COVID Insights, Perspectives July 17, 2020

Staying Focused on the User in a More Distanced, Touchless World 

How Augmented Reality Can Build User-Centric Experiences After COVID-19

Author: Neil Reindel, Designer at Perkins&Will, Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University. Contributing insight from David Sheldon, Associate Principal at Perkins&Will, and Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director of our partner company Portland Design Ltd. 


In the wake of this pandemic, there will be major social and economic impacts stemming from an inability to congregate, shop, and live among others. This will also intensify existing pressures in sectors like urban design, retail, education, and cultural and civic spaces. These areas will need to pivot quickly to low-density, low-contact experiences that accommodate public health needs after a pandemic while maintaining the engagement that’s key to thriving in an uncertain future. Here there are opportunities for technology to change how we interact with these spaces and each other. As designers we can work towards creating flexible spaces with equity and resiliency in mind, by considering augmented and virtual realities as a key part of design solutions.  

Post-pandemic I foresee an opportunity to reimagine retail, restaurants, and other public spaces into areas that can be enhanced by technology and augmented reality. The goal: to revitalize the design of commercial, cultural, and educational spaces in communities hit hard by the virus. 

Image courtesy of Neil Reindel, Perkins&Will
Insight for this section was contributed by David Sheldon, Associate Principal, Perkins&Will

Corridors That Revitalize Neighborhoods

Most formerly well-trafficked areas have been empty or seen reduced capacity for monthsIn our new era of physical distancing, we can look to technological infrastructure to reactivate underused urban spaces in ways that enhance neighborhoods locally.  

For example, in 2010, the company Airwalk partnered with Goldrun and Young & Rubicam to create a pop-up store in Washington Square Park in New York City and Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Here they used augmented reality to allow park-goers to shop for limited edition shoes from their smartphones, within the boundaries of the outdoor public park. Learning from this project, a temporary store or even a digital outdoor art exhibit could activate dead space on a commercial strip while a shopper or diner waits to be served nearby. For this to work, the technology must smoothly integrate into a user’s experience with the space. It’s important to note that, while smart phones are integrated into most of our lives, they can still exclude certain groups of people if they’re the only way to access VR and AR experiences. As various sectors embrace these digital opportunitiesaccessibility to multiple user groups will be critical to success.  

The next step in revitalizing some of these spaces post-COVID-19 should focus on the hyperlocal. As a designer, I do not see mega-scale developments and big box stores as the solution to rebuilding communities hit hard by the virus, like smaller towns or low-income areas. When local developers, local brands, and surrounding neighborhoods can curate their merchandise mix, it turns their streetscapes into places that residents will use. Residents then have a stake in keeping these spaces vital and promoting investment in the area. 

"As designers, we must recognize that only a small part of this approach focuses on design: a bigger part of this story is the strategy cities take to activate their streets, which can improve equity for underrepresented communities if local voices are brought to the table."

David Sheldon, Associate Principal, Perkins&Will

The Airwalk brand already had a following, and this experience allowed users to engage with them – and buy shoes – in an unusual way. 
Image courtesy of Airwalk and Goldrun
Image courtesy of Neil Reindel, Perkins&Will
Image courtesy of Neil Reindel, Perkins&Will
Insight for this section was contributed by Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director, Portland Design Ltd.

The New Retail Precedent

Retail has been moving at a disruptive speed for several years, which has been sped up by COVID-19 with store closures and increased online shoppingUsing VR / AR to create custom user experiences will catch on after this pandemic is behind us. Several years ago, Nike used an app to help customers determine shoe size and fit, eliminating the need for additional staff and minimizing the customer’s time in-store. Where traditionally retailers have wanted to extend the stay time of customers, post-pandemic some may seek ways to have fewer people in-store to minimize disease transmission: but, that shorter in-store experience would be enhanced and customized so users still enjoy engaging with the brand. This in-store, app-based model can easily be replicated elsewhere. 

Cosmetic brand Lush created a concept store in Japan that replaced pricing and signage with a purchasing app. Users take a photo of the item they want and pay through the app right then and there. Post-COVID-19, I foresee more brands seeking touchless experiences for shoppers to minimize spread of infection. App-based models like this can even be used as advertising tools: some eyewear retailers already allow customers to digitally try on frames that aren’t in-store, and then send pictures to their friends. Local customers are suddenly product models. Post-pandemic, trying frames on instore may give way to more touchless digital experiences like this. This model is also more accommodating to different user groups:  technology being embedded in the store experience improves access for those who don’t have their own hardware. It no longer matters whether someone doesn’t have a smartphone, since everything could be done on an in-store tablet.  

An in-store, app-based shopping experience.
Image courtesy of La Belle Couture's
"The Coronavirus outbreak is signaling the death of precedent, ushering in a new normal for shoppers and retailers."

Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director, Portland Design Ltd.

Image courtesy of Igloo Vision

Enhanced Educational Experiences for All Students

Field trips are integral in providing handson experiences to students, but for several years post-COVID-19travel and large-scale gatherings will likely be a concern. Additionally, budgets can bar students from field trips depending on income and school funding.

Using AR/VRarchitects can work with technologists and educational institutions to create “libraries” that store locations instead of books. Imagine a dedicated space in a school where the walls, floor, and ceiling immerse you in imagery over which you can travel, perhaps using just a VR headset or gogglesIn this model, schools could offer virtual field trips to Rome on demand, or study geography on a mountainside without leaving school groundsThis would give students access to worldwide locations, providing opportunities for more engaging lessons through virtual travel while eliminating some budget and equity concerns.   

In higher education, we could further amplify specific experiences. Imagine using this technology to practice open heart surgery in real time on digital patients, with all the variables of a live session– no tools required? Or serving as a digital lawyer for a simulated court case? Students could even design and digitally construct a building with all the factors of reality applied to test structural systemsThese uses of AR/VR could be scaled in school environments to give students of all ages and incomes hands-on experiences that could otherwise be hindered, whether by budget restraints or infectious disease concerns. As a designer I see opportunity to work with clients on designing spaces to accommodate these experiences.   

Image courtesy of Neil Reindel, Perkins&Will

Expanding Cultural Offerings Beyond the Museum Walls

Cultural institutions have archives for pieces that cannot always be shown to the public, due to limited gallery space. Using AR/VR, a museums content is no longer limited by its walls. If incorporated into the design of a cultural building, archived content can extend beyond the buildingcontinuing the experience into the surrounding city. Deploying this across the city could create engagement opportunities with local business or boost activity in curated public spaces. This could apply to traveling exhibits with extensive content, or a simultaneous global release of an artist’s exhibition. As large group gatherings and travel cause concern in the years immediately following the Coronavirus outbreak, architects and cultural institutions can seek ways to collaborate on bringing museum experiences to visitors digitally: and in doing so, reach a wider global audience.  

Taking the museum concept one step further, this use of technology could be applied to conventions, conferences, or sporting events. Here, games or presentations are applied to open spaces that bring local access to a global experience. Imagine instead of sitting in a bar and watching a distant sporting event on a small TVyou could sit outside and watch it to scale in a park?  In this vision, stadiums around the world could even show Olympic events to viewers locally, serving as multimedia event centers year-round when there are no physical games scheduled.  

The societal impacts of COVID-19 will force us all to rethink how we interact with spaces and with each other. Based on recent examples of how augmented and virtual reality have begun to impact retail, urban, educational, and cultural experiencesarchitects and urban designers must find ways to incorporate this technology into our work. These collaborations will improve outcomes and resiliency for clients and communities, as we all navigate a post-pandemic world together.  

Image courtesy of Neil Reindel, Perkins&Will