The Convergence of Augmented Reality and GIS

Posted by Dr. Todd Pierce

Today is GIS Day, a day started in 1999 to showcase the many uses of geographical information systems (GIS). Earlier blog posts by Locus Technologies for GIS day have shown how GIS supports cutting-edge visualization of objects in space and over time. This year’s post explains how GIS supports augmented reality.

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that enhances how we experience the real world by overlaying your surroundings with computer-generated objects. It differs from virtual reality (VR) because in VR, everything you see is computer generated, but in AR, the majority of what you see is real – your experience of reality is enhanced (augmented) but not totally replaced.

You are probably familiar with one AR application already if you watch American football. The ‘virtual’ first down line that appears on field before each play is projected there by computer and is not really painted on the field. If you follow soccer (or football to the rest of the world), AR is used by a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to objectively determine tight offsides decisions. Digital lines are drawn across the field to show whether or not attackers are illegally past the last defender or not. Another AR example is the popular game Pokémon Go that shows cute virtual creatures in your living room or your front yard.

To experience AR, you need something to project the non-real objects onto your view of the world. Many AR applications use mobile phones or other devices. An AR application uses the camera view to show you the world around you and then overlays virtual objects onto the view. Other devices such as head mounted displays, ‘smart glasses’, or even ‘bionic contact lenses’ can use AR, but have not been as popular as phones or other mobile devices. In contrast to AR, VR cannot be fully supported with just a mobile device and usually requires headsets to immerse you in a virtual world. Because of this need, AR is much less intrusive than VR is.

Countless other examples of AR already exist in many fields. A few selected applications include:

  • Online shoppers at some e-commerce sites can use smart devices to project furniture into their home to see how the pieces look before making a purchase.
  • Some clothing stores can project clothing onto shoppers’ bodies to check appearance without having to change clothes. These applications require the user to be in a special dressing booth with full body scanning capabilities.
  • Urban planners use AR to display how planned buildings, cell towers, wind turbines, and other structures would look in the existing space. Planners can walk the streets and view how proposed projects would alter the existing cityscape.
  • AR is used in manufacturing to display operation and safety instructions in a worker’s field of vision using head mounted displays, which circumvents the need to refer to bulky paper manuals.
  • Utility managers can see underground pipelines, water lines, sewer pipes, electrical lines, and other infrastructure projected below their feet.

So how does GIS relate to AR? There are three main uses of GIS in AR:

  • Location: Any AR application must know where the user is and where to place virtual objects. In most cases, full GIS capabilities are not needed; instead, the application accesses a GPS (global positioning system) to find locations. Consider the Pokémon Go application mentioned before. The game knows where the various Pokémon need to appear. When a user plays the game, it uses GPS to find the user, and then shows any Pokémon that are near the user based on their locations.
  • Layers: An AR application may need to show features that are not visible to the user, such as underground electrical lines, earthquake fault lines, property lines, or planned buildings. All these features can be stored as GIS map layers in the cloud and then displayed in the AR application as virtual overlays projected on the real world. Furthermore, a user could select a displayed item and view related attribute information in the GIS layer. For example, a user could view the condition, age, and repair status of a selected water pipeline.
  • Navigation: An AR application may also need to help a user get from point A to point B, for example in a crowded airport or in a large warehouse. Such navigation could be facilitated by showing virtual route markers and arrows on the real world.

Locus has been exploring environmental uses of AR and GIS by adding AR to Locus Mobile, which is the Locus app for collecting field data, completing EHS audits, tracking waste containers, and completing other tasks requiring users to gather data out of the office. Locus Mobile now features an AR mode to assist users when taking field samples. When the user activates AR mode, the app uses the camera to show the user’s immediate area. The app then puts multiple virtual markers on the display corresponding to sampling points located in that direction. As the user moves or rotates the phone to change the viewing area, the markers change to reflect the locations in the user’s line of sight. Clicking a marker provides more information including the location name and the distance from the user.

Locus Mobile uses all three ways to combine GIS with AR:

  • By using GPS to find the user’s location and the locations of nearby sampling points.
  • By using GIS to display the layer of sampling points.
  • By using GIS to assist with navigation to sampling points by showing distance and direction.

Here is a sample image from Locus Mobile showing three nearby sampling locations along with information about past events or measurements at the locations. The three blue banners are the augmented reality displayed on top of the view of the nearby surroundings.

Locus Augmented Reality

By using GIS and AR to assist users in finding sampling points, Locus Mobile makes field personnel more productive. Samplers can find field locations quickly and can easily pull up related information. Locus continues to explore using AR to expand the functionality of its environmental applications.


Interested in Locus’ GIS solutions?

Locus GIS+ features all of the functionality you love in EIM’s classic Google Maps GIS for environmental management—integrated with the powerful cartography, interoperability, & smart-mapping features of Esri’s ArcGIS platform!


Dr. Todd Pierce

About the Author—Dr. Todd Pierce, Locus Technologies

Dr. Pierce manages a team of programmers tasked with development and implementation of Locus’ EIM application, which lets users manage their environmental data in the cloud using Software-as-a-Service technology. Dr. Pierce is also directly responsible for research and development of Locus’ GIS (geographic information systems) and visualization tools for mapping analytical and subsurface data. Dr. Pierce earned his GIS Professional (GISP) certification in 2010.

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