AIRE – Extended Reality in Urban Space


Point of Departure

Large-scale construction projects are often met with rejection by the population. Change first of all means uncertainty. Efforts by urban planners to communicate their plans transparently reach their limits and a real dialogue in which the opinion of the population is taken on board often falls by the wayside. In such cases, it can help if the planned buildings become tangible on site at a scale of 1:1 with the aid of extended reality goggles. Thus, people can see what has not yet been built and articulate what they would like to change. AIRE makes vision and participation equally concrete.

Testing Ground

We set up our first testing area in front of our studio on Basel's Campus der Künste. It is located outside our studio on the Basel Campus of the Arts. With the extended reality goggles, you can look at the skyline of the future, give feedback on the designs and walk through the rooms of various sample flats or look at various competition designs for the redesign of the public square.

City Panoramas of the Future

With new high-rise buildings, the urban landscape is not only gaining in height. They also serve as reference points through which cardinal directions and thus also city districts can be located from all sides at all times. A new sense of the city's topography emerges. To anticipate this, AIRE makes yet unbuilt towers appear digitally within the existing building structure. The scale implies that the physical presence of the volumes is perceptible. In addition, various uses - e.g. a café, yoga room, library on the ground floor - can be selected and viewed.

Sample Flats to Choose From

Things get even more real when you get to walk through sample flats that are digitally spread out in front of you. Here, virtual walls and furniture surround you in close proximity. You have to be careful not to sit down on the virtual sofa, which can be moved with two simple movements. Furthermore, you can raise and lower the walls of the rooms and thus switch from the floor plan to the room view and back again by gesture recognition.

Suggestions for Park Use

Last but not least, AIRE offers various usage scenarios for a public park. You can plant, move and enlarge bushes and trees or distribute park benches, bicycle stands and swings throughout the space. Feedback can be given verbally, recorded and sent to the organisers of the competition.

Companion "Feli"

To help users orient themselves and quickly know how to interact, a virtual voice - represented by a shimmering, flying sphere - guides them through the experience. By moving through the space on view, it also points out where users can walk to explore the environment. At the moment, "Feli" speaks a spoken text that is triggered as soon as the user completes individual tasks. In the future, "Feli" is intended to be an intelligent chatbot that reacts flexibly to the user's interactions or direction of gaze.

Software Today

AIRE is currently based on a GIS model (Geological Information System) of the existing urban environment. This was supplemented in Unity with the virtual components of the not-yet-built environment, which can be experienced through the goggles. A pre-determined midpoint of the test field then serves as the starting point for the experience. From here, the glasses calculate the adequate superimposition of real and virtual surfaces and bodies. Occlusion, which is central to an immersive experience - i.e. the correct representation of virtual objects in the depth of space - currently adheres to the permanent bodies of the GIS model, but ignores temporary objects such as signs, cars or other mobile bodies.

The Next Steps

At this stage, much is already tangible and much still in development. As the big tech companies invest in new extended reality goggles, we expect big advances in hardware over the next few years, which will also spur further development of AIRE, making the experience of future urban space even more immersive and participation more intuitive.

Future Development

In the future, the complex processes of connecting real and virtual worlds will take place in the glasses themselves. One day, they could create a mesh model of the environment in real time and thus be used completely independently in public spaces. In this way, objects that are temporarily in the room would also be implemented in the calculations of the occlusion and an adjustment of the system at the beginning of the experience would no longer be necessary. In the future, it should also be possible for several users to act simultaneously in one extended reality model.