Chris Bousquet Grey

By Chris Bousquet • September 24, 2018

Augmented and virtual reality — digital tools that either superimpose images on the real world (AR) or bring users into an artificial digital experience (VR) — have captured the imagination of the consumer world in the form of Pokémon games, Snapchat lenses, gaming headsets, and more. However, AR and VR also have practical uses for city government. With the ability to provide data in real time, engage users, and simulate real-life experiences in extreme detail, AR and VR have massive potential to transform government services and citizen interactions. Here are a few of the most compelling potential uses.

1) Policing: Equipped with AR systems that provide relevant details on the environment, officers would be better prepared to enter dangerous situations. For example, when approaching a house after reports of gunshots, officers could access data like a 3D model of the building, past arrests at the address, and prior 311 reports about hazardous conditions.

2) Emergency Management:​​​​ Much as the rise of data visualization has enhanced situational awareness during emergency situations, AR can improve responders’ knowledge of their surroundings in order to rescue residents in need. Residents could plot their locations on an interactive map distributed to responders, which would then show EMS workers the safest rescue routes and identify particularly hazardous areas.

3) Asset Management and Public Works: Armed with displays highlighting the condition of city assets and the presence of any hazardous conditions, DPW workers would be able to complete repairs and construction projects more efficiently and safely. Knowledge about their surroundings — for instance, that a ceiling hasn’t been replaced since 1980 and might contain asbestos — is critical to workers’ safety.

4) Digital Services: Instead of forcing residents to fill out static digital forms in order to receive services, AR and VR could provide an interactive experience that walks users through the application process. Deploying this kind of technology would reduce errors by residents, ensure they get their services more quickly, and create more pleasant government-citizen interactions.

5) Culture and Tourism: By providing additional imagery and historical or cultural details, AR has the ability to transform visitor experiences with city landmarks. The French town of Cluny has installed augmented reality screens throughout its historic abbey in order to illustrate what the community looked like in the Middle Ages, and other cities could pursue similar technologies to highlight their historic pasts.

6) Mental Health Services: Recent research has indicated that AR and VR have immense potential for treating mental health problems like anxiety and PTSD, creating opportunities for users to confront their fears in exposure therapies. And, VR simulations can also help residents with PTSD practice job interviews, learning to manage their symptoms in high-stress environments. By furnishing social workers with these tools, cities can improve their mental health treatment.

7) Education: Augmented and virtual reality have the potential to bring more students into the classroom and create more engaging and exciting classroom experiences. Using VR, students in health care facilities or underdeveloped rural areas could participate in the classroom virtually in a much more full and rich way than in traditional online classes. Using AR and VR, teachers could create an immersive learning environment, allowing students to explore the ocean floor or unfamiliar parts of the globe. By funding these types of technologies in public schools, cities can make schools more inclusive and engaging.

8) Urban Planning: By creating AR and VR models of new construction projects, cities could get a better sense of how new work will fit within the existing urban landscape and potentially increase interest from investors. By making these models available to residents and local businesses, cities can also gain feedback on their plans.

9) Training: With the capacity to recreate real-world experiences in a high level of detail, augmented and virtual reality could revolutionize training for city employees in any of the previous areas. Particularly valuable would be the ability to simulate situations that are too dangerous or difficult to recreate in real life. Imagine police officers that practice virtual drug raids, emergency responders that practice rescues of elderly or immobile residents, or DPW workers that simulate responses to workplaces injuries. AR and VR training programs are able to expose employees to realistic and diverse situations, preparing them for any of the variables they might encounter.

In many cases, the technology to accomplish these goals already exists or is in development, meaning cities can start deploying these tools now. However, it’s important for cities to think carefully about practical use cases before chasing expensive AR or VR technologies that ultimately don't deliver value to residents.