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Mobile's Next Big Thing: Augmented Reality

SPRXmobile's Layar technology in action
SPRXmobile's Layar technology in action
Source: SPRXmobile

Augmented reality, or the ability to overlay information on real-world views seen through a smartphone camera lens, is poised to become the next hot trend in mobile apps.

Until recently augmented reality (AR) was mainly relegated to college and other research labs. That's changing, as AR is starting to show up in mobile applications with the release of new smartphones, including the iPhone 3GS and Android handsets, equipped to support the technology.

"We're entering a whole new era of augmented reality because now smartphones have compasses, sensors, GPS, accelerometers and powerful processors," Eric Klopfer, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who conducts AR research, told InternetNews.com.

"You need to detect orientation, the ability to know not just where you are, but which direction you're facing, that's critical for augmented reality apps and now it's here."

The Layar Reality Browser 2.0 app for Android-powered handsets, for example, shows viewers information from Wikipedia and Yelp on scenes of interest. The free app was created by Amsterdam-based SPRXmobile, and the team is currently working on a version for the iPhone.

More AR apps for the iPhone will soon be showing up, as developers were eagerly awaiting support for the technology in the updated OS 3.1, which was released recently.

The AR trend is expected to continue driving mobile app downloads, which one analyst firm says are on pace to triple by 2014. Downloads from all app stores will reach 6.67 billion applications by 2014, up from two billion this year, according to Vikrant Gandhi, analyst at market research firm Frost & Sullivan and author of "An Insight into the U.S. Smartphone Application Storefront Market."

Here come the Augmented Reality apps

Chetan Damani's company is one of the developers who submitted AR apps to Apple upon release of OS 3.1. He's founder and managing director of Imano, a London-based firm that creates apps that enable users to display subway information over real-world images of metropolitan areas, and has several versions on tap for cities around the world, including New York and San Francisco.

"We have quite a few AR apps, which are ready to go live," Damani said in an e-mail sent to InternetNews.com. "We have many more in the pipeline including apps for major brands and AR games."

Down the road, Damani said his company hopes to create more interactive AR apps.

"Quite a few opportunities are available. We are focusing on building an AR browser that will allow companies, brands and individuals to build on top of the browser, adding their own data feeds and designs," he said. "Right now, the biggest issues are regarding the accuracy of the GPS, but there are new solutions to that, and we are looking to implement them."

Social networking and AR

Beyond the travel and tourist type apps, which Klopfer called the "low-hanging fruit," we can also expect to see a significant rise in AR apps that incorporate social networking.

"There are some very interesting social apps, I think on the horizon we'll see a lot of gaming apps and see social interaction come into play, like location-based Twitter feeds," Klopfer said.

Social media analyst Jeremiah Owyang agrees. "What's the trend? Convergence. Mobile devices are giving birth to applications that triangulate geo data, compasses and social data and serve up unique experiences," Owyang wrote in a recent blog post discussing AR.

One early example comes from Mobilizy, an Austrian-based firm, and the creator of a new app that combines user-generated content with AR.

On Aug. 29 the company updated its signature AR Android app Wikitude, which pulls information from Wikipedia and Qype, the European user-generated review service, and overlays that data on points of interest. Version 3 of Wikitude now integrates with the company's own user-generated geo-tagging app Wikitude.me, which was also updated.

Wikitude.me lets users create their own points-of-interest and location-specific, hyper-linked digital content that can be viewed through the Wikitude browser app.

"Wikitude.me is the first platform which allows individuals to actively contribute to augmented reality. This is an amazing and huge step forward in the AR industry," says Markus Tripp, the project manager for Wikitude, at the company's Web site.

Damani, however, says AR is going to have huge repercussions in the mobile sector beyond the app market.

"The biggest impact is going to be in the local search field," he said. "The AR capability allows users to search for much more than just retail locations around them, they can actually find friends, property and much more.

"It also provides a great advertising platform for local businesses."