Elgan: Is augmented reality just a cheap gimmick?

No. But most existing augmented reality apps are little more than parlor tricks.

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A magazine called Time Out New York Kids published a recent cover that used augmented reality. By pointing your phone at the cover (which showed a picture of a fifth-grade chorus), you could see a video screen rising from the magazine that showed the kids singing.

These applications of augmented reality seem cool at first but smack of novelty. And novelty wears off. These marketing campaigns have consumers jumping through hoops to see a pointless video that attaches something that isn't there to something that is. I can see a minority of consumers doing it once -- maybe twice. But after that, they'll quickly grow tired of it.

The bigger problem with these examples is that they don't augment reality. They augment marketing and media.

In reality, augmenting is useful

The larger vision for augmented reality involves both usefulness and the augmentation of the real world, not the artificial worlds of marketing and media.

A company called Shotzoom Software recently launched a $20 iPhone 4 app called Golfscape, which uses the phone's built-in gyroscope to show you distances by pointing your iPhone 4 at, say, the hole you're shooting for. This mirrors the augmented reality used on sports TV, where the line of scrimmage in football or, say, the world-record pace in swimming is represented in real time on the screen during the competition. It combines the field of play with data about the objectives of the player.

Smartphone apps offer a limited kind of augmented reality -- really a simulation of augmented reality -- based on location plus direction, as detected by a smartphone's GPS, compass, accelerometer and, if present, gyroscope.

But without object recognition, this really isn't augmented reality, and it's not likely to be embraced by the general smartphone-using public.

Acrossair builds custom iPhone apps, including one called the Acrossair browser. A bar guide helps you find the location of bars. It shows "signs" hanging in midair as you look around, using the location of the virtual sign as an indication of the direction of the watering hole. Its Carfinder function lets you use GPS to set the location of your car. To find it later, you bring up the app and see the direction and distance on-screen. (Try not to combine the drinking with the driving. There's no way to augment your way out of the reality of a DUI arrest.) The company has other apps, too. A Twitter app shows tweets on virtual notes hanging in space indicating the direction of the person who tweeted it.

Other, similar apps include the Wikitude World Browser, Robot Vision and Layar. To use these apps, you hold up your phone with the application running, and it shows the camera view with coffee shops, museums or whatever hovering in space in more or less the direction they lie in.

The most advanced of these is the Wikitude browser. Unlike the direction-only apps, Wikitude identifies the building, then attaches the note to it. It's impressive technology, but but it's being used in a way that degrades the experience. Because you're not holding the camera still, and because the note is attached to the building in the video, the thing you're trying to read is jumping all over the screen. Will somebody explain the point of doing that?

In fact, what's the point of any of these apps? When you want to see the direction of a coffee shop, there's no advantage to showing the camera view. Awkwardly holding the camera and pivoting 360 degrees to find a Starbucks (which ultimately links you to the Google Maps directions anyway) isn't better than just typing "coffee" into Google Maps directly.

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