Double vision – seeing the world through smartglasses

10 June, 2020

Nearly one in five practices now make extensive use of VR (19 per cent) compared to just over one on ten for AR according to a new survey of UK practices’s use of technology. This is because VR, which has the  ability to transport the viewer into an entirely different world, is ideally suited to exploring un-built space.

But the problem remains that VR headsets are isolating. By replacing VR’s opaque displays with transparent ‘smart glasses’, AR allows users to maintain a connection with those around them and ‘share a vision’.

Interest in smartglasses has been piqued recently with news that Apple is close to launching the affordable Apple Glass aimed at the consumer market. As reported by Wired, the glasses will display heads-up information, with gesture controls with processing taking place on the iPhone.

By contrast, the likes of Magic Leap, backed by Google, and Microsoft’s HoloLens are professional headsets. They differ from smartglasses in that their greater bulk can accommodate the array of cameras, sensors and processors necessary for designing immersively.

In this way, AR software like ‘VIM’ on the Magic Leap platform takes BIM collaboration to the next level. However, currently the battery life only lasts a few hours, and the displays aren’t yet sharp enough to replace the traditional desktop monitor.

For architects, the potential to remotely review a model with collaborators using their own personal smartglasses is compelling but beyond the studio, AR is already proving to have great potential within construction.

Headsets like the HoloLens can be used on-site to guide the hands of the contractor. Australian company Fologram have demonstrated how relatively unskilled labour can be enabled to lay complex brickwork just by following the virtual guides in front of their eyes, without the need to interpret detailed drawings or establish complex setting out.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, RIBA Stage 7 ‘In Use’ is where we’ll see the mass impact of AR into AEC. Real-world spaces are increasingly spawning counterpart ‘digital twins’ in the virtual world, teeming with data, whether that’s a visualisation of the BMS, or more public services like virtual signage, wayfinding and branding. And that’s where ubiquitous smartglasses could come into their own and allow us to tailor or customise our own built environment experince.

For example, with AR’s ability to drape a computer-generated ‘look and feel’ over the real world, we could each tailor our surroundings to our own individual tastes – AR as a customisable ‘skin’ on reality. While one person wearing smartglasses might walk down the street and choose to map a Victorian Gothic look over the existing built fabric, someone else could be simultaneously wandering through a parametric dream world.

We could also use AR to virtually ‘aestheticise’ the austere ‘flexible sheds’ that might be all we can afford to construct given the new climate imperative and the financial fallout from Coivd-19.

And AR also offers another tantalising prospect. If we could shunt all the ephemera of modern life -advertising, signage, decoration- onto a digital layer, there exists the possibility we could – just by removing our smartglasses – turn it all off.

Oliver Salway is a founder of Softroom, an architecture and design consultancy that has created virtual environments for clients including the BBC and Wallpaper. He is a judge for Best Use of Immersive Technology, one of the new categories in the Archiboo Awards which launch in June 2020.