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Augmenting my 'augmented reality' review (updated)

If you've been wondering why some people have started walked around while holding a smartphone a foot in front of their face, today's column may explain the phenomenon.


My story covers something called "augmented reality." That might sound like something you experience after knocking back a few beers, but in the realm of smartphone software it can be a lot more useful. By superimposing links to Web resources on a phone camera's view of your surroundings, these applications give you a way to inform yourself about the world around you that's both giggle-inducing and elegantly simple.

As Yelp's iPhone product manager Eric Singley explained, an augmented-reality interface like Yelp's Monocle can be both a "a party trick" and a big help anytime you're not sure of the nearest street address.

After playing around with a few "AR" apps -- first on Google Android phones, where most of these programs have debuted, and then on an iPhone 3GS -- I've decided that my next phone will need to have this capability. It's just too interesting, and too useful, to give up that option.

(So much for the otherwise appealing Palm Pre; the AR developers I spoke to said that device wouldn't work for their software, and most also said writing for BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phones would be difficult or impossible. On a related note, please disregard my earlier characterization of the iPhone 3GS's compass as "less useful.")

If you have an Android device or an iPhone 3GS, I'd suggest you start with the free Layar, pictured above, and play around with some of the data layers available under its "Featured" and "Popular" tabs -- say, Yelp, "Tweeps Around," Sunlight Labs' and Wikipedia.

For more info on this topic, have a look at a good essay the Economist ran in September that helped shape my thoughts on this subject. (While I'm handing out credit, I ought to thank the folks at the MIT Club of Washington, whose invitation to speak about future smartphone developments got a few wheels turning in my head.)


You should also set aside time to read a science-fiction novel, Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End," which describes a world in which augmented-reality "overlays" provided by computerized contact lenses and clothing have become both an art form and a shared experience of "belief circle" communities. (Note: I haven't finished reading it myself, so, please, no spoilers in the comments.) In an e-mail, Layar developer Maarten Lens-FitzGerald cited that 2006 work as a key influence: "This book, apart from being an entertaining novel, can also be read as a near future scenario about how the world might be working in 10 years time. It gave us [...] some good insight about where we are headed."

Update: I'd e-mailed Vinge Thursday morning to ask for his $.02 worth on the topic. His reply arrived Friday night; in it, he noted that he had, "alas," not tried any AR programs yet, then offered some context for his technological forecast.

I think overlays depend on improvements in two technologies:

(1) wearable display devices,

(2) accurate location and direction-of-look information.

When I was writing _Rainbows End_ (and the earlier story it is based on,"Fast Times at Fairmont High" (2001)), I probably thought mass-market versions would come around 2012-2017. Thus I was surprised (and pleased :-) to see such apps already.

I suspect the fast progress is not so much because of changes in underlying hardware trends as it is that developers realize what a big win augmented realities can be -- and so they have figured out how to get the basic effect with much more limited versions of (1) and (2) than had earlier been thought necessary.

Hopefully, the current versions will now inspire popular demand for improvements in (1) and (2).

So here we've gone from sci-fi to shipping code in under three years. Have you tried any of these programs yourself? Which ones would you recommend? What sort of Web data would you like to see presented in an augmented-reality interface next? The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 20, 2009; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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You know what the breakout app is going to be? AR Spam.

Posted by: wiredog | November 20, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Second article I read today on "augmented reality", which I hadn't heard of before. The other one was about James Cameron's Avatar having sponsor tie-ins with "augmented reality", that work with your webcam on your computer. You hold up the toy/Coke can to your web cam and can interact with some web sites/games.

Posted by: filmjoy | November 20, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Good to see you are reading Rainbows End! As soon as I read the first part of the article I was thinking, "I wonder if Rob will mention Rainbows End."

And wiredog: IIRC, the book does address the issue of spam in the augmented reality.

Posted by: David_Alpert | November 20, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm not buying it until the interface is in cool-looking sunglasses.

Posted by: bokamba | November 20, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I suspect that even Dr Vinge would agree: If you think we have problems now with carloads of teens wrecking all over the place because of txtng-while-drvng, you can barely begin to imagine what will result from ARing-while-driving.

It hasn't even started yet and I'm _already_ afraid to come out of the house. ;)

Posted by: thardman | November 21, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse


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Posted by: | November 21, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

If you're really interested in this stuff, you ought to get on the front lines at ARDEV. They're having an unconference in NYC in a couple of weeks:

Posted by: slar | November 24, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

I couldn't find Layar in the marketplace. I contacted the company and they told me it isn't supported yet on the Droid. Check out

They report that they are working on an update.

Posted by: LazyTechie | November 24, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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