Mobile augmented reality: The urban experience we have been waiting for

The way we interact with our cities has changed dramatically over the decades. Walking, and watching, were my early memories. My grandmother would take us into the city on special occasions. Holding her hand walking through a bustling Queen Street Mall in Brisbane are still etched in my memory.

Thirty plus years later, it’s almost a daily ritual that I sit drinking coffee somewhere along the mall, observing life, while tapping on the laptop. (Thank you Brisbane City Council for the free public WiFi).

But in October I stumbled across something intriguing. A piece of Brisbane Festival marketing that asked me to ‘scan for an AR experience’. Yeh baby! Here we go, mobile AR (Augmented Reality) hitting the streets, for the broader community to experience. 

After a quick app download, the Brisbane Festival signage in King George Square came alive when my iPhone camera was directed toward it. My screen was lit up with information, videos, links and options to explore their program.

And then just recently, when sitting in the reception area of Panuku Development in Auckland, New Zealand, I was prompted to view the large wall mural of project locations through a tablet. And again, an AR experience was fired-up that allowed me to interact with their projects. Way more engaging than thumbing through a corporate brochure on the coffee table.

So, don’t look now, but here comes mobile AR, and it’s going to be awesome.

Well, at least in how we experience the city, how we access information, how we manage our city’s assets, and how we deliver services to the community. Just to name a few.

To help me dig further into the world of mobile AR, and what it means for government, I spoke with one of our partners, CivicConnect, who have been pioneering a mobile AR platform now being deployed to support data and information overlays, wayfinding, virtual teleportation and a range of asset management and economic development applications.

Here are some pointed notes from my discussion with Greg Curtin, the company’s Founder and CEO, on what mobile AR means for cities.

Q: Greg, give me the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of mobile AR, and what it means to your organisation?

A: Our mission at CivicConnect is to be the connective tissue for smart cities, focussed at facilitating data management, via mobile augmented reality and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Mobile AR is a new way people can interact with cities, and it’s a game changer. Our belief at CivicConnect is that there is a new way to experience the city, its assets and services. And this new experience is mobile, augmented, immersive, and visceral.

And our smartphones, which most of the world’s population have in their back pocket, is the tool for unleashing this new urban experience.

Q. You say it unleashes new experiences, what might this look like?

For state and local government, we see at least two areas of most interest and relevance for mobile AR, that can help them transform their business, and create new and unique revenue streams.

Firstly, we believe urban mobility and transportation services are set to transform. We can now experience (in augmented reality) wayfinding, rather than just read it on a board, or on an app. From bus stations to bike docks, the way we find them and experience them is changing, all by looking through our smartphone screen.

We call it augmented way finding, where commuters and citizens alike experience what was once static – transit routes, GIS, transportation assets, bike paths – all experienced in an immersive and interactive environment.

Essentially, we can now move through an augmented urban mobility experience. But what’s also exciting is that mobile AR is igniting a real-time transit planning revolution.

The other exciting application of mobile AR is in the area of municipal asset information – the physical things local government looks after – from street trees and street lights to manhole covers. If it’s in an asset register, and geolocated, we can unleash that information in real-time, in a mobile immersive environment.

Go out onto the sidewalk, hold your phone up, activate the app, and look down the street. An array of geolocated assets pop-up. Then tap on the screen to find out more. That's the new asset register of the smart city. The humble site inspection, as we know it, with the team huddled around a services plan, will never be the same.

Q: It’s an impressive pitch, but what’s the ETA on mobile AR coming to the average city near you?

A: The iPhone 8 and 10 are already AR enabled, and AR developer kits have been deployed. We are seeing more and more smart cities data sets becoming AR enabled.

We are seeing planning and urban decision-making processes being reinvented as we speak, triggered by the onset and availability of more real-time granular data. Mobile AR will be part of this planning and infrastructure management transformation.

I strongly believe that a new world of resilience can be facilitated through mobile AR, helping cities make better, real-time decisions that result in more sustainable outcomes for our communities.

And I suppose finally, to answer your question about how far away this is, I can share that CivicConnect is part of a global consortia that is deploying full city/region-wide smart cities platforms including mobile AR  around the world. This involves us working with the City via a PPP (Public Private Partnership) arrangement, with the consortia funding the deployment (to the tune of a miniumum$150M). Then, over a 10-30 year period, we use the AR and underlying AI to generate data and new revenues, and actually create new markets for the city.

And the key eligibility requirement for this arrangement - a commitment from the City to use it and be entrepreneurial, and be creative in its ability to generate new revenue.

 

So, what are we thinking at SCCANZ?

Well, it’s clear that applications of mobile AR are becoming more prolific in the way we are engaging the community. We are excited about the potential for accelerating sustainability outcomes by using this new smart cities tool, and look forward to see how our government and industry stakeholders in Australia and New Zealand embrace this opportunity.

We are building a smart cities movement. Join us.