How Virtual Reality Is Revolutionising Town Planning

Simon Davies

Virtual reality is being pioneered by the games industry. Thanks to the emergence of innovative VR platforms and devices and mobile solutions—from the Google Cardboard to the Oculus Rift and even Pokémon Go!—VR is fast becoming an accessible and utterly unique experience for the masses.

But gaming isn’t the sole beneficiary of this exciting new technology, as it’s embraced by more and more industries to spearhead advancements within their respective fields. One such industry looking at VR is urban planning.

Mapping ‘smart cities’

As cities develop and expand, satellite images provide a highly effective tool for planners to monitor expansion and contraction of the built environment and its effects on the surrounding urban landscape. Everything that can be seen from space can be mapped and assessed using satellite data, rendering it an invaluable source of information to those working in commercial and public urban planning. Critical services like transport, energy, pollution, sanitation, and water supplies are easier to plan and account for with up to date mapping data, and land tenure and cadastre can be accurately defined and monitored. Population density, including its impact on traffic volumes and routes can be assessed, helping the establishment of effective traffic management measures and new road routes.

European cities are leveraging this data in order to address high-priority objectives: to reduce traffic congestion, improve energy efficiency, engage citizens, and present government as accessible and accountable. Analysis from Frost & Sullivan’s Real-Time Cities survey finds that town planners are embracing open innovation and experimenting with advanced applications such as 3D mapping and VR to allow city planners to visualise the development of neighbourhoods, including services such as water, energy, or transport using a 3D model of an area to create a virtual avatar of a city.

Community engagement

Software available for architects to translate their computerised designs into immersive virtual reality is user-friendly and doesn’t need to be conducted through bespoke VR devices: YouTube and Facebook are both capable of displaying 4K-resolution 360-degree which is rooted in VR video – so it can be accessible to anyone with a modern mobile device. Virtual reality is already being used by architects to beta test their designs and literally walk clients through their projects.

Smart Favela is one example of an award-winning app that uses virtual reality to enable developers to visualise new projects and monitor progress. At the same time, residents can review projects using their mobile phones or computers and leave feedback about the proposed investment. They can also suggest what other services they need, and the software is being utilised by councils in Bordeaux and Paris to assist with city planning. Paris-based tech company Toolz, who developed the application claims the technology can be a game changer for both city planners and residents.

Stemming from a similar intent, Tygron, a company that makes urban-development games, has created a Sims-like platform that takes heed of real-life indicators such as livability, heat stress, and population densities to allow urban planners to test new developments before putting them into policy. By allowing an audience to partake in rounds of game simulation, it is providing a first-hand look at how practical gaming can be used to work around real-life problems and presented a compelling case for the continued use of such games to increase collaboration and debate between stakeholders.

Design in VR

Designing in virtual reality is also fast becoming the next step in CAD. Earlier this year Google announced Tilt Brush, an app that works with HTC Vive to allow for virtual reality sketching. Students at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art recently developed Gravity Sketch 3D drawing pad, a tablet that can be used with Oculus Rift by architects and interior designers to navigate and make changes to 3D drawings.

“[W]hen VR tech matures, it’s going be more powerful than cocaine,” Olivier Demangel of IVR Nation told Dezeen. Designers wearing a VR headset and using the hand-held controllers as an input device can create walls, doors, and furniture around them in 3D space. It allows designers to develop both the dimensional and ergonomic relationships between elements as they see their designs come to life in real time.

So what does this mean for VR? A much greater reach for VR technology, for one. Now virtual reality is being applied in design and local government contexts, it might be about to change the way we conceive of urban development and planning forever.

For more on digital disruption in urban planning, see The Role Of IoT And Data In Smart Cities.


About Simon Davies

Simon Davies is a London-based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues, and solutions. He works explores new markets and disruptive technologies and communicates those recent developments to a wide, public audience. Simon is also a contributor at socialbarrel.com, socialnomics.net, and tech.co. Follow Simon @simontheodavies on Twitter.