As virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) becomes more and more… well, more and more a reality, engineering – in all its disciplines – seems most naturally posed to benefit from immersive simulations and realistic scenario building. Architects and civil engineers are promised relief from the hours bent over their drawing boards or fiddling with AutoCAD, Grasshopper and GIS in the wonderful present where entire cities can be simulated, solutions can be tested and infrastructure can be adapted at the whim of a few keys or gestures. While the augmented reality vs virtual reality debate is still going strong, early adopters and innovators in both realms are adding fuel to the fire at the urban design camp. Here we take a look at the technologies and institutions already harnessing VR and/or AR to influence and inspire cities old and new.

CityScope (MIT Media Lab)

Bringing together the endless possibilities of the digital realm with imagination-igniting simplicity of the analogue world, MIT’s ground-breaking system which pairs good old fashioned Lego with futuristic data visualization, continues to keep us in awe. After building replica cities out of white plastic bricks, the systems developed at MIT Media Lab harness real time, big data to explore the potential impact of disruptive technologies and urban interventions on new and existing cities. Thanks to its reliance on data as a variable, the possible applications in the urban realm are unlimited. From seeing the impact on walkability one new building can have on a historic city to prototyping brand new cities with need-based zoning, it shouldn’t be long until the team’s experiments become the norm in urban planning.


Though so far most adopters of Augment have used the VR and AR app to sell, creating interactive floor maps and immersive marketing materials, the app’s commercial edge has led to more than two million downloads, with 30% of users coming from the architecture, engineering and construction industries. The Orlando and Paris-based startup’s app works with traditional design softwares such as SketchUp, 3DS Max and SoldidWorks, letting architects upload their 3D model before using a mobile or tablet camera to scan either paper plans or the physical site, and merging the two together for a realistic and immersive experience.


With new cities are being built daily to accommodate growing populations worldwide, it’s no surprise landscape architects are getting in on virtual reality to inform both design and function decisions. Whether it’s a luxury gated community or a plot developed with affordability and the working class in mind, LandMentor gamifies the process of planning entire plots of land from scratch. Updating the antiquated processes of land surveying and spatial urban planning, the software integrates both contour mapping and civil engineering and places the data created by engineers and architects over the natural or proposed digital terrain using a gaming engine, roamable with the use of an Xbox controller and Oculus Rift.


An off-shoot of Dassault Systemes 3DEXPERIENCE platform, Geovia EXPERIENCity takes the pioneers’ experience and arms its users with the tools and impetus to disrupt what they call the ‘science of cities’ by allowing urban planners, geographers, data analysts and developers alike to create holistic, virtual models of cities and digitally test ideas and solutions while considering the larger effect changes will have on the urban environment. By integrating data from connected devices and that collected from monitoring human behaviour, the creators hope to lend a hand in developing responsive cities that can adapt to all matter of changes. Currently being used to develop a pilot project in which a digital replica of one of the world’s smartest city’s so far, Singapore, the experiment will take government issued data and collected IoT data to update the virtual city in real time to inform logistics, infrastructural and environmental decisions.