Augmented reality: Coming to a city near you

Using their smartphone’s camera and location data, users can tap into CivicAR’s augmented reality data for transit schedules or local events.

It started in games.  Now it’s coming to government services – subway stations, parks and tourist venues.  Get ready for smartphone-based augmented reality. 

Want to know when the next express downtown is coming to the bus stop on the corner?  Just point your smartphone’s camera at the stop and CivicAR can deliver up the schedule. 

By using a smartphone's location data along with the phone’s camera to detect points of interest, CivicAR can deliver in real-time virtually any data a city chooses to make available -- from transit schedules and traffic reports, to information about local events, emergency service facilities or, yes, available parking spots.

A visual search feature allows users to scan city assets like subway stations, restaurants, signs and even trees for information. CivicAR’s directional search feature leverages the phone's camera to let users explore and engage with their current environment, and a virtual teleportation feature allows them to visualize distant points of interest and facilities.

“Everything in the public sector is so location-based,” making it a natural sector for implementing augmented reality, said Greg Curtin, CEO of Civic Resource Group International, which developed CivicAR.  “The ideas [for implementing AR] have been percolating for many years, but it all came together in the past 18 months.”

According to Curtin, two factors made integrating AR feasible: the viability of the cloud as a data platform to replicate and deploy data anywhere, anytime; and the proliferation of smart mobile devices. 

“All of a sudden, there was this kind of aha! moment. It will take us into the next generation, so that we really will have smart government, smart citizens,’” said Curtin.  “It’s almost a science-fiction thing.” 

The CivicAR module joins several other modules in the cloud-based CivicConnect mobile-data platform, which can be used to deliver integrated public and third-party data streams to end-user through a variety of digital channels.

Curtin, who worked in the public sector as a municipal government attorney before founding CRGI said that “from the very beginning, I had the thought that there was an opportunity here, specifically in the government sector, to pull together a platform that would offer multiple, ready-to-go applications."  The goal, he said, was "a modular solution ready made for all the various public sectors, including government services, utilities, emergency services and so on.”

“CivicConnect manages all of the data pieces that are under the direct control of the entity," Curtin explained. "In addition, we can bring in validated data, such as from the state police, and feeds from other transit providers.” 

According to Curtin, CRGI focuses on two primary efforts.  First, it provides a cloud-based platform for integrating and processing data feeds.  Secondly, it designs applications tailored to deliver selected data to users.  With respect to apps for smartphones, CRGI writes them for Android, iOS and Windows.  At the same time, Curtin notes that clients are free to write their own apps. 

“We already have a wide range of pre-built, ready-to-go modules and applications,” Curtin said.  “All the organization has to is plug in their data.  But if an agency wants to take it on, they can gin up their own apps.”

On the back end, CivicConnect runs on Amazon Web Services.  And the CivicConnect platform can handle data from all the major databases.  “We’re technology agnostic,” said Curtin.  “Agencies often already have their chosen technologies.”

So far, he said, the early adopters in government tend to come from a single sector.  “A lot of it is being driven – no pun intended – by transit and transportation,” Curtin said, noting that transportation agencies are likely to put a primary emphasis on communications with the public.  “They’ve done some of the heavy lifting already in terms of ‘smartening up’ with smart technologies.”

With transit as an entry point, Curtin said use cases quickly expand.  “If you’ve got a parking application, why wouldn’t you want to connect that to the events that are going to drive parking?” he asked. 

Clients in government get particularly excited by potential uses for augmented reality technologies.  “AR has amazing applications and benefits in the public sector,” he said.  “When we sit down with the business folks, they’ll come up with a 100 uses cases that we didn’t even think of.  It’s not just another bell or whistle.  It really changes the way that end users engage with the public sector.”

Among the major projects already in place or under development are a WaterSmart Target online water conservation system for agencies in San Diego County, a Smart City online travel and information system for Santa Monica, Calif., and a GeoSocial interactive mapping system for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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