Design the Augmented Reality

Paper/Video - Digital Culture, Architecture and the City


Date: 2014

Instructor: Allen Sayegh, Antoine Picon

Context: Harvard Graduate School of Design, Digital Culture, Architecture and the City Course Project

Type: Architectural Theory; Paper; Video - project at Harvard University Graduate School of Design

In this digital era, there is a trend that everything is being digitalized. This process is blurring the boundary between physical and digital. With the widespread of electronic devices, we are able to observe the environment in a totally new way, and the reality is not only physical reality anymore, but also digital reality. As traditional architects, we eager to design a better world, however we are not designing the digital realities. The well-designed architecture or landscape architecture sometimes are just functioning as ignored backgrounds for the people who just sit there playing angry bird. Developers' designed experience is dominating people’s daily life.

Augmented reality can be an approach for traditional designers to embrace the realm of digital reality. Augmented reality design has similar features as traditional architectural design, and it has more potential, it can reveal digital information on a physical site and it is responsive. Moreover, it can add another digital layer to the physical space. By introducing augmented reality design into an architectural field, the physical and digital experience would be more integrated and meaningful.


Digital Era 

We are living in a digital era, where human create digital entities and utilize them. There is a tendency that human beings digitize everything.

As designers, we cannot design without digital drawings. We used to draw on the sketchbook, created three-dimensional designs on a two-dimensional surface. And we have scale bars, which connect those drawings to the real word. A two-millimetre pencil line would actually turn out to be a two-meter-long, four-meter height concrete wall. Before the digital era, those representation methods are actually an abstracted perception of the real world. However, in the digital era, those perceptions become digitized and become more real to us. Now we are building three-dimensional models with real units like inches, meters. The digital representation is closer to the real world compared to the techniques we had before. Models are not flat anymore, we would be able to rotate it, and view it from different perspectives. And it is zoomable, we can look both inside and from afar. And this model is composited digitally, which means it is a vector, scalable. You can build the world as much detail as you want, the digital model can be a simple box as well as a complicated one with every tiny part of the building. Theoretically, you can build an object from an atom level.  And all of these properties of the digital model make it more real, just like a real object.

This digitalization trend happens on every corner around the world. Songs are now in digital formate rather than the DISC, images are stored as .jpg or .png rather than roll film. We controlled machines through buttons on the touch-screen rather than levers, and the information is stored as 0 and 1 rather than ink on paper. This tendency indicates that we are now perceiving the world in a totally different way, a more accurate, digitally created, mathematically described way. It is full of possibilities, especially for us designers.


Digital Interface 

The digital tendency are showed to us through a wide range of digital interfaces, which have already occupied our daily life.

Smartphones, of course, is the no.1 of the most used electronic products nowadays. It’s not just a device which connects people, but also a platform which creates an interface for all the digital contents. Just check the categories of the APPs: games, books, business, catalogues, education, entertainment, finance, food & drink, health & fitness, lifestyle, medical, etc.. Those digital contents cover all our demands. Smartphones provide us with a window to the digital world. And most importantly, we take them with us every day, which means it is one of our most utilized items. Compared to the space we live in, it creates another digital space where we spend most of our time. In the space of smartphones, there are functionalities, communications, interface & forms, strategies. But this space is not designed by architects but by developers.

Other digital staff includes your laptops, TVs, game consoles, wearable devices and so on. What they have in common is that they bring you enormous digital contents, which turns out to be an undesigned space.


Another Reality 

Human perception is complicated. We depend on our sensory organs such as eyes, ears. All the information is collected through those organs and analyzed in our brains which create perceptions of the reality. But sometimes this perceived reality is not completely real, especially in this digital era. The information, as well as the ways we get them, is digitalized. Information is displayed to us in a more real way. Three-dimensional digital models, graphics, textures, colors, those factors are augmenting the digital information, make them more understandable for us. And this digital information is occupying our sensory organs in thousands of ways. Displays, speakers, controllers, they are trying to introduce us the digital information inside them everywhere.

How can we know what displayed on the screen is real or not? When those digital entities become a part of our life, we get used to trusting them, we percept them as real things. We trust those digital images in the news, we trust the voice we heard in the phone. We start to regard all the digital things as real things, since they look so real.

Digital reality is becoming another reality. We live in an informative space, and this space itself can no longer exist just physically. Space nowadays is an overlaid, inter-mixed reality, it's not only consisted of volume, surface, lines and points but also “0” & “1”.

Smartphones as a mobile interface of digital content are dominating our experience in the physical space. We will put us in a comfortable place in a room where the signal is good enough to get online. We use earplugs to seclude us from the surroundings, and create our own sound environment. The phone is connecting us so we can chat with a close friend even though we are surrounded by strangers. We walk in the park and embrace the nature, the experience is so good, and we take out our phones to check what is the weather like now, then take a photo, write a post to share this space with others. The digital reality is enhancing people’s experience, but it is sometimes control-less. You cannot prevent people to watch a comedy in a memorial space, and sometimes a well-designed architecture space is just a background for those who play games on their smartphones. When space has a weak bound to the digital reality, it will tend to be ignored when people are trying to embrace the digital reality.

