Spatial computing for smart cities
As virtual reality technologies advance, the field of spatial computing is evolving to create new ways for people to interact with and understand the physical world. So, what is spatial computing and how does it apply to smart cities? In essence, spatial computing combines virtual reality with augmented reality – that is, with text, sound or images that enhance the user’s understanding and experience. By creating a spatial model of a city, it is no longer a flat two-dimensional object on a computer screen; it is a three-dimensional virtual world that users can inhabit in this ‘mixed reality’ mode.
Mixed reality simulations
Spatial computing enables city planners and others to interact with parts of the city and simulate scenarios in order to understand and analyze the effects of any changes. For instance, when a city planning department wants to add to the built environment of the city, researchers and engineers must study the impacts of the planned changes on the city and its citizens. Traditionally, this would have required them to prepare large sets of detailed documents and calculations that may only have been understood by a select group of people and could go out of date over the course of the project.
Today, architects’ plans and drawings are usually accompanied by virtual models that showcase what a new building will look like in its intended location. Spatial computing goes further than that by presenting the building and its surroundings as mixed reality. Using this, together with existing data, the construction of the new building and any other changes can be simulated to identify impacts on the environs and on people. For example, if data on current noise pressure, air quality and so on is gathered and stored, this can be used in a spatial computing model in combination, for example, with sound reflection or sound absorption rates of the proposed design and construction materials. The impact of a new building on natural air flow, for instance, can then be visualized showing any related effects on air quality and possible heat spots.
Critical public infrastructure
Spatial computing makes it possible to drill down further into the details of a building and ‘peel off’ layers to reveal its infrastructure. This information, as long as it is kept up to date, could save lives in the event of a fire, for example.
Spatial computing can also be used to visualize waste and water infrastructures or power grids; in these cases, before any maintenance or construction work begins, workers need to have a good understanding of the location and composition of existing infrastructures and networks. Emergency or unexpected events can be simulated, such as a water pipe breaking or a powerline going down, to prevent damage occurring or interruptions to utility supplies. Simulations can also be run for other public safety requirements such as transport networks, or crowd control measures.
Returns on investment
So, should every city have its own spatial computing model? I would say yes; then, of course, the next question is how can this be affordable, developed and maintained? One option is for the city to outsource the development and maintenance of its spatial computing model so that it is effectively maintained and future-proofed. Ensuring that accurate and complete data is available in the right format is critical to ensure that the outputs from the model are valuable.
If cities make full use of a spatial computing model, it will pay off; for example, using a spatial model to calculate and charge the appropriate building and planning permissions. Given correct and sufficient data, a spatial computing model will deliver measurable benefits when it is applied to the right use cases – and the more times it is used, the greater the return on investment.