Charting the trends: Augmented reality




The next big thing to happen to real estate (and to the world) is augmented reality. You've probably heard of Virtual Reality, in which a participant is immersed in a completely illusory, computer‑generated environment. Augmented Reality allows you to move naturally in real time through a real space enhanced by computer‑generated objects. Here's a simple example of what Augmented Reality can do:


You look up at a starry sky and wonder where the dickens the constellation Cassiopeia is.


You log onto the astronomy channel via your wearable Personal Pilot, put on your head-mounted display glasses, click on Constellations, key in Cassiopeia and look back at the sky. There, superimposed over the star‑pocked darkness just above Polaris, the North Star, is a large, slightly squashed looking M — the constellation you were looking for. Nothing that you see is computer generated . . . except the posted information.


Imagine being able to do a walk-through of a recently listed home, but all the questions that you now have to jot down or remember to ask the listing Realtor are addressed by messages geo‑coded to appear in the appropriate spot:

– the roof tells you that it was replaced eight years previous;

– the facade informs you of the age of the house and gives you contact information for the builder;

– the door warns you of a friendly dog inside;

– the toilets advise you of water pressure problems;

– the furnace tells you it's a new, energy‑efficient model;

– the garden proudly announces that it won the Trillium Award three years ago. Perhaps you'd like to see its clippings? There's a scrapbook on the dining room table.

You get the idea.


And that's just the information posted by the listing Realtor. Depending on what channel you dial into, you could see through the walls of the home to view its wiring or plumbing (this is called architectural anatomy); look under the house to see if it was built over an underground lake, a native burial ground or large mineral deposit; view property lines, rights of way, underground cables . . . you could even see a graphic representation of radiation levels within a 100 meter radius of the structure.


Even as we write this column, scenarios like this are being tossed around in graduate schools of architecture:


Realtor: Well, it doesn't look like much now, but try on these i‑glasses. We'll just dial in your preferred colour scheme, update the cabinets, drop a new tile floor over the present one and voila! The perfect french country kitchen!


Client: Hmmm. . . . Could you add a set of french doors leading to the dining room? And

adjust the trim to eggshell?


Realtor: You got it!


Client: (Shaking head and laughing) I have to hand it to you. This is exactly what I was dreaming of. But what is the colour scheme called? I don't want to forget it.

Realtor: It's called Lemon Souffle. But not to worry. I'll save it to the site so that your contractor can access the information.


Client: I was hoping that you would handle that for me . . . dealing with the contractor, that is.


Realtor: Absolutely. It's one of the many services we offer our clients.


If this sounds like something from the Jetsons, think again. Scientists around the world are busily conducting research in augmented reality and enabling technologies. In many cases, their facilities are associated with world-class universities such as MIT and the Universities of Toronto, Rochester, North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where surgeons are already using stereoscopic visualization and overlays to assist them while operating on patients).


Moreover, as long ago as the mid‑’90s, a National Science Foundation‑funded project gave rise to an organization called WorldBoard. Simply put, WorldBoard's objective is to develop a planetary infrastructure for associating digital information, tools and services with a specific location on the planet. Many educators, researchers, scientists and businesses are involved in growing WorldBoard into the interplanetary chalkboard that they see as the future of education, manufacturing, construction and more.


There is one major technical obstacle to achieving a seamless augmented reality — what scientists call a “registration error”. Imagine that you are trying to put a virtual stopper into a real wine bottle. In order for you to succeed at this task, the cyber stopper needs to appear exactly where it is, and, at present, that isn't always the case.


Apart from this one problem (not small, but not insurmountable either), everything we need to make Augmented Reality work is in the development stage:


– The establishment and, most importantly, the linking, of geo‑coded databases. Think of Teranet and the Electronic Land Registry system; it is a prime example of a geo‑coded database.


  The ability to pinpoint a precise position on the earth's surface. Ever hear of the Global Position System or GPS? It's a satellite‑based global navigation system that provides highly accurate position and timing information for both military and civilian applications. As you read this article, 24 satellites in six orbital paths are circling the earth twice a day, continuously transmitting coded positional and time information to GPS receivers, which pick up the signals and use the coded information to calculate a position in an earth co‑ordinate system.


– Wearable or easily portable computers. These already exist (and I don't mean laptops!)


– Location aware devices. These will be built into your automobile very soon, not to mention your wristwatch.


– Comfy head-mounted display units. If you've ever staggered through a virtual reality environment with one of these clunkers on your noggin, you'll agree that current units are bulky and uncomfortable. However, a whole gang of top‑drawer electronics companies are working on this technology. You can bet that Sony, Canon, Kaiser Electro‑Optics or one of their competitors worldwide will soon come out with a device that looks and feels like lightweight sunglasses.


– The establishment of channels on the Internet to convey information. When you're on the World Wide Web, click on Favourites. One of the options presented to you is Channels. Click on it and poke around ‑‑ this is only the beginning of what will be absolutely huge.

In the near future, you will be able to enter an airport and follow a virtual red carpet to your gate without ever knowing its number. Your children will tour museums without a tour guide and play air hockey with a virtual puck. You will no longer have to call before you dig; because, with the help of your handy, lightweight i‑glasses, you'll be able to see underground cables or pipes. Prospective buyers will drive around the city looking for virtual real estate signs and you will be doing a brisk business at the centre of the real estate transaction, which, thanks to technological advances, has now become the focal point of a centrifuge of activity, spinning off revenue in all directions. (And psst! For all of those getting or contemplating laser eye surgery right now, glasses will be “in” again, in a big way!)

For more information on Augmented Reality, check out these web sites:;;;


Betty Dore is executive officer and Melissa Hardy‑Trevenna is communications officer of the London and St. Thomas Real Estate Board.


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