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I've always known that Ryerson students were a tough bunch; unlike those pampered U of T types with their bucolic Philosopher's Walk and spacious campus, attending classes in Toronto's gritty downtown core toughens a person up.

What I didn't know, however, was that Vincent Hui's students were now power-lifting buildings and flinging them around potential build sites.

For instance, just the other day, Prof. Hui, Kevin Pu, Ariel Cooke and Gary Luk brought me over to a McGill Street surface parking lot a few minutes walk from Ryerson's architecture building. There, right beside a stately Victorian home, they threw down a Modernist dwelling as quickly as Stone Cold Steve Austin, then, deciding they hadn't got the setbacks quite right, picked it right up again and moved it back a couple of feet … all without breaking a sweat.

Did I mention they used a computer? And what they were picking up was a big card with a simple QR code printed on it? Still – pretty impressive: It took a lot of heavy mental lifting to get to this point.

It's all done with augmented reality, which is, simply put, the combination of a real-world view that is then enhanced by applying a layer of computer graphics, sound or text (or all three). And it's an area Prof. Hui has explored before: in February 2012, I reported on a smart phone app the professor and his team had developed that allows users to point their phone's camera in any direction and be rewarded with tiny photos of architectural landmarks in the area. As the person walks, the photo of the closest landmark grows larger – virtual carrots that can actually be caught if one heads in the right direction. A tap on that photo at any time opens a treasure chest of information in the form of archival photos, floor plans, historical documents, or paragraphs of text.

This time, however, with Augmented Reality in Development Design (ARIDD), Prof. Hui and supporting developer Matthew Compeau (a former student) have targeted the professional world of designers. In our very visual world, they thought, it'd be pretty neat if an architect could meet his or her client at a potential build site, then, using a little HD camera, laptop and a QR code, show them exactly what their new home would look like in 1:1 scale.

"The bane of a lot of residential projects proves to be line-of-sight, setbacks [and] technical issues that people don't necessarily see in drawings or architects are conveniently hiding," says Prof. Hui. "Or that they're very inaccessible: what's a two-foot setback, what's the percentage of glazing?" Other "sociogenic" factors, too, that are impossible to predict in an office, such as traffic patterns or "a huge glare that comes off this other building that we did not see in the digital model" come to the fore after using ARIDD.

Maybe, if zoning permits (zoning parameters can be inputted into the system), the new home could tuck back a few more feet to minimize that glare, or so folks on the front porch next door aren't able to peek into the front window; maybe a window on the side of the new house lines up a little too well with the neighbour's bathroom.

And, when all of those notes are made, move the camera to change the angle of view (as long as the QR code is visible, the computer will place the house on the lot at any angle) and begin again.

And if you're inclined to dismiss this as just a "sexy new toy," the professor points out that ARIDD can be used to 'project' stages other than the finished dwelling onto a site, such as framing plans, HVAC, electrical, or even foundation plans. All that's needed is to assign those plans their own QR codes before the site visit, then print those marker cards and bring them along: these can then be swapped back-and-forth as needed. If the drawings are accurate, then what the architect and client see layered onto reality will be just as accurate: "Basically it's garbage in, garbage out," he says.

ARIDD isn't limited to the professional world, either. Professor Hui is currently using it at Ryerson's Department of Architectural Science to insert student's conceptual computer models into a tiny, physical cardboard streetscape (the one they showed me, of course, was of the Ryerson campus, which featured a completed Student Learning Centre by Snohetta/Zeidler, which is only now going up at Yonge and Gould on the old Sam the Record Man site) with a QR code the size of a postage stamp; this, of course, promotes discussions about context, massing and scale.

Currently, the software only tacks the computer model down at one point – where the QR code is placed – but, in future, geo-positioning will be able to secure it at multiple points. Another limitation, says the professor, is that tablet computers and smart phones aren't sophisticated enough to handle the 3-D models. To that end, Ryerson is working with Norm Li Architectural Graphics + Illustrations to make ARIDD "dirt easy" and convenient.

No protein shakes required.

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