Designing for the Advance of Augmented Reality

IMG_1659By Alan Robles, Gensler

When we think about the time before the smartphone there are very few of us who could foresee the impact that device would have, or even anticipated that we needed one. Now, in retrospect, it’s impossible to deny either. This is exactly how we’re approaching Augmented Reality (AR) and how this advancing technology will impact architecture in the future.

AR is crawling out of the primordial ooze of sensory technologies that are engaging our intake of the perceived world. It’s not a new concept, but an innovation that has been made more accessible by the previously mentioned smartphone. It is thanks to the smartphone that the first generation of consumer Virtual Reality headsets were developed. However, we know that the technology by itself only gets us so far; the software development that will power these devices is happening now – and it is happening fast.

The power of AR to change the way we engage with space on a daily basis is top of mind for me and my colleagues, and indeed, our clients. Following are a few examples to illustrate some of the most promising developments on the horizon as we see them now. These will change as technology advances but they’re vital in informing the way AR will develop over time.

Generative environments

As architects and designers we’re exploring the idea of environments that are created dynamically in real-time from information that is either pre-selected or generated by algorithms. If you think about what we physically require from our environments a lot of it is composed of horizontal surfaces, vertical surfaces, and the structure required to place or sustain those surfaces at heights that provide a basic functions. A chair is essentially a flat horizontal surface at a height required to sit. A table is a surface at a height required to sustain or support objects or activities that occur on a table or desk. Consider the aesthetic part of the artifacts of our environment that support its function is in many cases superfluous to its function. Now what if the aesthetic parts of a piece of furniture or architecture were dynamic? What if you could change the way they look at will? The idea that you could come into a room and have that space look different every time you enter it as determined by circumstances that you’ve selected. There are experiences developed for Virtual Reality that play on this principal and stand-in for the physical needs of the experience as you’re completely immersed in VR. But the needs of our shared world don’t align with a wholly immersed reality. AR is giving us the opportunity to look at some of the social aspects of the way we engage one another.

Managing social dynamics

Privacy is a dynamic social agreement between the individual and her or his environment. That explanation might be oversimplified but the physical circumstances of your environment currently frame the details of that unspoken social contract. If you are by yourself amongst others you can feel a sort of privacy even if the whole world around you can see you. And if you are in a private space where you have confidence that no one can see you, your ability to focus can be heightened further. Our feeling of privacy can be an important part of our ability to access confidence or to focus. Now imagine that you could manage parts of your perceived world to allow you to bolster the effect that privacy has on your personal performance. As an example, imagine you have a fear of public speaking. What if you had an AR function that eliminates the audience from your field of view or alters their appearance in a way that allows you to focus on your performance? The old advice about imagining the audience in their underwear is no longer a function of imagination. Now consider how this dynamic can affect the design of space. What will private space look like? What can communal space be when you can curate your perception of your surroundings? Some of these concepts are not achievable today, but the exploration of ideas is an important activity to be engaging right now.


My office desk is typical of most workspaces I’ve visited. I’ve got a phone, a couple of monitors, a desk lamp, and a laptop. Those devices are a major driver of the size and placement of my workstation. It’s not that difficult to imagine that all of those devices are replaced by visual content that is delivered through an AR device that puts floating screens in your field of view wherever you want them, serves as your phone with video conferencing, your floating calculator, your interface to your personal mobile device, and more. Your smartphone could become your main connection to your productivity modality and an AR interface could facilitate that evolution. What will the workplace look like then? When a desk is no longer required and productivity can be achieved with fewer physical artifacts to facilitate it? We are experimenting with that possible eventuality as a means of challenging the paradigms of work. Consider the way the touchscreen has changed work to date. Putting information where you need it and making it accessible. Now consider that AR is the next evolution of that interface. The information that you consumed through a device is now wherever you need it to be… Ready to be called up at any moment as you require it and in the context in which it is required.

So what’s next? This is the reason why these evolving technologies are significant and why it’s important we engage them with conviction and an open mind.

Alan Robles is an experience designer with the retail studio at Gensler in Los Angeles. He works across all practice areas to support in the design and development of projects to increase the value of the in-person experience. 


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