Augmented reality, or AR, has been called the next big paradigm shift in computing, tantamount to the kind of transformational changes that the internet and the smartphone made in the field. Global technology leaders, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Snapchat and Apple, have all staked significant claims in the AR “digital” land rush. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, has said that “a significant portion of developed countries, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day."
Augmented reality is the interaction of superimposed data, graphics, audio and other sensory enhancements over a real-world environment that is displayed in real time – the world we actually see, the world within which we actually work, the world our citizens navigate every day. (AR should not be confused with virtual reality, which places the user in a created, virtual, world.) The experience of AR is simple, but powerful – it is contextual, visual and even visceral.
How will this “next big thing” impact governments and governance? The concept of AR dates back at least to 1990, when researchers from Boeing coined the term “augmented reality”. Many would argue it goes back further than that. However, the essential elements for AR to flourish in the digital era are only just now starting to line up.
Smart infrastructure and the internet of things. The increasing availability of broadband internet along with the rise of the long awaited internet of things (IoT) have helped to accelerate the roll-out of smart and connected infrastructure across cities, regions and entire countries. Roadways, energy grids, water and sewage systems, public buildings and facilities, communications networks, cars and homes, etc. are becoming “smarter” every day. There are over 6.4 billion connected devices already in 2016. Estimates are five to 10 times that number just in the next four to five years. This smart infrastructure and the massive amount of real-time, geo-specific data it generates provides both the engine and the fuel for AR in the public sector. This is being borne out across the globe as evidenced by the significant “smart city” initiatives and challenges being launched in the EU, India, China, the US and most recently in Canada (Canada has announced a 2017 Smart City Challenge modelled after the 2016 Smart City Challenge initiated in the US).
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Data, data, data. Augmented reality is most valuable in the public sector when it is “lighting up” real data, whether those data are accessible through the open government data initiatives that are rapidly taking hold at every level, being generated by the growing sensor-based networks and smart infrastructure that are spreading across the environment, or capturing the massive amount of unstructured data being created every day by mobile users, the growing formal and informal networks resulting from the sharing economy, and other structured and unstructured data sources. With the combination of smart infrastructure, big data and open data, public sector entities at all levels are able to start stitching together the fabric for smart cities, smart solutions, and connected and cross-platform solutions to actually deliver integrated services and experiences to citizens and allow workers to operate in that kind of environment. AR serves as the visual portal to data across the public and private sectors, adding huge value to prospect of data as true public asset and resource.
Augmented reality technologies. Over the past few years, the core AR software and, most important, the devices that will deliver the augmented reality experiences, have finally begun to mature. They include:
- Handhelds and mobile devices, primarily smartphones and tablets, and built-for-purpose mobile workforce devices
- Head-up displays (HUDs) for windshields, screens, visors
- Head mounted displays (HMDs)
- Glasses, goggles, visors and helmets
- Contact lenses, virtual retina displays
- Spatial displays
- Others in research and development
Augmented reality in practice
There are myriad uses for AR in the broad public sector, and as with any new technological innovation, its potential is limited only by the creativity and ingenuity of its users. The following potential use cases – some of which are already being planned or in the proof of concept stage – provide a cursory overview of the possibilities.
1. E-governance: citizen engagement and e-services
Imagine a world where every government form and application can be accessed, viewed and completed through a variety of AR devices – smartphones, smart glasses, in-office displays and readers – with a full range of accessibility aids (sound, language translations, visual and graphic instructions, etc.). Imagine a world where the very foundations for governance – policy, legal, regulatory documents and frameworks – are transformed into truly “living” documents that can interact with citizens and officials via AR enabled devices. And imagine a world where citizens and businesses can actually “see” through augmented reality what planned public works projects will actually look like – highways, water and energy facilities, public parks, new transit lines and stations, etc – and even interact with the augmented project.
2. Asset management and maintenance
Imagine municipal workforces that are able to efficiently and accurately maintain city assets – from streetlights, cell towers and fire hydrants, to water wells, communal stock and roads – using head-up windshield displays on maintenance vehicles, smart goggles, hard hat-mounted devices and other handsfree AR devices. Imagine optimizing the reach and impact of high-value experts, specialists and supervisors who are enabled to provide real-time guidance and technical expertise to field workers with remote AR connections – audio, visual, data and sensory.
3. Public safety and emergency services
Imagine firefighter and disaster first responders being able to navigate to and through their environments with emergency vehicles equipped with AR head-up windshield displays providing route guidance and real-time sensor data on environmental and hazardous conditions; and with helmet-mounted AR devices and visors allowing them to see and hear through smoke, fire, rubble, poor weather and other conditions. Imagine AR disaster applications that provide visual and audio guidance for citizens seeking refuge, evacuation routes, or emergency assistance in a disaster situation. Imagine real-time data-driven AR applications that allow law enforcement officers to access location specific information and data on dangerous situations via smart glasses, in-vehicle displays and other wearables. Citizens and businesses can access authorized geo-specific data on crime statistics and other environmental factors just by pointing their mobile devices at a building, down a street, or for an entire community.
4. Public health, wellness and sustainability
Imagine inspectors of all kinds – health, building and public safety, environmental quality, etc. – being able to instantaneously “see” and interact with all the available data and information related to a facility, an agricultural area, a neighbourhood or district. Communities interested in encouraging healthy and sustainable living for their citizens can connect healthy amenities – parks, recreation facilities, farmers markets and urban farms, community health festivals – and connect them to healthy activities such as walking and biking, wayfinding and getting around resources that offer “healthy” options, or options with the lightest carbon footprint. Imagine a host of environmental quality (air, water, ground, etc.) detectors and AR combined with environmental sensors to allow environmental officials and citizens to make realtime decisions on movement, activity and official response.
5. Transportation and urban mobility
Imagine in this augmented future being able to see and visually “connect” the various transportation systems – from traditional highway, roadway and fixed-rail infrastructure, to modern on-demand and shared mobility services and active transit (walking and biking). Operators of rolling stock – trains, buses, shuttles, car/vanpools – will have AR windshield displays providing real-time information such as traffic incidents, scheduling and route changes, customer needs, vehicle maintenance and health, etc. And imagine augmenting physical maps of transit systems so that users – visitors and residents alike – can visually and or audibly access the portion of the transit network that they actually use and need.
6. Culture, heritage and tourism
Across the globe, protection of heritage and culture is a high priority. One of the richest uses of AR is to enhance places, such as historic buildings, castles, monuments and heritage sites and battlefields.
Museums and culturally significant buildings are perfect candidates for AR information and rich content around artwork, artefacts, publications, etc. Natural resources – including national parks, coastlines, forest and wetlands – combined with AR can provide a powerful educational experience while simultaneously encouraging and monitoring the appropriate use and preservation of natural resources. Tie this all together – wayfinding, things to do, art and culture, history and heritage – to create compelling connected AR experiences for cultural tourists and citizens alike.
The examples above of AR in the public sector are just a few of the real-use cases possible and which are just now coming online. Augmented reality is emblematic of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a blurring of the lines between the physical and digital worlds, and, indeed, the public and private spheres. Keep an eye out, and you will soon be able to “see” the very future of the public sector.