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

'Surf the world' as you walk through it

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First, the AR app reads your phone's GPS data to find your location on the planet. Then it determines the phone's orientation from its electronic compass, and in some cases its accelerometer, to determine which direction you're pointing. (The compass indicates the direction in which the device is being pointed; the accelerometer determines its tilt.)

How AR apps work.

A GeoVector illustration shows how mobile AR apps do their stuff. Click to view larger image.

The app then searches its database for objects (text, hyperlinks, pictures, etc.) that have been location-tagged (categorized by latitude, longitude and altitude coordinates) in the indicated compass direction from your geolocation.

If it finds any such objects (which could be provided by other users, a third-party provider such as a mapping service or Web site, or the app's developer), it lays them over the image of the building or landmark on your screen.

Say you aim your phone's camera at a restaurant. The AR app should be able to use the information in its database to identify the establishment and pull up specific pieces of information about it -- operating hours, a menu, reviews, directions and so on -- and superimpose links to that data over the image of the restaurant as it appears, in real time, on the screen of your phone.

Mobile AR apps are still in their infancy

World Surfer, Wikitude World Browser and Yelp's iPhone 3GS app are typical of today's mobile AR apps. They let people use smartphones to search for information about nearby restaurants, businesses and landmarks.

Users can contribute comments and reviews about such places, and those reviews will be available to others, who you can access them by clicking on links that appear over the images captured on their smartphones.

Such apps aren't limited to providing information about objects that are directly in front of you, nor do they always focus on businesses and landmarks. Acrossair, for example, has a series of iPhone public transit apps that help users navigate the subway systems in select cities. Simply point your iPhone in a given direction, and the app shows the names of subway stations and transit lines located in that direction; it also tells you how far away each station is.

Nearest Subway app

Acrossair's Nearest Subway iPhone app.

Click to view larger image.

Mobile AR apps usually first list the place of interest that's closest to you in the direction you're pointing, followed by other places that are farther away; they tap mapping information from their databases to provide you with directions to more distant objects.

This all sounds pretty nifty, but because of the technological limitations of today's smartphones, the data these apps display isn't always correct. The one that most effectively handles local searches and provides the best walking directions is World Surfer, says Gene Becker, a blogger who tracks the latest developments in AR.

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