Although many people think of virtual reality (VR) technology as a source of entertainment that allows the user to “exist” in an artificial world, applications have moved far beyond gaming. Today augmented reality (AR) combines digital content with the real world. By integrating 3D data with GIS datasets and building information modeling (BIM) data, many industries are enjoying the benefits of visualizing what is already built but is out of sight, such as underground pipes and fiber optic cables running through a neighborhood, along with what will be built in the future, such as a new building or bridge.

Practical Applications of Augmented Reality for Geospatial Professionals

Augmented reality (AR) refers to a simulated environment being overlaid on a real environment to help the user visualize how a drawing or model will look in its intended surroundings, and AR also shows existing infrastructure superimposed on real terrain based on positioning information.

Thanks to major advances in the technology, AR can be implemented on mainstream devices such as cellphones and tablets, as well as more specialized equipment like the Microsoft HoloLens 2 headset. The immersive experience adds value in the office and in the field that goes beyond viewing 3D data on a computer screen.

The utility industry benefits from time and cost savings by using AR. Utility workers can more easily locate existing pipes and power lines by using AR to see where they are supposed to be, even when under the ground. This expedites repairs and increases safety for workers by reducing the amount of time spent working near traffic or other hazardous conditions. It is also helpful to avoid accidents when digging in the area.

AR applications are also relevant in all phases of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) work, from design through construction and including future maintenance. Identifying design problems before getting started reduces rework, keeps projects on schedule, and leads to better results. After construction is complete, AR allows maintenance workers to locate pipes, wires, cables, etc., hidden in walls, ceilings and floors, making it easier to fix problems. With accurate 3D visuals all around, situational awareness on a construction site is improved, reducing the risk of injuries.

Creating a Digital Twin

vGIS is a visualization platform originally developed to create an augmented reality experience by overlaying GIS data over real terrain. Later, it was expanded to include BIM data, which allows the user in the field to see how new construction will “fit,” physically and aesthetically, with existing infrastructure and identify conflicts before breaking ground.

The vGIS platform now supports additional types of data that enhance the usability and expand the applications of AR. Today, by incorporating a variety of data, such as GIS and BIM, which can be created using different products from Bentley, Trimble, AutoDesk and others, vGIS creates a comprehensive view that serves industries including utilities, construction, and mining and exploration. This aggregation of data is referred to as a “digital twin” because it replicates everything about an object in the real world and makes information easily accessible.

“We prefer to use a broad definition of ‘digital twin’ to maximize the value for the users,” says Alexandre Pestov, CEO of vGIS. “It is not just a 3D model, it is a digitization of a process or an object. It is comprised of many components, such as GIS, BIM, CAD and oblique imagery, and by aggregating information from multiple sources, the result is richer.”

“vGIS takes in all the available data, such as a utility’s GIS database that shows all of their poles, manholes, water and sewer pipes, electrical conduits, gas lines and fiber optic cables and transforms it into an augmented reality view,” Pestov continues. “We also get data from other sources, such as street level imagery and soon LiDAR scans. It is all combined to make a complete picture that supports informed decision making and helps reduce avoidable mistakes.”

The accuracy of the input data plays a big role in the quality of the visualization, but the software and hardware also impact the results. vGIS has developed a patented calibration technology that enables high location accuracy (up to 10 cm) and ±0.2° directional accuracy without external positioning devices (depending on the area of operations) and up to 1 cm with external GNSS/RTK hardware.

With the vGIS platform compatible with multiple brands of high-precision positioning hardware, the user has flexibility to reach their desired accuracy for each application. A cellphone provides 10‒30 m accuracy, while a basic GNSS device delivers 1–3 m accuracy. If sub-meter accuracy is required, more expensive GNSS devices ($3,000‒5,000 range) can be used, or a paid subscription service can achieve centimeter accuracy. vGIS is designed to work with a wide range of positioning devices, optimizing their capabilities at each accuracy level.

Augmented Reality For Surveyors Gaining Acceptance Bit by Bit

Adoption of AR is increasing in the utility and AEC industries as the technology demonstrates its value. In the past, the most common excuse provided for following traditional processes was that the workers already had a thorough familiarity with the job site. Someone who worked for a utility for 20 years already knew the approximate location of every pipe and manhole, so they didn’t see a real benefit in a visualization. However, a new worker cannot obtain that location knowledge quickly.

It can take years of experience to learn the details and become an expert. Relying on existing knowledge in someone’s head is a short-term solution. Mismatched expectations vs. reality have also slowed the pace of adoption. In the movies, computer generated imagery (CGI) can make AR look like it works right out of the box. The scenes are set up ahead of time, and the viewer doesn’t see the many hours of work that led up to that moment. Users want their AR to look and perform exactly like it does in the movies, but this isn’t realistic.

Although the tools are much more sophisticated than they were, there are still limitations. In real life, AR requires high quality databases, careful data management, and an understanding of how to obtain high accuracy positioning information.

As more people are willing to experiment with technology to perform their jobs more quickly and safely, investment in AR is growing. The integration of GIS and BIM data in an AR platform creates a complete picture of existing objects and future infrastructure, above and under the ground. While the majority of vGIS customers today use cellphones and tablets to access their virtual worlds, headsets such as HoloLens should become more common as the price decreases. “It’s a growing industry and there are plenty of opportunities where we can expand,” says Pestov. “vGIS will continue to integrate with new types of datasets and devices to increase usability for a broad range of customers.”