Virtual and Augmented Reality for Planning and Design


Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are both part of a wider field of technology called Mixed Reality (MR). MR describes different technologies that can blend the physical world with the digital world. VR replaces the real-world environment with a simulated environment, where computer simulations influence the user’s senses and perception through the production of images, sound and other sensations. The user can look and move around the artificial environment and interact with its virtual features. Similarly, AR is a blend of the real world and the digital world, which is achieved by overlaying virtual computer-generated objects onto real-world objects. Where AR alters the user’s ongoing perception of a real-world environment, VR completely replaces the user’s real-world environment with a simulated one.

Several devices are used in the field of MR including head mounted displays, AR tablets, Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (CAVE), and AR projectors. These devices provide MR visualization and other functionalities for user interaction. In addition, tracked controllers, object recognition and tracking, or haptic feedback can be integrated to support intuitive usability. MR therefore provides an enhanced interface between digital data and users, due to improved visualization and controls.

MR technologies have several potential uses across industries. These include:

  • Simulating environments
  • Creating immersive experiences
  • Visualizing and interacting with data
  • Enabling maintenance
  • Enhancing education
  • Improving public health and safety, and
  • Supporting investigations and case management.

MR technologies can be integrated in all stages of infrastructure planning and design as they can transport users into virtual environments that reveal what a design will look like when constructed and how it will interact with and impact upon the existing environment. These solutions can be utilized to enhance the visualization process by providing engineers, builders, managers and other stakeholders with insight to a structure before it is even built. This can provide opportunities to identify and resolve potential design flaws, risks and issues before and during the construction phase. These systems can also be utilized to garner public feedback in relation to proposed and ongoing works.

MR technologies can bring technical drawings to life in a way that has never been achieved before. They enable users to experience a proposed design or concept in a real-life environment which considers an array of factors and integrations. They can bring to life otherwise difficult to imagine qualities like sunlight passing through, or the sound absorption properties of a space. For stakeholders and the public, this can help to garner greater involvement in the decision-making process and prevent detrimental surprises and expensive or impossible alterations during project delivery. Ultimately this delivers an improved product; fewer impacts to the schedule; and a positive experience for the project team and stakeholders with easier and more effective collaboration.

When used for public exhibition or consultation, these interactive presentations can provide public stakeholders with a more comprehensive understanding of a project including the look and feel of the structure being built or renovated; the integration with the existing environment; and the potential benefits the public will experience once the project is complete. These tools can be a mechanism for garnering public opinion and feedback and can be utilized to shape ongoing policy and planning agendas.

Researchers are now investigating ways to integrate MR with Building Information Modelling (BIM) in order to bring BIM data into a virtual environment. While MR enables the visualization of and interaction with virtual environments, BIM enables the creation and manipulation of that data. Therefore, combined, the technologies will present a further opportunity for process improvement and efficient and accurate collaboration.



Improving efficiency and reducing costs:

  • Enable easy to visualize variables or modifications to a design thereby presenting a unique opportunity to perfect a design before construction begins and minimise the cost of changes during construction

Enhancing economic, social and environmental value:

  • Introduce an efficient mechanism for displaying and updating a design that can integrate feedback from multiple stakeholders with minimal effort, providing an opportunity for broad stakeholder engagement
  • Allow planners to create real scale virtual prototypes that would otherwise be very expensive to analyse, and present them augmented in a real scenario with a low-cost solution
  • Engage the public to achieve buy-in and receive feedback, which can improve the perception of the project (including during construction, when communities can be negatively impacted by noise, restricted access issues or the closure of business and amenities)
  • Improve designs that are more resistant to natural disasters and can withstand multiple scenarios (see 3D Infrastructure Modelling use case)



Legislation and regulation: Governments will be responsible for establishing certifications of the VR/AR content information and operations, as well as regulating the appropriate and safe use of VR/AR systems.

Transition of workforce capabilities: Where previously 2D and 3D models would have been used to produce architecture and technical designs, workers will need to learn how to produce, present and adapt immersive technology visualizations. Associated human factors processes will need to be developed.

Procurement and contract management: Provide contract terms enabling the use of VR technologies for planning and design and anticipate procurement programs requiring these expertise and skills, as well as the associated licensing costs. Contracts and Key Performance Indicator regimes need to be adapted to include expected performances. 

Funding and financing: Investment costs and licensing costs should be considered in funding models for new infrastructure design, in addition to estimated savings.


Implementation risk

Risk: Models used and created for MR devices need to be compatible with construction and planning models in order to be used in a way that aligns with industry requirements.

Mitigation: Governments and industry need to establish requirements for the development of models to be used for MR design applications that ensure their compatibility with industry standards and requirements.

Social risk

Risk: While head-mounted displays are a key component of the technology, it is also the most likely component to compromise the user’s safety. Substandard design and manufacturing processes can potentially result in impairment to the perception of the user, which may lead to serious consequences depending on the application. There is also the potential that frequent and/or prolonged exposure to these immersive environments could have a detrimental impact the user’s mental health.

Mitigation: Ensuring the compliance of this equipment to the highest standards of quality and safety will ensure the technology can be utilized without subjecting users to danger. Organisations and governments will also have to monitor these solutions as they are increasingly adopted and be prepared to act quickly if adverse consequences materialize.

Safety and (Cyber)security risk

Risk: There can be risks associated with collecting and managing the personal biometric data of individuals (e.g. feelings, behaviours, judgments, and physical appearance).

Mitigation: It is importance to any major information system implementation that an assessment of the system’s security strengths and weaknesses is conducted to ensure the sensitive data of the users is protected. The intended or unintended misuse of users’ intimate data must be a top-priority concern for all organizations seeking to use this technology.



Example: Cross River Rail (CRR) Experience Centre

Implementation: A VR Station lets users experience CRR’s future stations and precincts, to understand how the project will impact the city.

Cost: High investments in creating the relevant 3D models and digital twin; a specific asset library is developed for all new rail assets.

Timeframe: Early planning for the design and VR station implemented at CRR experience centre.

Example: Sydney Metro

Implementation: VR and AR helped inform project design decisions and communicate complex 3D issues, options and scenarios, and problems to stakeholders.

Cost: High investments in creating the relevant 3D models, but savings in their use for identification of interfaces clashes between design disciplines and for multi-disciplines teams’ communications.

Timeframe: Implemented: Using the BIM design approach, the project was able to quickly and efficiently publish immersive VR data.

Example: Uppsala, Sweden Virtual City

Implementation: An interactive Virtual City was developed to assist city officials in deciding on whether to commission a solar-powered Personal Rapid Transit system in the city.

Cost: Low investments in the technology and in the model used more for communications than design initially; additional investments since then.

Timeframe: The Virtual City was developed and analysed with stakeholders over a four-year period. It played a key role in the evolution of the conversations between the stakeholders, with focus moving from technical and operational concerns to design and how best to integrate the system with the city.

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