Through the looking glass: Could augmented reality reshape our cities?

With wearable technology such as Google Glass becoming an increasingly common sight, it seems that future generations may be seeing the world in a whole new light. London designer, Keiichi Matsuda explored this concept by envisioning what it would be like if entire cities around us carried a whole new layer of information. Could we be seeing augmented reality in our future? 

You are reading an article from the Smart cities series, to read more about this you can visit the series homepage.

Imagine a world like this: your surroundings as you see them remain the same, but suddenly a whole new layer of information and intricate details are carefully draped across your very eyes, like digital cling film.

This is Keiichi Matsuda's vision of the future, a world we are already very close to touching, with the technology of Google Glass, augmented reality.

In layman's terms, augmented reality is an enhanced version of the world that we see. Think of your favourite sci-fi movie, where Iron Man or the Terminator have the power to see the world with an enhanced intelligence displayed around their peripheral vision. 

Keiichi Matsuda, Augmented (hyper)Reality

It was this idea that inspired Keiichi Matsuda to look at how our cities would appear if we could manually 'layer on' more details about our surroundings – almost like a physical Photoshop. Talking to Dezeen, Matsuda explained why his idea could help travel innovation for the better. 

"The type of future that I'm imagining is a future where augmented reality is everywhere, it's part of everything," Matsuda says. "A lot of the things we take for granted when we're navigating the streets – the road markings, the signage – all of that can be applied in the digital layer."

In a series of videos, Matsuda has explored what it would be like, from different people's point of views, to experience this enhanced world, with every possible aspect labelled for the viewer's convenience. If the technology did indeed take off, street signs could be a thing of the past. 

Keiichi Matsuda, Augmented (hyper)Reality

"One of the defining characteristics of augmented reality is that it is subjective. Everybody can see their own version of the city. And that means that everything is customisable. If you imagine a city as a series of layers or a series of feeds you'd be able to subscribe to just the ones you like. So the city itself becomes a reflection of our tastes and interests."

The art of augmented reality is not new thing; the idea of combining the physical world and virtual information has been giving travel experiences new dimensions for years. 

In the travel sector, the tech has been used significantly in approaches to tourism, such as making traditional walking tours more interactive. 

Keiichi Matsuda, Augmented (hyper)Reality

In Sevilla in Spain, the interactive walking tour Past View offers a 'sensory experience' for its customers. The approach uses video glasses to walk around the town and see buildings through a historical lens. 

"Thanks to videoglasses, you can travel in time and see buildings, shops, streets and squares as they used to be. You can also interact with the characters of the time. Soak up history" – the website declares. 

Hotels have also been trying the new layer of technology in advertising. As part of their "Travel Brilliantly" campaign, Marriot Hotels used virtual images in their magazine advertisements that readers could 'scan' through their smartphones and see the hotels in all their glory as a 3D, interactive experience. The ideas remind us of what were once fictional phenomenons in sci-fi movies. 

Three movies that use augmented reality

  • Iron Man: The billionaire maverick is a superhero who built his own powers – including a helmet giving Tony Stark increased vision of his surroundings, and the HUD, giving him a computerised dashboard of the details of his nearby enemies.
  • Robocop: Similarly, this android police officer had an interlocked database through his eyes so he could facially detect anyone with a criminal record. 
  • The Terminator: And of course, the Terminator, who was built with a very special mission, to kill John Connor. His augmented vision is often cited as an 'inspiration' for Google Glass. 

So, the technology is gradually in place. Could the idea also really re-shape our cities and roadways? 

Before Google Glass came to fruition, a few other ideas were already bubbling up to suggest this may be where we are heading. 

The amazing prowess of Word Lens is an iPhone app that can translate any sign in the world, giving lost tourists one less thing to worry about. If this is possible, why not a more extensive version of augmented reality? 

As Matsuda predicts: "If we consider that, the way traffic systems work could become much more dynamic and much more free-flowing." 

Although Matsuda's videos may only be ideas, the technology and apps show that we really could be about to add on a new dimension to our lives. But will it be through the Google Glass, our smartphones, or a new way all together? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 

Do you want to see your city through a digital lens?


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