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The untapped potential of augmented reality

Augmented reality or AR has been around for years. Back in 2009 we were talking about AR’s potential impact on our lives. The idea of overlaying information on your view of the real world is familiar to everyone. Thanks to sci-fi movies like the Terminator series, we all have a pretty good idea of how useful it could be. The convergence of cameras, location awareness, and apps in our modern smartphones made AR really accessible for the first time. If you care to look, there are a lot of AR apps in Google Play and the App Store. So why isn’t anybody using them?

Existing AR apps

Options like Wikitude and Layar allow you to view the world through your camera viewfinder and see information about various things. You can see local restaurants or hotels; you can find further information on landmarks; and you can check property for sale. The potential applications go on and on. Layar alone has over 3,000 different layers to choose from, depending on what you want to see.

Here’s an augmented reality app roundup we did back in 2010. These apps all had genuine potential and some of them have achieved a fairly high number of downloads, but widespread adoption is still a distant goal. What has been holding it back?

In short: AR apps are only as good as the information they draw on. User created overlays and apps that rely on people to enter details rarely offer comprehensive coverage of an area. Information can also become dated quite quickly, so frequent updates are required. Cities are generally far better served by AR apps than rural areas or towns. It also has to be said that many of the AR apps available right now have ugly interfaces. Overall, the experience with many existing AR apps can leave you feeling underwhelmed.

Nokia’s lens to the city

Nokia unveiled the Lumia 920 this week and showed off its City Lens for Windows Phone 8, which is basically a navigation overlay that looks a lot like Wikitude and Layar. During the City Lens demo Kevin Shields, Senior Vice President of Nokia, held it up to show off the names of nearby restaurants popping up and then said if you were out on the street “you would actually be able to see those labels on those restaurants”. It was tough not to think “you mean like signs?” but it would be churlish to ignore the potential here. You could see restaurants that were a few blocks away and of course you’d see the names but you can also access further information, reviews, photographs, and contact details to make a booking.

City Lens is not a new concept, but we expect Nokia to execute better than many of the existing apps and create a more compelling experience. If it works smoothly enough, it could help AR to break into the mainstream.

Beyond smartphones, there is Glass

Maybe our early smartphones didn’t have enough power to achieve the kind of augmented reality apps that people want. Perhaps a vast improvement in the power of our smartphones and the speed of our mobile networks will give AR the kick start it needs. In early 2011, we did a piece on 5 awesome ways augmented reality could improve your life. The potential applications are fantastic. Even beyond the obvious improvement in navigation, there is much to consider, from interactive games with a real world backdrop, to bringing static pages or posters to life, to creating interactive instructions, or even trying on virtual clothes.

It’s been a year since we wrote that article, but mainstream AR is still an elusive dream. We shouldn’t lose hope, however. Now that high-speed 4G LTE service is becoming more common and our smartphones have bigger batteries, perhaps the AR experiences we dream of are may yet become reality.

According to a recent report from Juniper Research, “over 2.5 billion mobile augmented reality (AR) apps will be downloaded to smartphones and tablets per annum” by 2017. The steady climb toward that goal starts now, but it may not be our smartphones and tablets that really drive it.

But maybe smartphones won’t make augmented reality popular. 

Google has been working on Project Glass, an ambitious plan to create AR glasses that do almost everything your smartphone does. We also know that video game giant Valve is working on augmented reality and talking about wearable computing devices. Our own Molly McHugh speculated about the future of wearable devices, as well. There has also been some progress with systems to bring AR navigation to the windshield of your car.

The driving force that really catapults AR into the mainstream could be entirely new devices. 

Will AR be a good thing?

We are pretty sure that AR is coming — it just lacks the right vehicle right now — but will it be a good thing when we can augment reality? There could be some less-than-wholesome uses of Google’s AR glasses, from virtual violence to porn overlays and graffiti, but then you could say that about almost all of our new technology. Every time there’s a leap forward, there’s always a way to abuse it, but that obviously doesn’t negate all the good it could bring.

AR seems like the best kind of technology, in the sense that it should make our lives easier. It should make our lives richer and more interesting. It should augment our reality, but then man-made augmentations to our lives don’t have the best track record. The short film Sight shows up the potential perils of augmented reality beautifully.

Time to try it out for yourself

Whether you just want to have a bit of fun with augmented reality and check out something like this Chest Burster app, which allows you to watch a hungry wee Xenomorph burst out of your friend’s chest, or you’d rather find something with a practical use, there are some seriously awesome augmented reality apps already out there. Why not give it a try for yourself? Just make sure to come back and tell us what you think. If you’ve got any good AR app recommendations, post a comment and share them.

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