Reality, but not as you knew it

 

Augmented reality marries location information with the camera and compass on high-end smartphones

IF YOU happen to walk past someone holding their mobile phone at arm’s length and waving it in the air, they’re not auditioning for a sequel to Minority Report – but they might be experiencing augmented reality.

Augmented reality (AR) marries location information with the camera and compass on high-end smartphones.

By pointing their phone at a particular street or landmark, the holder sees the image overlaid with information about nearby services – anything from shops, restaurants or Wi-Fi hotspots to ATMs, train stations or bus stops.

The information tells the person how far they are from the service, and in what direction they need to go to find it.

In June, the Dutch software company SPRXmobile launched the Layar AR browser for mobile phones, said to be the first of its kind in the world. Last month Mobilizy, an Austrian developer, launched its AR platform called Wikitude.

RateMyArea.com, the Dublin-based social reviews website, claims to be the first Irish company invited to develop an application for the Layar browser.

The site covers more than 110,000 points of interest in urban areas across Dublin, Galway and Belfast as well as several cities in the UK.

“At the moment our augmented reality platform is mainly getting accessed in the UK,” said Mike Brennan, chief executive of RateMyArea.com. “While it’s very early days, I think this is going to be huge.”

Thanks to services such as Google Maps, location-based services are becoming more and more popular and now the mobile sector is starting to pay attention.

At its Nokia World 09 conference earlier this month, the world’s largest mobile phone maker launched the N97 mini phone which makes much play of having location-based features – though not, as yet, any AR capability.

With the RateMyArea application, users can keep updating useful information about services in their locality, said Mr Brennan. “The more they contribute, the better the experience gets,” he added.

Others in the industry who have seen the technology in action said it was very impressive, albeit with some reservations.

“It is one of those ‘wow’ moments when you use it,” said Conor O’Neill, chief executive of LouderVoice, who has used the RateMyArea application and Wikitude.

Pat Phelan, chief executive of Maxroam, saw Layar at a demo and said it was “mindblowing”.

He could think of several potential applications for AR, such as offering vouchers for nearby restaurants directly to the mobile, or the ability for househunters to stand outside a property, point their camera phone at it and see the price displayed on the screen.

However, Mr Phelan said relevant data would be essential to making such services valuable to the average user. “This is going to need a whole new level of information,” he said. “Look at how long it has taken Google Maps to get to where they are.”

He also warned that AR services would need large amounts of data to be downloaded to the phone, and that would mean high charges. “Worldwide data rates haven’t dropped to a helpful price. The cost base on data roaming is going to be prohibitive, but if you’re Irish and in Galway then that’s fine.”

Another limiting factor is that so far, Layar only works with the G1 Android phone and Apple’s iPhone 3GS. The latest version of the iPhone is in extremely short supply in Ireland currently, while handsets based on Android are expected before the end of the year.

Mr O’Neill suggested AR’s appeal could be limited at the start to technology enthusiasts – much like another tool that now has everyone talking.

“All us geeks were on Twitter hyping the living daylights out of it in 2007. It took two years for it to come to the mainstream,” he said. “I think AR will be the future – I just think we’re a long way away from it.”