First a confession is in order – I’m not a big fan of cell phone cameras. In the corporate world, they are sometimes banned or considered a nuisance. In talking around the water cooler, cell phone cameras are terrific for documenting car accidents, especially when you aren’t at fault. However an exciting use for cell phone cameras has emerged from Europe – augmented reality. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of augmented reality, think of the Terminator movies. When the robot looks at a person, scene or object, there is a set of facts or augmented information presented as a layer on top of the picture. For fighter pilots, the heads up display while looking forward out of the canopy is another good example of augmented reality.
The idea that you can point your cell phone camera at the scene in front of you and immediately through a “reality” browser see overlays of information about shops, restaurants and other facts is exciting and potentially game-changing for tourism, advertising, and mobile browsing in general. Using the location-based services for cell phones, especially smartphones with built in GPS features, the software creates a “layer” of information on top of the picture. In fact, the company, sprxmobile, driving this capability has a product called Layar that enables real time digital information on top of reality through the camera of a cell phone. Their web site lists 87 available layers in many verticals including real estate, healthcare, transportation, tourism, entertainment, weather, schools and universities, and local search and directory services. Today, the new software is limited to the Android operating system used in Google-oriented cell phones, but hopefully the idea will grab mainstream attention and move to other major smartphone operating systems.
Clearly, adding this reality layer service to browsers has broad applications beyond cell phones, however there are immediate applications for mobile users that come to mind. Standing in front of a house for sale, pointing the camera at the home and seeing the price, number of bedrooms, etc. would be great. Even better would be the ability to compare augmented information from a snapshot of a home up the street. The application could capture the location based information from the cell phone with the picture and enhance the search experience. Think about the impact of digital photography to grab GPS coordinates for adding information automatically or posting location information to Flickr, for example.
Augmented reality may be the “killer” application for smartphones beyond the obvious contact and calendar management. The ability to add the value of layers of actionable information to where you are immediately located could revolutionize personal computing as well. The ease of adding this type of service to a browser demonstrates the power of both web services and mash-ups. My hope would be that it doesn’t simply add more advertising to our world, but ease traveling, shopping, navigating universities and large sporting venues and bring us actionable information in real time. It is an exciting technology that needs to be nurtured and adopted for mainstream cell phones.