Augmented reality goes mainstream with mobile applications

Competition between Apple, Google, and third-party vendors will push augmented reality programs onto smartphones faster than anyone has predicted.

Chances are your first introduction to augmented reality (AR) was in the 1986 movie Top Gun where our fighter pilot heroes fly planes with heads-up displays that let them monitor their planes and weapons while watching their flight. Now, augmented reality is moving from planes, high-end cars, and military helmet mounted displays to more consumer and personal settings. Indeed, AR is on the verge of becoming commonplace and commercially successful.

Augmented reality interlaces our vision with digital information. Robert Rice, chairman of the Augmented Reality Consortium defines AR as "any media that is specific to your location and the context of what you are doing (or want to do) and augments or enhances your specific reality."

augmented, but not improved, reality
Photo by centralasian

So what does that mean? It means, with new applications like Google Goggles, you can use your phone's built-in camera to 'search' your enviroment by taking photos of your surroundings and Google will report back with information about what you're looking at. While Google is getting the headlines, especially now that it's toying not only with its own mobile device operating system, Android, but its own mobile phone, the Nexus One, they're not the only ones playing with augmented reality.

For example, with Layar 3.0, an Android mobile-phone application, you can also have your mobile camera 'look' at your surroundings and Layar will supplement what you're viewing with information on your display about what you're seeing.

The smartphones of 2009 can do this because they've grown more powerful, have faster broadband connections, and have extra features that enable them to run augmented reality applications. For example, it's not that easy to identify a location just from a camera view, but when you add in Global Positioning System (GPS), compasses, and hybrid positioning systems, which use Wi-Fi access points and cell towers for location, it becomes possible to create location-based augmented reality applications.

Layar's Abbey Road tour
Image credit: Layar

Layar's Abbey Road tour

Joe Madden, an ABI Research analyst, sees "hand-held platforms transforming the Augmented Reality ecosystem, with revenue associated with Augmented Reality growing from about $6 million in 2008 to more than $350 million in 2014." The iPhone, with its current, November 2009, 3% market-share but with 500% year-over-year growth, according to Gartner, appears to be leading the way with augmented reality location-based services.

These predictions were all made before Google jumped in with its Goggles and, now, it seems, with its own phone. Competition between Apple, Google, and third-party vendors should push augmented reality programs on all our smartphones at faster clip than anyone has predicted.

How augmented reality works

So how is augmented reality able to 'augment' our reality? Dan Greenberg, an independent AR analyst, explains that augmented reality applications do this by "registering" an image. This is the process by which the augmented reality application figures out exactly what it is looking at. Today, this works by a combination of techniques. These include image recognition -- that tall structure sure looks like the Eiffel Tower -- and location-based services (LBS), which are supported by the device. For example, the compass in the Apple iPhone 3Gs helps by plotting out not only the device's location but also its orientation.

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