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

'Surf the world' as you walk through it

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Unlike virtual worlds, mobile AR may actually stand a chance in the market

A big question at present is whether the demand for mobile augmented reality will endure and grow over the long haul or whether AR will follow in the footsteps of other overhyped technologies, such as virtual worlds.

World Surfer at AT&T Park

GeoVector's World Surfer pulls info on AT&T Park from Flickr, Google, YouTube and more. Click to view larger image.

Even Peter Meier, chief technology officer at Munich-based Metaio GmbH, developer of the Junaio and iLiving apps, acknowledges that the hardware capabilities of smartphones and the interfaces of AR apps themselves need improvement for augmented reality to succeed.

"Unless it works well, it is not ready for the general audience. Would you use a touch screen that only sometimes works? When the technology is right, when it delivers the exact expectations of the consumer, then it will prove to be useful," he says.

Meier's company and the other major developers of AR applications appear to be in it for the long term, though. Most of them plan to improve the accuracy of data displayed (by implementing technologies such as markerless tracking) and add more sophisticated contextual information and image recognition to their apps within a year, observes Gartner's Fenn.

Still, he says, "there are so many useful and compelling applications for delivering context-sensitive data. But like many of these technologies, figuring out how to make money from it will be a challenge for everyone."

Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif., says that the key to avoiding the fate of virtual worlds is for AR developers "to look for the intersections between the real world and the existing Internet -- not creating a new virtual world. Consumers will find value [in augmented reality] when Internet content is provided to them in context when they need it in the real world, such as seeing reviews about restaurants from people they trust as they make a decision while walking down the street."

A natural extension of human perception

At the moment, the idea of augmented reality for mobile devices might be regarded as hype, since many of these apps focus on the technology's fun and gimmicky aspects. And, because of the limitations of current GPS sensors in handheld gadgets, the location accuracy of objects displayed in most AR browsers is not quite up to par.

World Surfer in SF

World Surfer displays San Francisco historical info.

Click to view larger image.

Within the next few years, though, it's inevitable that more advanced smartphones and mobile devices will hit the market. This should lead to the development of mobile AR apps that are better able to recognize and track a wide range of objects and landmarks.

As for overcoming the stigma that it's nothing more than marketing hype, AR might succeed where virtual worlds faltered because it's grounded in real life. Becker muses that AR could become accepted as a natural extension of our perception of, and interaction with, everyday surroundings.

"Humans are driven to augment our reality, and to augment our own capabilities. From the earliest cave paintings to modern-day urban graffiti, we overlay our world with expressions of our inner selves," he says. "Architecture, street signs, billboards, fashions -- these are all visual and functional augmentations of the physical world."

Howard Wen reports for several technology publications.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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