Augmented reality apps for your smartphone
There has been a growing enthusiasm about a new category of app for the iPhone and Android OS
There has been a growing enthusiasm about a new category of app for the iPhone and Android OS. Known simply as augmented reality apps, these innovative reality browsers overlay the physical real world with virtual data courtesy of a smartphone’s built-in GPS functionality, compass and camera.
If you are an avid watcher of sports coverage on television, you may have noticed a sponsor’s giant advertising logos superimposed onto a football or rugby pitch.
If you prefer cricket or golf, you will almost certainly have seen the Hawkeye system that shows the predicted path of the ball overlaid on an actual video replay. These are examples of a technology called augmented reality.
Augmented reality (AR) has been around for a number of years and the term is widely regarded to have been coined by a former Boeing employee called Thomas Caudell in 1990.
So what exactly is AR? In short, the basic idea of the technology is to superimpose graphics or other sensory information over a real-world environment in real time. It is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a real, physical world with elements that have been ‘augmented’ with computer generated virtual data. A modified view of reality if you like.
AR is not a groundbreaking concept and its use is certainly commonplace in the fields of education and entertainment. Adverts, video games and even the latest Hollywood blockbusters employ the technology on a regular basis.
Pop groups have started to create AR enhanced music videos and architects use the technology to simulate planned construction projects in the pre-development stage.
What has changed however, is the fact that AR has now come within arm’s reach of an ever increasing number of developers and the technology required to make full use of AR is owned by millions of people. We are talking of course about the latest batch of powerful smartphones.
AR requires GPS functionality, a compass, camera and accelerometer. The iPhone 3GS sports all of these technologies, as do phones such as the HTC Magic, HTC Legend and T-Mobile G1, all of which run Google’s Android OS.
Developers have been quick to tap into the potential popularity of handheld augmented reality and apps have already started to appear.
Layar, arguably one of the most functional at present, is leading the way and this innovative reality browser makes full use of a smartphone’s built-in GPS, compass and camera in order to bring AR to the palm of the hand.
Available as a free download from the App Store, Layar displays real-time virtual information on top of the reality of the physical environment seen through the viewfinder of the iPhone camera. Once installed, it can be used to identify nearby houses for sale, tourist information and a range of points of interest (POIs).
Simply select a layer, rotate your phone and Layar will use the built-in compass to display all the POIs in the area. Any relevant information can then be viewed at the bottom of the screen. Layar is also available as a free download for Android.
Cyclopedia is another app that taps into the functionality of the iPhone 3GS in order to create an augmented reality of the world. It does this by overlaying Wikipedia information on the environment seen through the lens of the camera.
By moving the 3GS around, you will see articles pop up according to the direction that the viewfinder is pointing. Click on a title and you get almost instant access to an overview article.
You can also choose to delve into the full article if you wish or display the entries on a regular top-down map. Wikitude offers similar functionality. This reality browser presents the 3GS user with real-time data about their immediate surroundings, nearby landmarks and a range of POIs by overlaying information on the viewfinder.
Another AR program worth a mention is Nokia Point & Find. Once installed on an S60 smartphone, this clever app enables you to access relevant information and services on the Internet simply by pointing the built-in camera at real life objects.
For example, point the viewfinder at a film poster and you could be linked to a web page with a trailer, review or to details of the closest cinema showing the film. The service combines the first mobile augmented reality browser on S60 devices with a web-based content management tool that allows anyone to create and publish augmented reality experiences.
Google Goggles offers Android users a similar AR service and lets you use snapshots taken with your smartphone to search the web. All you have to do is open the app, snap a picture and wait for the search results.
Google Goggles works better with certain types of queries, so try taking pictures of books, landmarks, logos, artwork, businesses, products, barcodes or text. It doesn’t work so well if you take snapshots of animals, plants, cars or furniture.
There has clearly been a recent proliferation in the development of handheld AR apps and if you are interested in learning about the night sky and astronomy in general, Pocket Universe could well prove a killer app.
The unique display is dynamically generated based on the current date and time and then quickly rendered in 3D. Simply hold your 3GS in front of you and the view will be exactly what you see, but with virtual data in the form of names and information overlaid.
Pocket Universe is a powerful and impressive app and one that makes learning the names and locations of constellations an enjoyable experience. Star Walk offers similar AR functionality to Pocket Universe. Simply tilt your 3GS towards the sky to activate the compass and this will determine the location and orientation of the device.
The image on the screen will be identical to the area that you are observing, with the added benefit of overlaid virtual data.