Ask OnSoftware: What are Augmented Reality apps?

An interesting query from one of our (anonymous) readers on a topic which has even cropped up in our editorial meetings:

Hi! I’ve been thinking about buying a smartphone, and one of the features I’ve heard people talking about on mobile blogs is “Augmented Reality”. What is that, and why is it useful? Should it affect my choice of phone?

Though it seems like something of a current buzzword, Augmented Reality as a term was actually coined in the 1980’s. In simple terms, Augmented Reality – also called AR – means the enhancement of what you have around you by adding a layer of data to it. In other words, you can use AR to make your surroundings ‘smarter’ – pointing out places of interest, for example.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkPHDMVxKn0[/youtube]

On my HTC Magic Android phone (AKA the myTouch 3G), I’ve tried out a few of the more popular AR apps and I can honestly say that while I don’t use them 24/7, knowing that I have them to hand is a great feeling. Wikitude AR is the first Augmented Reality app I tried and its results were impressive. Simply point your phone’s camera at anything you like and Wikitude combines GPS location, your phone’s internal compass and a variety of data streams (most notably Wikipedia) to provide you with a wealth of information about what you’re looking at. A newer competitor, Layar, performs similarly but with the advantage of being free and open – meaning that anyone can add their own data layer to it.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EA8xlicmT8[/youtube]

Another application, Google’s Sky Map, may not be considered to be a classic use of AR but in my opinion it’s a great example of what Augmented Reality can do. Using it to locate and name celestial objects is actually really fun and enhances a fun hobby.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6znyx0gjb4[/youtube]

So is Augmented Reality something that should affect your choice of phone? I suppose that’s for you to decide. If you can see yourself using AR to find your way around a new city, spot stars and planets, find location-relevant content, share custom data layers and more, then yes! Luckily, this no longer means being forced to pick an Android phone over Apple’s iPhone (though I can’t recommend Google’s mobile OS enough!). The most recent iPhone includes a digital compass and so it’s now capable of supporting more complicated AR apps.

Finally, take a look at how Nokia sees the future of Augmented Reality… this is a technology that really could improve our lives.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGwvZWyLiBU[/youtube]

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