Virtual Cities of the Future: Kinder & Greener

Virtual City

By Sheridan Tatsuno  |  November 17, 2017

In "Blade Runner" and the upcoming movie "Ready Player One," Hollywood shows us one of their favorite genres -- dark, violent dystopias not unlike many cities today. Dystopias have become so pervasive in movies, books and TV programs that many people are tiring of them and seeking relief in more positive stories and news. Instead of another round of virtual shoot-em-up hells, many VR developers are asking: How can virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) be used for social good to create virtual utopias? How can we imagine, visualize and design just, fair, carbon-neutral cities? This is not idle speculation since the global population is forecast to reach 9 billion people over the coming century. Real lives are at stake, not just fantasy movies and games.

Fortunately, the virtual future is quickly coming into focus since many people are working to realize this dream:

  • VR Sci Group: This non-profit international collaboration of universities, research centers, game studios and companies recently organized conferences for VR in STEM topics in Stockholm, Cologne, Copenhagen and MIT, where members explored a wide variety of non-gaming use cases and business models. Join in and invite your local colleges and universities to reinvent their cities with locals!
  • Non-gaming fields: Many Unity and Unreal VR developers are graduating from shoot-em-up games to more serious non-gaming fields, such as healthcare, sustainable cities, logistics, education/training and other mission-critical areas, especially since consumer VR growth is off several years. Unreal is already being used by many non-gaming designers. Unity is reportedly working on IoT for autonomous cars.
  • AR First: VR/AR companies are shifting to AR for smartphones to leverage existing 4G networks since fully-immersive consumer VR will require 5G, which won't arrive until 2020 at earliest. Apple's AR Kit and Google's AR Core now make it easier for professionals and amateurs alike to create their own AR worlds and content. Non-gaming AR teams are hiring domain experts trained as doctors, urban planners and logistics experts who understand the needs, requirements and complexities of their fields.
  • Enterprise VR: Most enterprises have access to fast connectivity and can afford $600 VR headsets, so they are already adopting VR and AR. Enterprises will drive VR until the consumer market takes off in 3 to 5 years. As the co-founder of One Reality, which creates VR models of Smart Sustainable Cities and human cells in the Nordics, I'm often asked how we see the future of virtual cities. Here are my preliminary observations based on our initial projects:

Smart Sustainable Cities: The biggest market for enterprise VR will be developing carbon-neutral cities under the Paris Accord since NASA and international scientists are urging all nations to move quickly to avoid 3C+ global warming. Cities consume 80% of energy and emit 60%+ of carbon. Most of the $8.5 trillion global market in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) is spent in cities, but these industries are still using paper and other old technologies. Today, we have much better digital tools. Planning and designing Smart Sustainable Cities using VR/AR+AI is the new "Holy Grail" since infrastructure decisions will embed energy use for 50 to 100 years. The Nordics are leading the charge, especially Copenhagen, which has a C40 office to train other cities. VR can be used for the entire planning process from visualization, ideation, design, simulations and IoT/AI monitoring. Unreal and Unity has open APIs so VR, AR, IoT, AI and smart cities apps can be integrated into virtual environments. I've written several articles about VR/AR+AI+blockchain for urban planning:

Logistics: Managing harbors, airports, transit hubs, warehousing, delivery centers and other logistics centers are major opportunities since VR/AR can dramatically reduce costs and time for planning, designing, visualizing and marketing infrastructure decisions. AR is already being used for warehousing and retailing. Copenhagen Malmo Port ( uses One Reality's VR for marketing its facilities to shipping lines since it is much easier for them to visualize operations. VR is also useful for planning new port facilities, multi-modal transit hubs, housing, retail, parks and other waterfront infrastructure. Integrating IoT, AI and predictive analytics is a hot field among investors since the returns can be lucrative in terms of cost savings and new revenues.

Tourism: Virtual travel promotion using simple 360 videos for smartphones over 4G networks is growing fast. AR is the next coming boom for sharing and marketing. When 5G appears from 2020, immersive VR travel tours will become popular as promotional teasers to attract real-world visitors. VR websites will monetize destinations by adding music and cultural venues, historical tours and events, and shopping by local businesses as well as major retailers.

Corporate Training: Most enterprises don't fully understand the potential of VR/AR so everyone is learning about the technologies and experimenting. VR/AR development can be outsourced to the growing market of service providers, but the biggest challenges are identifying Use Cases and Business Models, which tend to be very user-specific. For example, public utilities interested in VR/AR for managing their generators and smart grids must choose between a wide variety of potential use cases: system design, building maintenance, staff and contractor training, equipment tracking, disaster planning and recovery, investor relations, corporate meetings, etc.

Retail: Besides travel promotions, the obvious way to monetize VR/AR will be shopping. IKEA and other major retailers are testing a variety of VR/AR services, which will be a major growth field during the coming decades. 2D online shopping is already popular; VR will enable all cities, towns, builders and small businesses to create their own virtual shopping malls since they will not require costly brick-and-mortar investments. Virtual mall templates will become as common as website templates today. Think of your town or destination -- SF, LA, NYC, Paris or even Omaha or Burning Man -- as a virtual shopping mall.

Healthcare: My company, One Reality, is building VR models for human cells for medical education and research, but the real impact of VR will be tele-health and personalized healthcare where doctors and nurses will be able to talk directly with patients in "smart homes" and clinics while viewing VR models of their physical status and ailments. VR is already being developed for mental health issues, such as phobias, PTSD, and depression. AR will accelerate the adoption of tele-health services since patients, medics and nurses will be able to scan in symptoms from anywhere.

This is a just preliminary list of opportunities in virtual cities, which will blossom as VR and AR gain momentum among cities and builders. Virtual cities will combine all of these VR/AR activities in a wide variety of ways as the technologies mature and developers create useful apps. I welcome your comments and suggestions for my updates.

VR/AR is still in its infancy, as the commercial Internet was in the mid-1990s, so the best way to create our future communities and cities is to imagine them. I've written a novel about San Francisco, where the mayor challenges international VR developers to reinvent the City in order to imagine the future. Surprisingly, I recently met two people just like my characters. Often, reality is stranger than fiction....

Sheridan's VR groups on sustainable cities: (, medicine (, and social innovation (

Sheridan's book: Virtually San Francisco (