It seems hard to believe today, but the fields of carpentry, home design and renovation were completely up-ended just a century ago by the arrival and widespread adoption of a simple, new technology – the tape measure.
Rather than having to rely on short, fixed-length rulers and the inevitable errors that resulted, construction professionals began using the spring-activated device to get more accurate results. Projects became easier and faster to do and were less prone to errors.
History, as they say, has a way of repeating, which is why architects, interior designers and others involved in the real estate industry are now gearing up for the veritable second coming of the humble tape measure: augmented reality.
"It's a big game changer," says Andreas Bohm, chief executive officer of Sensopia, which makes Magic Plan, an augmented reality application that maps building interiors. "It really allows you to completely digitize the world around you, and that transforms every step of the process."
Augmented reality (AR) is mostly known so far as the technology that drove Pokemon Go to major success last year. The smartphone game, which encouraged players to capture virtual cartoon monsters hiding in real-world locations, was a big hit for developer Niantic Inc., grossing more than $1-billion (U.S.).
As with other AR apps, Pokemon Go superimposes computer-generated graphics onto the real world as seen by a camera, which interprets depth and other spatial geometry factors. Graphics can thus appear as if they are interacting with the real world, hence the term "augmented reality."
Pokemon Go's success has led to a veritable stampede into AR, with hardware and software developers alike looking to grab a piece of the technology's huge potential. The market is expected to grow to $83-billion in 2021 from just $1.2-billion last year, according to Digi-Capital.
Apple, for its part, has added more depth recognition to the cameras on its devices. The company's latest operating system update, iOS 11, also features ARKit, a set of software tools designed to help app makers take advantage of that hardware.
Sensopia, jointly based in Montreal and Munich, is doing exactly that with Magic Plan.
The app was originally created in 2011 as a way of assembling building floor plans with just a mobile device and its camera. Users simply pointed their phone or tablet at the various corners of a room and the app automatically worked out the measurements.
The first few iterations proved popular, garnering millions of downloads, but they used just a limited form of AR. Users had to stand in one spot and turn around 360 degrees to avoid creating measurement anomalies. That panorama-like process felt awkward and unnatural, Mr. Bohm says.
Apple's new ARKit adds full spatial and depth recognition, which means Magic Plan users can now freely walk around the room as they measure. It's an easy way to get around furniture and other obstacles, which means the results are more accurate.
"This is the tool I was dreaming of," Mr. Bohm says. "This is the intuitive capture process that everyone naturally would want to do."
Microsoft is also looking to grab a piece of the AR pie with HoloLens, a head-worn device that allows its user to keep their hands free.
HoloLens, which houses a full computer inside it, is aimed at industrial customers with a starting price of $4,000 (Canadian), and is starting to be deployed commercially.
Germany's Thyssenkrupp first began using the device in elevator maintenance, where it has proven to be valuable. HoloLens effectively gives service technicians X-ray vision as they can "see" through walls and panels to detect problems, and it keeps their hands free for holding tools.
The company is also now in the process of incorporating the device with in-home stair-lift installations.
Using a small plastic target held against each individual step, technicians can scan precise measurements in a matter of minutes. The company says the entire process – from measurement to installation – is now four times faster thanks to AR.
Moreover, the homeowners can also put the HoloLens on after the measurement process and see a preview of what their lift will look like. They can also suggest modifications if necessary, which is something they couldn't do before.
"Introducing a new element into a home is always a complicated thing, people tend to have difficulties visualizing it," says Luis Ramos, head of communications at Thyssenkrupp Elevator. "It's an extremely powerful sense tool."
Building design experts are bullish on AR, but they also caution that competitiveness between the companies developing the technology could hold back its potential.
Apple and Microsoft, for example, have a long history of creating proprietary technologies and file formats that don't necessarily operate together.
"The real power of this depends on its universality," says Brady Peters, an architect and designer and assistant professor at the John H. Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto. "You need to have all of your data be able to talk to each other."