A relaxed late evening stroll along the esplanade in my seaside hometown may not seem like the ideal opportunity to test out what may be the cutting edge of mobile app technology, but it was this week.
On the walk I’d noticed an enormously large cargo ship with giant cranes on its deck floating in the sunset haze a few miles out at sea, and I was curious what the ship was named and where she was from. Fortunately there was an app for that. An augmented reality app.
Augmented reality covers the many ways of adding digital information to the real world around you, usually by adding on-screen flags to the video feed from a smartphone’s camera. It’s clever and very futuristic, but you can still try it out now easily.
To identify the ship, for example, I used a free app, Layar, which can pull in many different sources of augmented information. In my case it was data from Vesseltracker.com, which has up-to-date location information about ships in its database.
The Layar app knew where I was standing and which way my phone was pointing, so all I had to do was direct it at the ship. It showed a handy flag above the ship’s image on-screen and said I was looking at the Sagitta, a 450-foot vessel. It was satisfying if pointless information for me, though you can imagine sailors may find such data useful.
Layar doesn’t just have ship information, though; it also offers many augmented reality “layers,” which are basically mini-apps. Each has different types of information available when you look around with the phone’s camera. You can identify aircraft flying overhead, find beaches, tourist locations or nearby Foursquare locales, and even see apartments listed for rent in local real estate offices.
The usefulness of these varies, but one for finding ATMs demonstrates the power of Layar. The ATM-finder I often use, set for local banks, shows you the bank’s name and how far away it is, which is handy when I need cash in the city and need to work out where to go. I just swing the camera around to see which ATM is nearest and use the app to help me get there on foot.
To help find the most useful layers for a user, Layar sorts a list of them by ones that are nearby, frequently chosen or new, or which fit into a long list of categories, like interesting architecture and open-access Wi-Fi hot spots. You can test each one out, and then save it in your favorites list for easy access at a later date, or return to the lists to find one that’s more useful or relevant.
Layar’s recently been experimenting with object recognition so that if you point its camera at an item it can recognize, it will give you certain information — like the price and availability of a book. And if you find a magazine or printed ad that’s compatible, it will show you the augmented content, which could be a Web link or a video that moves around as you jiggle the camera. It feels science-fictionesque.
Layar isn’t the simplest app to use, and it does sometimes get a bit slow and occasionally confused about what you’re pointing at.
Also, most of the time, people use augmented reality apps outdoors, and are unable to tap into a Wi-Fi network, so a 3G connection will be necessary to get all that juicy data. Layar runs in similar ways on the iPhone and on phones using the Android operating system, and most layers are free.
Junaio, from Metaio, is also free on both the iPhone and Android phones, and does broadly similar things, though its interface is in some ways a little simpler to navigate because of its on-screen icons.
It’s not quite as good at presenting available layers to you, but in practice it’s very similar to Layar, with the advantage of a built-in bar code scanner and QR code reader for acquiring augmented information when you’re standing in a bookstore.
Much like Layer, Junaio has AR “channels” that hint at the powerful social media aspects of this technology, because they show you where Panoramio or Instagram photos have been taken near you — great information if you’re looking for a beauty spot in a city — or where recent Twitter updates have been made.
And lest you think apps like these have limited practical use, then check out AugSatNav, free on Android. It acts like a standard GPS navigation app, only instead of showing you a figurative map of the route you need to follow, it uses the phone’s camera view and a superimposed line that represents the path to your destination so you don’t need to bother with instructions like “in 300 yards turn right.”
In this case, the app is simplistic and not quite as powerful as unaugmented alternatives, but it’s a hint of bigger things in augmented reality’s future.
It may be worth getting familiar with augmented reality not because it’s fun and occasionally useful, but because it is the future of mobile devices — especially if Google’s wearable Project Glass becomes popular. Then instead of having to hold your phone up awkwardly in front of you, Google will deliver little pieces of augmented information right into your field of view.
If all this clever stuff is too tiring, check out the new Bop It! Smash app, free for iPhones, a new and cheerfully silly take on the real-life Bop It toy that requires you to get fairly physical with your phone.
The new Temple Run: Brave game is a version of an existing app that’s been tweaked in collaboration with Disney-Pixar to give it delightful graphics in keeping with the animated film. It’s simple fun, and costs 99 cents for iOS and Android versions.
The New York Times