Augmented reality: Pure hype or Next Big Thing in mobile?

'Surf the world' as you walk through it

Augmented reality technology is getting a lot of attention these days -- particularly the use of AR with smartphones. The idea is that by using certain software, you can turn your iPhone, Droid or other smartphone into a virtual heads-up display.

augmented reality
Reality through the eye of the iPhone holder?

Aim your phone's camera at a shop, restaurant or landmark, and information about the place, such as hours of operation, reviews or directions, appears on the device's screen as graphics floating over the image of the place.

Dozens of developers of mobile augmented reality apps are banking on AR becoming the Next Big Thing in the mobile market. Indeed, a recent Juniper Research report predicted that annual revenues from mobile AR apps will reach $732 million by 2014, up from less than $1 million in 2009.

During this early stage in the use of mobile AR applications, users should be advised not to set their expectations too high, because current models of smartphones have limited capabilities. But the biggest question is whether augmented reality will turn out to be nothing more than hype.

Remember a few years ago when corporations rushed to establish virtual offices and storefronts in Second Life and other virtual worlds, only to see them wither on the vine? While AR appears to be more useful than virtual worlds (and therefore more likely to succeed), it remains to be seen how the technology will be developed and adopted in real-world use. In particular, those in the business world would like to know if, and when, their operations could somehow benefit from using AR.

With those thoughts in mind, here's a short primer on AR for mobile devices, along with some need-to-know points about the technology.

Augmented reality 101

The term augmented reality can actually be applied to two types of technologies. One version of AR involves systems that use a webcam or a video camera to capture an image of a user (his head, hands or body, etc.) or of a real-world object in real time and put that image on a computer screen. Software then tracks the user's or the object's movements in real space so it appears that that user or the object is interacting with a virtual object (like a 3D graphic model) on the screen.

This type of AR technology has been used in video games (like the EyeToy for the PlayStation 2), in promotional tools (like this system in Lego stores), and as an online shopping aide -- for example, a system could allow a shopper to "try on" clothes virtually before making a purchase. In the business world, this version of AR might be used to test products or marketing ideas. Total Immersion SA is one company that sells this type of technology to other businesses.

Wikitude World Browser at the Space Needle.

Wikitude World Browser at Seattle's Space Needle.

Click to view larger image.

The second kind of augmented reality systems use webcams or the cameras of smartphones or other devices to capture real-world images and then lay text, links or other objects (again, like a 3D graphic model) over the images on-screen. With this type of app, you can point the camera of an Internet-enabled device at a building or landmark and receive helpful information about it right on your screen.

That's how many of today's AR apps work. They include GeoVector's World Surfer (for iPhone OS and Android) and Mobilizy's Wikitude World Browser (for iPhone OS, Android and Symbian OS). This form of augmented reality has been getting the most attention because of the novel way it allows the user to interact with the world. But how does it work?

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