Augmented reality to help rebuild Christchurch

Tool for Android devices enables 3D modelling of proposed new buildings

As debate takes place over the rebuilding of central Christchurch premises after the earthquake last month, people with Android mobile phones will be able to compare old and proposed new buildings on the spot – thanks to an application to be developed at Canterbury University.

“The goal of the project is that you will be able to walk around the city and see virtual buildings being put in place of the real buildings that are being demolished,” says Mark Billinghurst, director of the university’s Human Interface Technology (HIT) lab.

A company partnering the lab has a complete 3D model of all the buildings inside the four avenues that mark the boundary of central Christchurch, Billinghurst told the audience at a function to launch the Webstock 2011 conference. “So you can use this tool to put buildings back where they used to be” as augmented reality (AR) images on the Android screen, he says.

At the same time “architects will model what the city will look like in the future,” Billinghurst says. Plans are likely to be controversial, with traditional Gothic-style buildings vying with modern structures in glass and concrete, he says. “Anyone with an Android phone will be able to go downtown, look at the [planned] buildings in place and add a comment,” contributing to the discussion.

Billinghurst ran through a brief history of augmented reality for the pre-Webstock audience together with a repertoire of applications, from picture-books that generate 3D images and track the viewer’s position to maintain the illusion – to medical images.

We have technologies like X-rays and MRI that can build 3D images of the body, he said, but most diagnosticians and surgeons work with a reduction of these to two-dimensional images; “so they’re looking from the body to the image and they have to make a big mental adjustment.” Augmented reality enables the illusion of seeing inside the body in 3D, so the surgeon can have that visualisation superimposed on the real patient when operating.

Augmented reality has now become “mainstream”, Billinghurst says, as evidenced by articles in the media, Google search-term ranking (“augmented reality” overtook “virtual reality” in mid-2009) and practical implementations such as General Electric’s 3D “smart-grid” display. Here printed navigation marks on a sheet of paper held up to a PC webcam generates a 3D graphic which follows the viewpoint of the user holding the paper.

This uses the Flash ARToolkit, which Billinghurst helped develop. As most people have Flash on their PCs and many have webcams and Flash program development capability is widespread, augmented reality can be said to have arrived, he said.

There is also an implementation, SLARtoolkit, for Microsoft’s Silverlight.

The Webstock 2011 conference is scheduled for February 14-18, 2011.

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