Spatial computing for smart city planning

Albert Seubers

Atos Director, Global Strategy Smart X

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 “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sets of detailed documents and calculations that may only have been understood by a select group of people and could go out of date over the course of the project.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 one step further, by presenting the building and its surroundings as mixed reality. By combining virtual models with existing data, the construction of the new building and other changes can be simulated to identify impacts on the environs and on people.

For example, if data on current noise pressure, air quality, etc. has been gathered and stored, it can be used in a spatial computing model in combination — for example, with sound reflection/absorption rates of the proposed design and construction materials. The impact of a new building on natural air flow can also be visualized, showing any effects on air quality or possible heat spots.

Critical public infrastructure

Spatial computing makes it possible to drill down deeper into the details of a building and “peel off” layers to reveal its infrastructure. As long as it is kept up to date, this information 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 must 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 power line going down, to prevent damage or interruptions to utility supplies. Simulations can also be run for other public safety requirements such as transport networks or crowd control.

Return on investment

So, should every city have its own spatial computing model? I would say yes. The next question is then, of course, “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 for 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.


UDP-gallery-borderSustainability Pierre Barnabé Glen Deserrano Safety and security Albert Seubers Mobility Lydia Peeters Open source Introducing the Urban Data Platform Jo Debecker Rudy De Smedt Caring, healthy cities Damien Déclat Innovation Kay Hooghoudt Return on investment Secure, open and flexible Why Atos? For cities and local authorities, the urgent need to meet key sustainability goals and deliver smart services demands more unified thinking and integrated delivery.
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