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Immersive mapping

Augmented and virtual reality in GIS

Both augmented and virtual reality are immersive technologies that use computer-generated images, sounds, or other sensations to modify what a person perceives from their surroundings.

Augmented reality (AR) enhances a person’s real environment by adding digital information to it. It does not entirely cut out natural stimuli, so the user is still able to interact with their real environment. 

On the other hand, virtual reality (VR) completely places a user in a digital world. While immersed in a virtual environment, a user is not able to receive stimuli from their real surroundings. Rather, everything they see, feel, or, hear is computer generated.

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Augmented reality in GIS (ARGIS) enhances the real environment by adding computer-generated content to supplement geographical information about the real environment. 

With ARGIS, a user can still perceive their real surroundings. The addition of computer-generated content to their real surroundings helps to reveal hidden assets, such as the location of an underground pipe. 

Some applications of ARGIS include data collection, navigation assistance, and enhancement of workflows when working with underground utilities.

Virtual reality in GIS (VRGIS) generates an artificial geographical environment that replicates the real world. Specialized display screens, headsets, or gloves with sensors are used for complete immersion into the artificial world. 

With VRGIS a person interacts with the computer-generated environment without any stimuli from the real world affecting the experience. A common application of VRGIS is viewing 3D city models in virtual environments.

Applications of AR and VR in GIS

The following are some applications of AR and VR in GIS:

Augmented Reality in Navigation

Using a camera to capture the surroundings, and a screen to display directions, augmented reality can help in turn-by-turn navigation. 

Arrows are used to show a user the route to their desired destination. Navigating with augmented reality provides an enhanced experience by imposing directions on real images of the surroundings. 

Difficulties in determining a user’s pose, which is usually a problem for 2D location determination techniques, are no longer a problem when using augmented reality in navigation. A good example is Google Map’s Live View feature which uses augmented reality to guide users to their destinations.

Augmented reality can provide a seamless outdoor-to-indoor navigation experience. Unlike GNSS technology which works best outdoors but not indoors, augmented reality does not suffer the same limitations. So long as existing images of indoor space can be accessed, a user can be guided to their desired indoor location using augmented reality. This capability to work indoors makes AR useful to emergency teams in getting too specific rooms in a building faster.

Augmented Reality in GIS Data Collection

When collecting geospatial information, a field agent usually has no way to display and review the data on the go. But with augmented reality, data collected is immediately imposed on the images of the actual surroundings. Any adjustments required can be done in the field during the data collection process. Instant data checks and adjustments reduce the time and costs associated with data collection. 

Instead of having to wait till you finish collecting data before you can review, AR allows this to happen in the field, helping to make sure your data is accurate and reducing the possibility of job or task redundancies. One GIS application that incorporates augmented reality into traditional survey-grade data collection is vGIS.

Augmented Reality in Utility Management

Underground utilities like pipelines and cables can be found more efficiently with the help of augmented reality. Finding these hidden assets faster means that teams can respond to problems faster without sending much time trying to find the exact location of the utility network. AR is also helpful in uncovering assets covered by vegetation or snow. An example of an application that uses AR in utility management is vGIS utilities, which provide centimeter-level accurate augmented displays of utilities that are present in a physical site.

Virtual Reality in 3D City Designs

Urban planners can now showcase 3D city designs in real-world geographical locations using GIS and virtual reality. A virtual view of the designs simulates what the designs will look like in the real world and how they may affect already existing features. Experiencing proposed designs in 3D virtual environments can help stakeholders without technical expertise to make well-informed decisions. ArcGIS 360 VR is an example of an application that immerses viewers in 3D city models through a virtual reality headset.

Virtual Reality in GIS Modelling

GIS modeling is a useful tool in disaster management. Combined with virtual reality, models can provide a realistic view of how the real world would be affected by a certain disaster. For instance, flood modeling in a virtual environment will help to inform the choice of which mitigation or management measures will be most appropriate. 

Modeled virtual images can as well be effective in showing the effects of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions on the environment. Creating awareness in this way will help to convince populations to adopt environmentally friendly practices.

Challenges of Augmented and Virtual Reality in GIS

The biggest challenge to adopting augmented and virtual reality in GIS, as well as other fields of application, is the high equipment and development costs associated with them. 

Specialized equipment that is required for immersion into these computer-generated environments is still quite expensive. 

Hardware devices used to run AR and VR also need to have high processing power for the best experience, or lags may be experienced when loading the scenes. Generally, this makes AR and VR an expensive venture for use in everyday applications.

The Future of Augmented and Virtual Reality in GIS

As is usually the case with useful technology, it always gets better with time as experts try to find ways around the challenges. 

The software tools and hardware required for immersive AR/VR experiences already exist and what may be needed are improvements to make them lighter, more efficient, and less costly. This will catch the attention of more GIS developers who will explore the opportunity to solve geospatial problems using AR and VR.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.