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Creating Immersive City Experiences with Extended Reality

A head shot of Tony Li, Vice President of Strategy for Huawei Middle East.

Tony Li

2020-08-25 2488
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The turn of the new century brought significant developments that fundamentally changed consumption habits and the economy. Customer experience swiftly moved center stage, becoming the driving force behind economic development and strategic planning, significantly impacting how cities function. Today, the inhabitants of cities across the world are predominantly Millennials and Generation Z , many of whom value experiences more than things. Creating better citizen experiences has therefore become the mantra for the world's leading Smart Cities. The rise of the digital world and its integration into the physical world has created significant opportunities. A key technology enabler in this regard is Extended Reality (XR), which features multiple technologies and brings together physical and virtual worlds in new user experiences.

The two key components of XR are Augmented Reality (AR), which augments the user's existing reality by placing data and/or digital objects into it, and Virtual Reality (VR), which places the user in a new reality. VR is more geared toward consumers and has found its footing mostly in gaming, while AR is now gaining significant traction in multiple commercial use cases. The latest development in XR is the emergence of Mixed Reality (MR), which blends AR and VR where — just as with AR — digital elements are added to the real world, which you can still interact with; or, as with VR, a virtual world is created, but it is anchored in the real world. Global analyst firm IDC forecasts that the global AR and VR market will grow massively, from US$7.9 billion in 2019 to US$136.8 billion in 2024, with the AR segment providing much of that growth.

Key Sectoral Implications

For Smart Cities, XR technology offers significant possibilities around superior citizen experiences across various sectors, including entertainment, tourism, travel, healthcare, education, and city operations. Many cities are currently experimenting with these use cases, and 2020 will be a pivotal year in the short history of AR and VR technology — especially due to the accelerating effects of measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, restrictions in movement have changed the ways we collaborate, learn, and play, as well as the way we consume services. The key sectors and use cases with AR and VR implications are as follows.

Sports, Entertainment, Travel & Tourism

Gaming has been the most prominent use case for XR technologies since their inception, with Pokémon Go being the biggest success story. However, adoption in various ways in the events and tourism industries is increasing. These include virtually experiencing a tourism destination, virtual events, and immersive entertainment, as well as augmenting physical event experiences, such as museums, with additional services and information. As an example, the upcoming Museum of the Future in Dubai will use XR technologies to provide dynamic interactive experiences to visitors. The Museum is relying on the technology to change the conventional 'exhibits with labels' experience, turning it into an immersive experience that engages the visitor.

Healthcare & Education

With learning taking a sudden virtual turn during the pandemic, the future now looks increasingly 'blended.' The use of VR and AR to provide immersive learning experiences will be widespread in education, helping to improve student performance. In healthcare, AR and VR-based internal videography is already providing enhanced information that helps doctors in diagnosis and in surgery. For example, Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital, in Guangzhou, China, successfully removed a rare liver tumor from a patient, with the help of VR technologies. In the Middle East, the City of Dubai is testing a smart ambulance project, where an emergency room doctor wearing AR glasses can view a patient's data in real-time and assist paramedics in the ambulance.

City Operations

AR and VR technologies offer great opportunities to augment the capabilities of a human workforce, complementing the concepts of city digital twins and predictive city operations. City planners, for example, can use AR to create 'what-if' scenarios during the design of an asset to make informed decisions. Once a project is in operation, the operations team can use AR in various ways, such as in infrastructure maintenance, whereby activities are enhanced using historical and real-time asset data.

Collaboration & Future of Work

The most significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been on the way we work. A virtual workplace is much more common today than it was at the start of 2020, and the future of work will be digitally driven and experience centric. IDC's research has confirmed this shift in the digital transformation priorities of organizations: 70% of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) in the Middle East plan to transform the employee experience to enable remote work and improve productivity. Such initiatives are expected to focus heavily on interactive and immersive collaboration experiences, for which AR and MR technologies will be key.

Figure 1: Key Use Cases for Extended Reality and Technology Enablers

Source: IDC, 2020

Technology Enablers of Immersive Experiences

Display devices (AR and VR headsets) and host devices (Personal Computers [PCs], tablets, and smartphones) are the key components in these immersive experiences. However, the real enablers of XR are the technologies working in the background — 5G, cloud, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and big data.

• 5G: XR technologies work primarily on heavy datasets — Ultra-High Definition (UHD) and 3D video and images, as well as real-time data. This raises a whole new set of challenges in terms of connectivity — namely, processing power, bandwidth, and network latency. The untethered nature of XR devices, along with the inherent requirement for real-time data transfer, makes 5G ideal for supporting XR use cases. In fact, streaming UHD videos and AR and VR applications are expected to the most common use cases for 5G initially.

• Cloud: XR technologies are not just data-heavy, they require significant computing power and storage to render real-time augmented and virtual experiences. These technologies work best when the underlying Information Technology (IT) infrastructure supports wireless edge connectivity, data preprocessing potential, and platform-based content in the cloud. Real-time rendering from a cloud network bypasses the requirement for a high level of local processing power and storage, thus removing a significant barrier to AR and VR adoption. The future of XR looks more hybrid with the rapid expansion of 5G networks making cloud access more viable.

• Artificial Intelligence (AI): XR technology is at a crossroads with one of the most talked-about technologies of the era — AI. AR and VR that's supported with AI can create personalized experiences in real-time and at scale. XR, in conjunction with AI-based features such as gesture recognition and voice recognition, are profoundly changing the way we interact with computers and perform certain tasks.

• Big Data: XR technologies thrive on data. The undisputed fact of the digital age is the exponential increase in data availability within the business environment. XR technology, coupled with big data analytics and Machine Learning (ML), opens the opportunity for organizations to delve into this huge and ever increasing data pool, making sense of it through better visualization, to ultimately create a better customer experience and support revenue generation.


The city of the future will be defined by the engaging and effective citizen experiences it provides. XR technologies offer higher levels of engagement and immersion than any other form of digital media available today. Organizations need to use the data being created in the Smart City environment and bring content to XR platforms. They also need to focus on how content can be displayed and made interactive, to create immersive citizen and employee experiences.


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