Ericsson has created a new mixed-reality platform that allows users to envision urban design projects in “real life”. Teaming up with UN-Habitat, Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and WITS University as part of a community project called Building the Public City Through Public Space, the Swedish telecommunications company recently tested their prototype in Braamfontein, South Africa during the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival. Albeit still very much in its early development phase, the technology gave the community a sense of what their own Minecraft public space design proposal would look like if it were actually built.



Ericsson, mixed reality platform, mixed reality urban design, Ericsson and UN-Habitat, community driven urban design, Block by Block, UN Block by Block, community urban planning, WITS University mixed reality, WITS university urban design, Johannesburg Development Agency, WITS University

Marcus Nyberg, a senior researcher with Ericsson’s Strategic Design unit, says they developed the mixed-reality platform as part of a larger initiative to engage partners outside of Ericsson in participatory planning, sustainable urbanism and future technology. JDA and WITS university chose a public space in need of improvement at the intersection of Stiemens and Bertha Street and invited passersby (and students) to use Minecraft to design a safe, welcoming space that caters to their specific needs. This is part of UN-Habitat’s broader Block by Block initiative that uses this relatively simple design program to engage underserved communities in their own urban planning.

Related: Water-purifying tower could heal landscapes scarred by acid mine drainage in South Africa
Ericsson, mixed reality platform, mixed reality urban design, Ericsson and UN-Habitat, community driven urban design, Block by Block, UN Block by Block, community urban planning, WITS University mixed reality, WITS university urban design, Johannesburg Development Agency, WITS University

Klaas Tswai, an urban design postgraduate student from WITS, coalesced the results of various proposals into one feasible, cohesive design that Ericsson then plugged into their new platform that uses “special smartphones enabled with sensors and 3D-sensing technology,” writes Joakim Formo. He continues, “For the technically inclined, the devices we used for this test were Tango-enabled smartphones/phablets that has parts of the on-board SLAM functionality disabled, instead using our own pre-loaded 3D mesh based on a Lidar-scanned point cloud which we used for occlusion-masking, ray-tracing shadows etc.”

Ericsson, mixed reality platform, mixed reality urban design, Ericsson and UN-Habitat, community driven urban design, Block by Block, UN Block by Block, community urban planning, WITS University mixed reality, WITS university urban design, Johannesburg Development Agency, WITS University

In addition to seating areas and other details, the community envisioned building a bridge over a busy street. Once the design was plugged into Ericsson’s new platform, participating community members could walk around with the smartphone and see what that bridge would look like as though it were right there in front of them. Their reactions exceeded Nyberg’s expectations. He said they did not expect people to be “so amazed” by the results.

Ericsson, mixed reality platform, mixed reality urban design, Ericsson and UN-Habitat, community driven urban design, Block by Block, UN Block by Block, community urban planning, WITS University mixed reality, WITS university urban design, Johannesburg Development Agency, WITS University

Albeit still quite elementary (I personally felt like I was walking around in Legoland), the prototypical technology clearly has immense potential. Imagine: instead of spending a pile of money and resources to design buildings or benches or whatever it is – and then finding it’s not really suitable for that particular space – this mixed-reality platform would give users an opportunity to test drive it for a while. Not only that, but getting the community involved gives them a greater sense of ownership and belonging.

+ Ericsson

+ UN-Habitat

+ Building the Public City Through Public Space

Images via Joakim Formo, Ericsson