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Architecture, Design and AR

Charlie Fink
7 min readMar 10, 2019


From Convergence, How the World Will Be Painted With Data

By Sam Steinberger

When multidisciplinary design and consulting firm Arup was contracted to work on a new hospital, the team quickly got to work. With over 14,000 professionals around the globe who specialize in a diverse array of roles, from architecture to security engineering, the firm knew it had to meet tight deadlines and work with clients who expected the best while demanding top efficiency.

Because constructing a building is essentially a one-shot process, firms like Arup, which has been instrumental in the completion of famous landmarks like The Gherkin in London, the Sydney Opera House, and New York City subway system’s Fulton Center, undertake iterative steps during the design phase. Those iterations demand a diverse array of inputs, from sound recordings of the site’s ambient noises to 360° street-level videos, not to mention building plans from which to render 3D modeling of the proposed construction.

This particular project saw many of the site elements being put together by specialists in the firm’s New York City office. Among those working on the project was Anthony Cortez, senior designer, and lead visualization specialist. After receiving the job’s specifications, Cortez, along with his colleagues, spent the next 48 hours getting the project ready for a client presentation.

The presentation had to include video and sound for a VR experience that would show clients what the old site looked and sounded like, as well as how the proposal would change the site’s environment. The new project included changes to traffic patterns and it involved the function of mechanical and security systems, like ventilation and CCTV. The only hitch? The project was across the country, in Santa Monica, California.

Using cloud-based collaboration and AR, including augmenting a site’s actual acoustics with modeled post-completion audio, Cortez and team met their deadline. The clients were ecstatic, he said, not only with the team’s efficiency but with the intuitive nature of VR and AR showcasing of the final product. “Clients get excited about seeing and interacting with the design we’re working on and they want more,” he said. That’s just one example of the way AR naturally integrates itself into the architectural design process.

Powerful enough hardware has always been a challenge for both designers and clients. The computing has to handle “heavy” models without being tethered. “The field of view has to be right,” said Ignacio Rodriguez, CEO, and principal at IR Architects, which designs luxury real estate in Southern California. Leading devices like the HoloLens and Magic Leap have a narrow field of view. “VR is ahead of AR,” he said, “in its ease of use and general adoption.” To move inside a virtual building and alter its design, AR lags VR, big time.

For its part, Arup has used a number of AR systems over the years, including Google’s Project Tango headset, iPads, and smartphones. It’s now building uses for its HoloLens system and is interested in exploring how a Magic Leap headset might fit with future projects. Today’s usability of VR, which has found enthusiastic adoption among clients is about five years ahead of AR. “We’re just on the 20-yard line working our way down the field. We want to get to that end zone as quickly as possible. But, we really want a platform that allows us to seamlessly transition from between AR and VR,” Rodriguez said.

Systems aside, Arup has not wavered in its commitment to AR, noted Travis Rothbloom, a senior security engineer and design software programmer. From replacing mockups to modeling the flow of pedestrians, AR has already proven it can provide significant design benefits for the firm.

During the design and drafting process for a project for New York City’s commuter rail, Metro-North, the firm used the Hololens to show the future model of new construction in conjunction with a homebuilt pedestrian simulation model. As simulated pedestrians with intelligent movements modeled after commuter behaviors flooded into the scene, the design team and client were able to see how people moved around in space and where they looked. The latter input can later be used for both optimizing signage.

Even though contracts were made, in some cases, years before the technology was available, clients tend to appreciate the experience of convergently viewing the design and the present state of the site, said Rothbloom. “Getting past the ‘wow’ factor is key,” he added. “While it can be challenging to convince clients to pay extra for AR, once clients actually see how this helps with the iterative process, they’re more inclined to use it.”

AR will profoundly influence the art and engineering of architecture, Rodriguez noted. In a more architectural-friendly analogy than his football comparison, Rodriguez described VR as AutoCAD, a tool with which many inside and outside of architecture are familiar.

Another major advantage of AR is using Building Information Modeling (BIM) in conjunction with maintenance and building assets. Because the BIM is digital and in 3D, building owners and managers can essentially see through walls before and after building construction. Coupled with sensors, information from a BIM could enable the building manager of the future to know when to replace building assets, where to find them in building ceilings and walls and even order necessary parts before beginning a job. Managers could troubleshoot energy use or look at how the light in the building changed as the sun moved through the sky.

Rothbloom demoed an example. During the renovation of a new Arup office, designers made a 3D scan of a room before it was finished, so the room’s ductwork was clearly visible. By adding and removing layers to the BIM, much like adding and removing layers in Adobe Photoshop, Rothbloom was able to give the user a view of the building before the renovation, while it was in construction, and after completion. Any user of the Hololens could see where the ductwork was and Rothbloom could even model the flow of a crowd of workers moving through the office hallways.

The experience is a little like time travel. Using an AR system, a viewer can see how a building used to look, how it looked during construction, as the nerves and muscles of the building were added in the form of rebar, fiber optics and concrete, and how the building looks today. Engineers can even use AR to verify the building was built according to plans and Rothbloom envisioned construction workers of the future with headsets, so they can physically see the building they’re making–better understanding how their piece of the puzzle fits into the overall construction.

Just as a building’s appearance is a one-shot experience, the acoustics within and outside of a building are carefully crafted and reworked. Designers can hear what a site might sound like after it is completed according to the modeling they’ve done. They can explore the addition of certain types of soundproofing or materials. They can also hear what an individual in a crowd might hear, if the space is meant to be shared, like a subway stop or a performing arts building.

Using an advanced sound lab, Dr. Terence Caulkins, an acoustics researcher and sound designer, provided the auditory equivalent of Rothbloom’s visual AR. The scene was outside of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum along Manhattan’s 5th Avenue. First, Caulkins demonstrated what the scene sounds like now: internal combustion-powered traffic moves along the road while pedestrians chat and walk along the sidewalk next to Central Park. Then he showed various modeled scenarios: what if all cars were electric? How noisy are drones? And what if large motor vehicles were banned from the stretch of 5th Avenue altogether?

Combining the visuals of AR with binaural design, using a combination of BIM, recorded sounds and modeled sounds can create a visually and auditorily augmented experience. It’s an experience that allows designers, engineers, clients, and workers to better construct our future.

Designers, architects, and engineers are interested in a process, an experience, that only AR is uniquely situated to handle. VR, on the other hand, is better suited to an end product: a show for a client or a way to help stakeholders visually understand a new space. AR is a tool. VR is a medium for display.

If VR is the future of the clay model or plywood mockup, AR is the future of the pen, paper, and rulers that first turned dreams into design.



Charlie Fink

Consultant, Columnist, Author, Adjunct, Covering AI, XR, Metaverse for Forbes