Technologies can mix digital reality and physical reality and then create the augmented reality. Digital content can be used to enhance our experience in a space by providing additional information in the digital layer. And the physical space provides a well-designed context for those digital content, and make them look more real.  This augmented reality will provide a lot of possibilities in the field of design. As a designer, we cannot avoid touching the digital reality, we need include them in our designs, and design the augmented reality.We want the space to provide additional informations to users, and be responsive to them. We also want to design a space to encourage connections, both digitally and physically, and we want to design a space which not only exists in a real site but also connects to the entire world.

Augmented reality design would become a new design field in this digital era.

Design the Augmented reality 

Augmented Reality is a digital interface provides connections for human’s sensory organs between the physical and digital things. When you see the real-world environment through digital media like your phones or webcams, a computer-generated real-time visual input will be overlaid onto it, providing additional information in semantic context with environmental elements. Some of the properties of augmented reality make it easy to be tightly connected to the real world which make people think it is real.



Augmented reality is an augmented digital layer of the real world, it cannot exist without an environmental context, which is the same with the traditional architecture. Traditional digital content does not have a real-world context, they just randomly exist in a virtual world, but augmented reality content does “exist” like real things. The augmented views can only be seen at a specific location and relied on a unique context. For instance, an augmented tree which can only be seen in the GSD backyard, an augmented statue which exists in the centre of a city plaza. When you approaching these places the digital content behind the real world will be revealed to you. When you design an architectural project, you will analyze the site, like its connectivities, environmental impacts, cultural context etc. And you will also need to do this in order to design an augmented object.

Like a real object, augmented reality can be seen from different perspectives at various distances. It will become bigger while people are approaching it, and you can walk around it to view it from left or right. So it can be well integrated into the physical space you designed. This feature of augmented reality also puts some regulations for architectural design. To apply augmented reality, there should be some indoor or outdoor positioning devices to determine user’s location, or the shape, texture or materials of the physical object should be easy for a computer to recognize in order to calculate the right perspective in order to overlay the augmented view. So augmented reality provides chances as well as challenges for architectural design.


Augmented reality provides additional information for a physical space. And this information can be abstract as well as concrete.

Forms, which is very important in traditional architectural design, can be designed using augmented methods. It is totally possible that the facade of a building is just a flat surface, but the augmented reality view will overlay a parametrically designed pattern on it, giving it a totally different look. Or the augmented view will simply change the texture or color of the building. The augmented forms provide designers with a chance to design things which cannot be built and liberate them to embrace a new design realm.

The augmented view can also act as a digital interface which is embedded in the real environment. The architecture can act as multiple functional screens which display the historic view of the site. And the sky can be used as a head-up display background which shows the current weather information.Those interfaces would give questions for designers, what digital content to display, why display them? When a digital interface is a must-have function for every user, it is designer’s duty to embed them in the design.

Invisible layers, which exist everywhere especially in this digital era, consist an indispensable part of the reality. For example, the invisible layers can be the transportation connections, energy flows, network activities, construction structures and so on. Revealing those layers in the augmented reality will make people understand the reality better. A landscaped plaza needs guide people to find the place they want, sign system sometimes fails to satisfy that since it can only be seen at some specific location. An augmented reality interface can be used to enhance the functionality of this plaza design, people will find a coloured guideline on the ground which is designed by designers and is embedded in the real landscape.

Augmented reality is adding another layer to the real-world and makes it more informative.



Another advantage of augmented reality is its responsiveness. Most physical space is fixed. Once it is designed and built, it’s there. This physical space is not changeable, which means it can not respond to the user. There lacks a feedback loop between user and space. Augmented reality is a space which is generated through calculation, modeling and rendering, and it is in real time. Augmented reality has the ability to change. For instance, an augmented reality landmark can be a changing animation or a changing form. The input can be the climate, or environmental pollution level. The changing of this augmented reality will reveal some physical facts and provide a response to them. The design will become a series of statues which fit the context best.

This responsiveness is very important for architectural or landscape architectural design. By design the augmented reality, space become dynamic. Space will change its space division to fit the demands of people’s activities, it creates a changing scenery which attracts people at different times of a day. It should be well designed.



Urban life is a networked life. It would be very hard for traditional designs to reveal the fact of networked city. By introducing augmented reality, it becomes easier to link a space to the overall network.

Augmented reality is an interface between the digital world and physical world, it has the potential to reveal the digital network as well as to create new network nodes. Augmented reality can be a space where people can experience online life such as news, social network, shopping, chatting, gaming, etc. By displaying those online content in a physical space, the design of this physical space would be more like a browser. It not only simply represents this location, but also represents the entire city.

Augmented Reality Underway

In this digital era, it is important for designers to understand the relationship between design and new technologies. New technologies such as augmented reality broaden the way we design and give a lot of opportunities regarding design possibilities. Now, augmented reality just started, developers use this technology to design games which happen in a real environment, there are navigation-apps which tell users the hidden information in the city, and there are also some museums which use it to enhance people’s understanding of their artworks. As the technology develops, augmented reality would definitely be a most commonly used interface between digital and physical. As a designer, we also need to consider that, should we design the digital interface of our architecture or let the developers do that?

 This is a very old paper, thanks for reading!