Smartphones pave the way for the new augmented reality
AUGMENTED reality (AR) as a concept may have been around in some form or other for more than 50 years, but it's the recent emergence of devices like Android and the iPhone 3GS that has started to facilitate mainstream applications of the technology over the past six months or so.
And it's a technology that's enabling smartphones to be a whole lot smarter. Using AR applications specially designed for these phones, together with GPS, a compass and camera in the device, the user can simply point their mobile camera viewer down any street and scan it around to see real-time digital information about nearby services overlaid onto the actual world in front of them. One example is the Nearest Tube app, developed by Acrossair, which shows users in London where the nearest underground stations are in relation to their position.
The introduction last year of a number of mobile AR browsers - including Layar from Dutch company SPRXmobile and Wikitude from Salzburg-based Mobilizy - has been the catalyst for developers all over the world to create their own apps or content layers to sit on top of these platforms. For the most part, the browsers and the apps are free to download.
Some Irish-specific applications have also been developed and are now available in either the Google Apps Store or on iTunes. These include RateMyArea from Ratemyarea.com, Daft.ie's Property Search, Dublin Bikes and Dublin Bus Stops by Smallroomstudios.net and Dublin Train Stations, developed by MercuryGirl.
RateMyArea is a social network where users share their favourite places with friends, family and people living in their area.
"It's all about putting places on the map," explains Mike Brennan, CEO of RateMyArea. "This ties in really nicely to AR, which is about putting things into spatial context through visualisation, not on the map but actually through the camera on your phone.
"The really exciting thing is when you think of search you think of Google, text, links and search engines," he continues. "Suddenly we had Google Maps and that got really interesting because people could search places and see all the information like web pages, but presented on the map.
"Now we've moved onto something that's both visual and spatial and is presented to someone through the camera lens on their phone. It's a completely new way to search. It's more interactive, there's no typing involved, so it's a perfect fit with the mobile device."
Daft.ie's Property Search, meanwhile, allows users to look at properties for sale or rent in their immediate vicinity. As the phone is moved around, blue dots appear on the screen to indicate where those properties are. The app also displays information about price, as well as photographs of the interior and contact details for the owner.
Elsewhere, MercuryGirl's Dart application started off as a standard app with train times. "Then we upgraded it to an AR application," explains Tim Duggan, the company's co-founder. "You can find out the Dart times and where the Dart stations are around you by holding up your phone and turning around. It'll tell you how far away the station is and in how many minutes the next train will be there."
The two applications from Smallroomstudios.net, meanwhile, provide information about where the nearest bike stations and bus stops are.
"AR is a novel application, but I think people are starting to realise how useful it can be," says Patrick O'Reilly of Smallroomstudios.net.
The widespread uptake of AR, according to O'Reilly, will hinge on the mainstream adoption of smartphones, as well as a reduction in data prices and roaming charges.
Duggan also believes there is particular potential at the industrial level. "BMW are putting a lot of money into the research of how AR is going to help them streamline their business at a factory level," he says.
Possible applications can be seen in a mocked-up AR demonstration by BMW, which can be viewed online, where a mechanic wearing AR goggles follows instructions to change an engine's fan cowl.
"Effectively, you could have someone who knows nothing about mechanics refitting an engine. There are lots of practical applications for AR in industry, especially in medicine, where it's extremely beneficial to have real-time data overlaid onto a real-world object," explains Duggan.
"It's incredibly exciting and what we're doing on the geo side is just one aspect of it," says Brennan. "It's only the start of AR."
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