Industry Thought Leadership

AR and VR Use Cases in Smart Cities

December, 2019
Rohit Sethi

Arthur D. Little

More cities are going ‘Smart’ with the intent to leverage the significant benefits that new technological advancements promise to offer towards transforming the way we live, work and recreate in the years to come, by enhancing our interaction with data and technology as never before. These technologies can also play a strong role in addressing issues that are more adversely impacting the urban areas globally. Increasing population density in the urban cities leads to growing concerns around safety, security and holistic wellbeing of individuals, and is becoming a top priority in the policymaker’s agenda. Smart Cities are better geared towards addressing these problems through a combination of data and technology, ensuring a positive impact on the local community and the overall environment. Given the increased availability of affordable smartphones and other IoT devices as well as reliable broadband connectivity, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) have emerged as key technologies that would enable unlocking of new opportunities in the vibrant Smart City ecosystem.

AR, where data interacts with the real environment, enables over-laying enhancements such as graphs, sound, text and effects to improve user’s real-world experiences. While AR interacts with the real environment, VR is a simulated experience that can be similar or completely different from the real world. The power of VR lies in allowing a user to experience and interact in an artificial environment as if it were real. The combination of Smart devices and infrastructure with advanced AR/VR systems will allow users living in or even visiting Smart Cities, to make more optimal choices towards an enhanced standard of living/ experience.

Governmental entities, enterprises and individuals can leverage AR and VR to carry out their functions more efficiently and with an improved user experience. Most advanced uses cases built upon these technologies in the Smart City ecosystem include the following:

Urban planning: Cities are now having higher constraints than ever before in terms of space, mobility, privacy, security and sustainability. Supported by VR technology, Smart City planners and developers can effectively assess whether urban planning models would fit the existing infrastructure, and have a better understanding of what to build and where. Additionally, VR could also involve stakeholders such as residents or investors in the decision-making process, giving them an opportunity to provide feedback as to how cities could be better transformed and developed. For example, in 2016, MIT collaborated with the City of Hamburg to model potential locations for refugee accommodations. Using optically-tagged LEGO bricks, simulation algorithms, and AR to model potential locations for refugee accommodation, local leaders and community members participated in this process, identifying 160 potential locations and finally building 10, successfully avoiding social opposition that these kinds of projects typically entail.

Emergency management & policing: Equipment and gadgets enhanced with AR technology can provide relevant information on the environment, improving the decision-making of police and emergency teams in critical situations. For example, AR could allow having access to 3D models of locations where an emergency is occurring, or provide information of previous or simultaneous events in real time. In addition, AR combined with object recognition, particularly face recognition, can help authorities to identify suspicious behavior and prevent crimes in their early stages. As futuristic as this may seem, Beijing-based AR company Xloong has created Smart glasses already used by the Chinese police, giving them access to real time facial, identification card and vehicle plate information that are linked with a national database. In addition, VR can immerse police officers into virtual training experiences, placing them into threat situations in a secure simulated environment. Exposing them to real life high-stakes situations and allowing them to deal with these in a controlled environment enhances officer effectiveness during actual crises. Without VR, providing such real life trainings would be both expensive and time-consuming.

Education & training: VR is ideally positioned to support enterprises and educational institutions in providing innovative and effective learning, overcoming the typical space and time constraints of urban cities as well as the potential risks associated with learning directly from real life situations. With the capacity to recreate real life experiences with a high level of detail, AR and VR could revolutionize training for students and professionals in many fields, for example, performance support in critical positions such as medical surgery or heavy machinery operation. Additionally, AR and VR will anyways enhance traditional learning with real time updated interactive content and exercises across the board.

Culture & tourism: AR can also transform the experience of visitors to a Smart City. Solutions such as AR real time translators or AR-enhanced visits to key tourist attractions providing additional historical/ cultural information to landmarks, can be leveraged by local businesses to improve customer experience and promote their services. In France, local entrepreneurs supported by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication have developed Culture Click, a mobile app that uses AR to discover geolocated works of art in high definition, to access French museums’ information and to discover cultural events across cities.

Navigation: Navigation apps are already a tool of prime importance for urban commuters, recommending optimized routes and real time information about traffic events. However, current solutions are frequently unclear and inconvenient especially for drivers. Creating an AR layer for navigation that adds relevant content on top of the image captured by the camera of a smartphone, can significantly improve user experience and overall journey safety. In August 2019, Google Maps launched an AR mode for iOS and Android with new capabilities to its popular Navigation app.

Medical services: In addition to constantly enhancing the standard of living, Smart Cities also focus on improving individual mental health and overall well-being. AR applied to the healthcare sector can improve therapeutic methods as well as reduce customer discomfort. The technology can be used to evaluate the results of cosmetic surgery such as facial reconstruction, giving both the patient and the doctor the ability to see the results before the operation. Moreover, VR’s ability to reproduce real life environments can be quite helpful in the treatment of mental health illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While it is evident that significant value can be created by deployment of the above indicated use cases, a collaborative and cohesive effort is required across multiple stakeholders at the city level including governmental entities, corporates and local user communities, in order to ensure effective implementation of the use cases. Additionally, while the technology to enable most of the above is already available, it is imperative that each city prioritizes use cases specific to its unique context and requirement, to optimize on the cost of as well as on the value realized from such deployment. Adequate levels of safety and privacy/ security must also be critical considerations into the strategy and implementation for AR/VR use cases. As with any other connected technology, AR is vulnerable to security threats and unauthorized access by hacker attacks and malware. These attacks can result in a denial of service or overlay of wrong information, potentially even leading to severe, catastrophic consequences. Devising ways to preserve personal privacy with mass propagation of AR will also be a challenge required to be addressed. Successful overcoming the above challenges on an ongoing basis, as more and more innovative/ encompassing use cases emerge, Smart Cities would be able to realize the immense value that AR/VR technologies can unlock for everyone.