Augmented government

28 August 2013
  • Christian Doolin, Alan Holden, Vignon Zinsou, Vicky Veluz

Augmented reality (AR)—the use of technology to overlay information on a view of a real-world environment—is already used in manufacturing and by the military. Now, with advances in mobile technology and an increasing volume of digital data at our fingertips, AR is positioned to serve as a valuable asset in civilian government as well.


Imagine the world as one big computer display. Not only do you see the buildings, people, and other items in your field of vision, but you also gain additional information about the things you see. Glance at a warehouse, and up pops a list of toxic chemicals stored inside. Focus on a pickup truck preparing to cross the border into the United States, and get a notice that stress on the tires indicates that there might be contraband loaded inside. View a riverside neighborhood, and get a block-by-block update on the prospects for flooding given current water levels and the weather forecast. The possibilities are as varied as the kinds of jobs that government agencies perform.

The concept behind these possibilities is called augmented reality (AR), and it’s starting to transform the way we interact with and relate to the world around us. AR is the use of technology to overlay information—rendered in graphics, video, sound, or other formats—on a view of a real-world environment.

If you’re not familiar with AR, you might have heard of one of its recent manifestations, Google Glass. But the technology has been around for a while. Industry already uses AR to assist in manufacturing, and military forces use it on the battlefield. And with advances in mobile technology and an increasing volume of digital data at our fingertips, AR is positioned to serve as a valuable asset in government as well, helping workers in all kinds of roles make better decisions and engage their surroundings in a more meaningful way.

This video depicts how government employees could use AR to quickly gain and share the information they need to carry out important work in the following contexts:

  • Customs and border protection: Viewing data captured by sensors and delivered to a pair of AR glasses, a border agent learns that the vehicle under inspection is not registered, its weight is unevenly distributed, and there’s a custom panel installed in the body—all signs that it should get a thorough inspection.
  • Emergency response: A rescue worker equipped with AR goggles surveys a city from a helicopter after a disastrous storm. He quickly learns which roads are clear, mildly flooded, or badly flooded; sees the location of emergency shelters; and gets an alert that there is a leak of toxic, flammable materials in one of the buildings below.
  • Airport screening: Receiving data assembled and analyzed by a variety of systems, a transportation security agent with AR glasses learns which passengers have been pre-cleared to fly, receives an alert about a suspicious bag in need of inspection, and is directed toward a passenger who has set off an alarm while passing through a metal detector.