Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Sahar Fikouhi is an Architectural Designer and Director at DARF Design. She graduated from the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2012, after a 2-year Master’s investigation into Augmented Reality Architecture. She started her architectural career working for Foster + Partners, before launching DARF Design, an interactive design studio, seeking to explore the use of Augmented Reality technology within the architectural profession. Her work at DARF has been focused on implementing interactive AR solutions for architectural design visualisations, through development of an AR app targeted solely at architects and 3d designers, called ARki. Throughout her investigations into augmented reality, she has explored the capacity of this technology via large-scale architectural installations, combining her expertise of digital design, computation, and physical construction, into a collective study of spatial and interactive design. Her Augmented Reality Installations have been displayed at several art and technology events worldwide, and continue to inform her investigations into a new paradigm for Augmented Reality Architecture.
What is the idea behind ARki and how did you come up with it?
ARki is an app which helps architects, and 3d designers, visualise their projects in augmented reality, so that they can experience, and communicate the design journey with greater clarity.
The idea started during my architecture postgraduate at UCL in 2011, when I was looking into how mixed reality could potentially empower designers to create new experiences, or landscapes, which are not limited to the standard protocols of physical reality such as materials, construction, cost, government regulations and building consent. In this imagined reality of unlimited designer control and architectural freedom I came across augmented reality, as a technology which could potentially allow designers, or artists, to superimpose their ideas and creative expressions openly within the real world.
The main agenda back then was to create a prototype that could give designers a platform to share their creative ideas openly, whether it be to visualise an architectural creation on-site, or create a social movement in some way. And that’s basically how my love for augmented reality began because I started to see the power of this technology from a new perspective, which basically accepts that we are no longer limited purely to our physical reality, and that we hold a social responsibility as designers to create meaningful spaces of the future in augmented reality as well.
ARki at present is an initial response to this concept of creating augmented landscapes, and we continue to work on developing the platform into a space which will attract new social/cultural experiences on top of our existing environments in AR.
When did it all start and do you have other members in your team?
I started Darf Design in 2012 with my partner Arta Toulami, as an interactive design company, producing augmented reality experiences within the art and architecture industry. Since its inception, we have created multiple installations for various exhibitions, as well as producing bespoke architectural visualisations for architects, prior to developing the ARki app.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
My journey into augmented reality started during my postgraduate studies, and I have been working with understanding and progressing both the technology, and it’s design implications since 2011. It has taken many years to finally understand what type of AR app would most suit designers, and the several years of feedback from design students, and clients continues to inform how we develop the application for future releases.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle for me has been to create a solution to augmented reality technology that serves architectural designers in ways beyond commercial sales of real-estate. I have always been passionate about creating an AR solution which helps designers, and becomes a tool that is part of the design journey. However I have to say that going against conventional modes of visualisation within the architectural industry has been a hard road to tackle, and we continue to get most interest from younger design students, and smaller studios that are looking for innovative ways to stand out.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
The biggest achievement so far has been to see the ARki app grow in user-base with approximate 30,000 downloads across the android and iOS store. ARki has also been featured as the top architectural app on ArchDaily in 2017, which has seen a great number of new interest from designers globally. We also won an Auggie award for best AR app in 2013 at Augmented world Expo for our large scale augmented reality game installation “Hermaton”.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
We are mainly busy working on re-launching the ARki platform in May with a whole host of new features that allow designers to upload, and interactively engage with their 3d designs independently. Our mission is to produce a fully supported platform for designers in experiencing, and sharing, art and architecture in AR.
What will be the key trends in the AR/VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Wearable AR: We have been eagerly anticipating the release of Apple’s headset for many years, and it’s obvious that the biggest trend in the AR/VR industry to be the commercial success of a headset that will entice users to replace their mobile phones, and standard screen-based interactions with glass-based technology.
In terms of software, I believe that the key trend within the AR space will be the emergence of new platforms that can transform our existing environments using GPS combined AR, that can automatically transform our locality with new AR data, and social experiences.
What are the challenges of being a female founder and entrepreneur in AR/VR?
I can’t say that being female within the AR space has had a challenging impact for me, as the technology itself has been the greatest challenge to overcome, with respect to creating valuable solutions that serve clients and users, and go beyond the gimmicks of new technology. The fact that AR is more mainstream today means that my interactions with female clients and enthusiasts are increasing, and this is opening new conversations about the potential usefulness and functions of the technology, which is very refreshing.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in AR/VR out there?
My advice for female founders within the AR space would be to develop solutions that enable a deeper connection between technology and our existing built environment. The beauty of augmented reality is how it enables us to overlay our existing landscapes with new data and experiences. This is a really exciting tool that allows us to understand more about a certain place, or object, than our traditional screen based virtual reality experiences. The main driver should be focused on how AR can be used to heighten our experiences within existing environments, and not to isolate us within a virtual landscape or platform.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in AR/VR?
Creating new landscapes and spatial experiences is my main inspiration, and I think that technology such as AR is always a great tool to explore these ideas. I have to say my main female inspirations come from the Art and Architectural industry, who have all motivated me to seek innovative forms of expression, as well as exploring new ways to interpret spatial design: Zaha Hadid, Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread.
Facebook: Darf Design
Twitter: ARki App
YouTube: Darf Design
LinkedIn: Sahar Fikouhi
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.