In 2016, as a part of its City Science initiative, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab collaborated with the City of Hamburg on a project called Finding Places, using optically-tagged LEGO bricks, simulation algorithms, and augmented reality to model potential locations for refugee accommodations. MIT researchers held dozens of community engagement meetings with local leaders and community members, where participants gathered around displays of the city that adjusted in real-time to user interactions, showing key statistics and transformations of urban areas. Locals could move the gridded LEGO bricks around the table to control locations and attributes of accommodations, and visualize the results. Participants identified 160 locations, and the government quickly authorized 44 and constructed ten—compressing a process that can often take years.
Ariel Noyman, a researcher with the City Science project at the MIT Media Lab, has argued that “physical, tangible tools are better for understanding what happens in a city.” AR can vivify once-static data: “If we add an office building, that might be another 700 people leaving in cars and more congestion,” he said. However, there’s a huge difference between hearing this statistic and seeing it played out. “We want people to be able to physically visualize congestion,” he continued.