GIS Meets Augmented Reality

Augmented reality, whether piped onto a smartphone or embedded in a buzz-worthy product like Google Glass, have become a new glamor technology. The concept is that a real-time visual display of the world is also tied in to computer systems that can find relevant information and either superimpose it or present it to the side. Someone with a GIS degree might think that this sounds similar to geographic information systems, another hot technology. And that person would be right.

Jelly, meet peanut butter. The combination of augmented reality and GIS will create new categories of applications; chances for people, companies, and governments to expand their understanding of the world; and offer opportunities to people in the GIS field.

To get a sense of what is possible, look at this video of a system designed a few years ago to give first responders in Colorado a combination of video and a variety of charts, maps, annotations, and more.

Another, far different, example is the use of pure visualization to enhance cartographic information with an augmented reality GIS map:

Although the applications are complex, the principles behind the combination of augmented reality and GIS are simple. AR isn’t actually new, as GIS vendor Esri explains:

For example, American football fans are used to seeing the virtual first down line that appears on the field during televised games—they expect to see it. Movie directors have portrayed augmented reality in movies such as Minority Report (2002) or Avatar (2009) to show how immersive technology might be used. Some of the most visually exciting examples of AR entertainment are augmented projections or projection mapping in which computer imagery is projected onto physical objects, such as a building facade, to create an augmented but realistic-looking new object that morphs continuously before the viewer’s eyes.

AR depends on having a ready store of useful information tied to a visual display. But a visual display will be of particular locations. To make such systems work in real-time, GIS applications and databases must have the supplementary useful information tagged with locations. The augmented reality system sends over the properly encoded location, gained from recognizing the visual patterns and landmarks in the display. The GIS system would then return the appropriate supplementary information to the display in whatever form is needed.

As an Esri research explains, there are many ways that GIS and AR could work together. For example, construction crews could point a camera or smartphone at the ground and see the locations of pipes and cables. Or, as the Public Works Group blog speculates, police officers could see virtual block numbers to better describe physical locations rather than depending on the nearest actual building number as a proxy for the real location.

AR and GIS together offer great opportunities for programmers, engineers, GIS experts, and others to create a new generation of capabilities.

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