Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality? And the Winner Is….



Will governments embrace virtual reality or augmented reality? Both concepts have been demonstrated for quite a while through various applications. Virtual reality (VR) means creating and presenting a computer image of a real or made-up world, usually through a headset. Augmented reality (AR) involves placing an image or dataset over a picture of the real world. We have been showcasing them at our user conference and the American Planning Association (APA) conference for quick some time, and it always creates a buzz, but not an adoption. We have seen virtual reality commercials on television and the internet proclaiming virtual reality is here and easy to do. It was the big 2016 holiday gift everyone wanted to have, and has been widespread in the gaming world for years. But we have not seen either go mainstream in government.

For comparison, consider a technology like drones: they started becoming popular in the commercial and hobbyists markets and made the leap to government adoption rather quickly. Immediate uses were for urban planning, emergency management, law enforcement, and natural resources. Why are drones crossing from the private to public sector so rapidly? I believe it is because people seemed to grasp the vision of use almost immediately, and complementary technologies like cameras, the internet of things, and mapping software quickly jumped onboard to lend added value.

So when will virtual and augmented reality become mainstream? And which technology will prevail? The VR and AR technology follow a similar pattern to drones. They too gained popularity in the commercial and hobbyist markets. They also gained added value from mapping and technology giants through add-ins and developer tools. But we still haven’t seen rapid adoption in the government markets like we are seeing with drones.

Elected officials are faced with trying to make decisions about what something will look like or how it will impact their community’s environment and landscape. There is always a need to put themselves into the situation, to see what a cell tower, new signage, or a structure will look like. These are all natural uses for virtual reality. We have seen governments go to pain-staking lengths and great cost, to try to demonstrate what a proposed structure would look like. I have personally witnessed and heard stories where governments have rented a crane and hung various sizes of plywood and had council members drive by to see what a proposed billboard would look like. Virtual reality could solve these problems, and no one would have to leave the building. And of course, there are applications for emergency management and economic development that would follow suit. But we haven’t see this in mass yet.

The applications for augmented reality are a little different. Public works departments sending out crews to look for utilities or infrastructure before construction is a common event. Imagine holding up a mobile device to reveal utility data overlaid in real-time, greatly increasing productivity and efficiency and improving infrastructure management. Think of examples like Call Before You Dig: augmented reality is a natural addition to a mobile strategy. I believe we will see applications for augmented reality in things like economic development, planning, building and safety, engineering and more.

So, which technology will prevail, virtual reality or augmented reality? I think both will eventually, but I am leaning towards augmented reality having more of an immediate return on investment for governments. Augmented reality is not a difficult leap since it ties in so closely and is a compliment to existing mobile workflows. The exciting thing for those in government who use GIS, is that AR technology is readily available on the Apple and Google stores with tutorials, for free. I hope you’ll prove me right and look into the applications of AR for the public sector.

Author’s Note: An added bonus to my prediction…augmented reality won’t mess up your hair.

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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