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

'Surf the world' as you walk through it

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Another way the technology falls short -- in the United States, anyway -- is that most AR apps are limited to using a smartphone's GPS technology and compass to present a single-level perspective. Apps that can search for objects which are higher or lower than ground level -- the upper stories of buildings, or floors located below ground -- use accelerometers to add tilt information to directional data, according to Pam Kerwin, who's in charge of strategic business development at GeoVector Corp., the company behind the World Surfer mobile app.

"But most data has no height coordinate in the database," she adds. "This is pretty much a Japan feature at the moment."

A final problem is the lack of "depth perception." A mobile AR app might be able to guide you to the nearest McDonald's, but if the restaurant is on the next block, behind the building you're currently standing in front of, the information about the McDonald's might appear to be superimposed on the image of the building in front of you.

Not much mobile AR technology has been developed specifically for enterprise or IT use -- so far

Mobile augmented reality applications have been designed mainly for the consumer and manufacturing markets. There has been a notable lack of mobile AR apps for the enterprise.

"Augmented reality has proven to be useful in product manufacturing and design environments, and for repair of complex machinery. However, most IT and enterprise applications of augmented reality are still a few years off," says Becker.

"I can't see any applications of augmented reality in the office environment," says Dominique Bonte, an analyst at ABI Research. Though he does say that he could foresee outdoor uses of AR apps in sectors such as real estate.

Kerwin explains that mobile AR is best for office workers who don't sit in cubicles all day.

ING app for Layar

A Layar app shows the closest ING bank ATMs in Amsterdam.

Click to view larger image.

"Augmented reality is very useful for any worker who needs to operate outside: maintenance workers trying to locate machines, sales reps visiting unfamiliar places, [employees trying to find their way around] the corporate campus, workers in the field trying to locate one another to collaborate or send safety instructions to employees in dangerous areas," she says.

The practical value that mobile AR technology offers the enterprise is that it presents information in relation to the real world. Developers of mobile AR apps will have to do this not only conveniently and quickly, but also economically.

Says Gartner analyst Jackie Fenn: "One of the challenges for enterprises will be connecting up data to its relevant location or collecting relevant image databases. It's often harder to cost-justify compared to the economies of scale of consumer apps."

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