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

'Surf the world' as you walk through it

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A few apps are taking mobile AR in different directions. Metaio's iLiving app for the iPhone lets you take a picture of a room and place 3D graphic models of furniture into the photo and then share screenshots of this virtual setting with your friends via social networks. It's a fun way to design a new office or rearrange your living room.

Juniao

The Juniao mobile AR app with user-inserted dinosaur.

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The recently launched Junaio iPhone app, also from Metaio, is a mobile AR platform designed to foster creativity. With Junaio, users can publish their own "scenes" online by sticking 3D graphic models (some of which are animated) over images of locations they capture with their smartphone cameras.

They can also share these scenes with friends via Facebook or Twitter. Junaio and iLiving showcase the fun, community-oriented uses of AR, even if they may not be particularly "useful."

SPRXmobile's Layar 3.0 platform (for iPhone and Android smartphones) is similar to Junaio, but SPRXmobile is encouraging content developers to contribute a wealth of relevant, practical information about real-world businesses, landmarks and locations in hopes of creating utilitarian apps that would, for example, guide users to a bank's ATMs or overlay photos and data about historical buildings on present-day locations.

Present mobile AR technology isn't precise

The potential market for AR products leans toward mobile devices, but, as mentioned above, current smartphones have technological limitations that curb their ability to support AR software.

For one thing, their batteries don't hold a charge long enough; any app that makes heavy use of graphics, GPS technology and networking components uses a lot of juice. But the biggest problem is that the GPS technology used in smartphones needs to be improved.

"Most mobile augmented reality apps... are focused on presenting useful information about the physical world, but they fall somewhat short in real-world use because of the limitations of the location and orientation technologies they rely on," says Becker.

Wikitude World Browser at Piccadilly Street

Wikitude World Browser at London's Piccadilly Street.

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Data displayed by mobile AR apps is not always accurate because the GPS sensors in smartphones are not able to zero in on buildings and objects that are within a few meters or so of where you stand.

The range of GPS sensors in smartphones is the same as that of a typical GPS car navigation device -- about 20 meters (a little over 65 feet). While this is good enough for relaying information about streets when you're in a moving vehicle, it isn't tight enough to home in on -- and, thus, convey information about -- buildings and landmarks that you walk by in real time.

Additionally, the response time of the electronic compasses found in smartphones often lags, which can make certain objects (like 3D graphic models) seem to "float" in the air on a device's screen, rather than staying pinpointed on an exact location.

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