and ideas to clients, permitting users to interact with a full-scale virtual model overlaid upon its physical context in reality.

“AR can help improve the client feedback process in fulfilling a design brief,” said West. “Giving clients the ability to interact with architectural models in real time 3D and explore them from all angles can better communicate a design and its application.

“Holding up an iPad for example, clients can experience virtual ‘walk-throughs’ to better understand depth, dimension and scale.”

Sydney-based architect Rana Abboud notes that AR can serve as an especially powerful tool for communicating design ideas to stakeholders from outside the architecture or construction industries.

“AR can help architects deliver presentation briefs to clients in a more intuitive manner than traditional two dimensional plans, sections and elevation drawings,” said Abboud. “Those from backgrounds outside the construction industry often struggle to decode technical planning documents, or interpret 2-dimensional drawings to understand their 3D meaning.

“AR can bypass this ‘coding’ and ‘translation’ model of spatial communication, and – by allowing users to directly ‘see’ a design at full scale, on site – can more naturally convey the intended appearance, scale and features of a proposed design to clients.”

In addition to helping communicate design concepts to clients, West notes AR has particularly strong benefits for the design process when it comes to more complex or challenging briefs.

“In working with complex data such as underground installations, interior design and abstract models, AR can help visualise hidden features and ‘peel’ away layers to understand inner workings,” he said.

There are also practical advantages to AR for architects during the design process itself.

“AR’s most familiar use in architecture is in overlaying a real site with an intended virtual design at full-scale, so most people tend to associate AR only with design visualization,” said Abboud. “But AR has the potential to offer a range of other benefits to the architectural design process.

“If core systems and processes are in place, users can through AR help others gain an understanding of the scale of different components, and perform clash detection using virtual elements within real world environments.”

Image of AR used to visualise underground pipes

AR used to visualise underground pipes

AR could even permit the design process to migrate from the architecture studio to the building site itself.

“As the technology develops, future AR applications may also enable designers to not only visualise their developing designs, but also to carry out design analyses and develop their designs directly while on site,” Abboud said.