May 18, 2016

Augmented Reality combines digital elements with the real world. If you’re familiar with Google Glass you probably have a handle on the concept. Or you might find yourself thinking of a scene from one of the Terminator films.

Like virtual reality and artificial intelligence, augmented reality promises to be a massively impactful technology for mainstream culture in the developed world and beyond.

Many are (reasonably) concerned that this will amount to a further disconnect from the natural world. For many it likely will.

However I would argue that these tools, if used wisely, can be powerful and transformative in positive ways as well. One example is how they might affect how we design our lives and the spaces that we occupy.

Check out this short demo of an augmented reality program used for interior design:

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It’s easy to imagine how this could play out for designing other types of things such as products, buildings, landscapes, communities and cities.

It’s worthwhile to note that the technology is still in its infancy. Developers are currently working on new ideas such as embedding it into contact lenses.

Let’s think for a moment what it might be like to look out at your backyard and experiment with different arrangements of trees, ponds, gardens, etc. Programs could be built to provide automated feedback on selections based on soil type, climate, or proximity to other elements.

Maybe it is connected to a network of seed or seedling providers that you can order from based on your location. Lot’s of possibilities.

One advantage relates to an important aspect of modern design – creating cycles of rapid prototypes that can be shared and that generate feedback. Virtual communities can be created that support designers by sharing ideas and perspectives.

Related is the way this is affecting design education (or even broader, the role of design in education).

A recent study conducted with students in a university sustainable design program compared the process of redesigning a building wall with paper vs designing with an augmented reality app.

The results are interesting, showing that students who completed the design activity using the app:

  • all completed multiple design iterations in the designated time (compared to 17 and 30% using paper).
  • were able to consider between 8 and 10 times more design iterations than those using paper.
  • considered using close to 3 times as many materials.
  • felt less rushed and enjoyed the activity more.

It’s worth mentioning too that the app was brand new for all participants, so we can imagine these numbers would only increase as they moved through the learning curve.

The big challenge with these new technologies will be in creating a sense of balance. As they get better and better, so does that challenge.

And whether we want them to or not, they are not only coming – they are already here. I tend to agree with thinkers like Noam Chomsky who see technology as neutral. A tool like any other, as valuable as the ways in which it is used.

Can these new tools be used to connect us to our environment rather than separate us from it? That depends on how we decide to embrace them.