Augmented reality has long sounded like a wild futuristic concept, but the technology has actually been around for years. It becomes more robust and seamless with each passing decade, providing an astonishing means of superimposing computer-generated images atop a user’s view of reality, thus creating a composite view rooted in both real and virtual worlds. Although augmented reality apps run the gamut from interactive map overlays and virtual showrooms to massive multiplayer king of the hill titles and the like, each piece of software hones in on smartphone GPS and camera functionality to create a more immersive experience. The available selection of augmented reality apps is diverse, encompassing both premium and freemium offerings from a variety of big and no-name developers, but sometimes choosing which apps are worth your smartphone or tablet’s precious memory is tougher than using the apps themselves. After all, none of them are going to tout the kind of augmented experience offered through Google Glass or Epson’s forthcoming Moverio BT-200 glasses — albeit, not initially anyway.
Here are our top picks for the best augmented reality apps available, whether you’re searching for quality iOS or Android offerings. Additionally, check out picks for the best iPhone apps and our selection of the best Android apps if you’re looking for some of the best apps on either platform.
This article has been updated since it was originally published to reflect new software releases and updates. Digital Trends’ Staff Writer Drew Prindle contributed to this article.
Wikitude World Browser is widely regarded as the king of all augmented reality browsers, and in a way, serves as a third eye of sorts. While using your smartphone’s camera in a given area, the the virtual browser — along with more than 3,500 associated content providers — offers you just about any geographically-relevant information you may find valuable in your travels. Useful information is often presented in the form of Wikipedia articles detailing the hallmarks of a specific landmark, or directions to the nearest ATM location or five-star Italian restaurant. Moreover, the app allows users to find hotels and similar accommodations through Yelp, TripAdvisor, and the like, while offering mobile deals and coupons for local stores in the vicinity. The built-in AR games, including the rollicking Alien Attack and bug-beating Swat the Fly, and the app’s ability to mark and share your favorite spots via Facebook are merely an added bonus.
Yelp has always been ahead of the curve. The prominent, social reviewing service provided the iPhone with its first augmented reality app in 2009, the Yelp Monocle, well before similar services began cropping up across the board. The convenient app uses your smartphone’s GPS and compass to display AR markers for nearby restaurants, bars, and other businesses in real time, each bundled with the service’s user-generated ratings and reviews. If signed up with a Yelp account, the app additionally provides directions to nearby friends and the businesses they’ve recently checked into, placing the same AR markers as previously mentioned for friends, family, colleagues, and anyone else utilizing the robust service. Monocle, although somewhat a hidden feature within Yelp, is hands down the best utility for finding and following directions to the most well-regarded, or atrocious, businesses in your local vicinity.
Google Ingress (Android) — Free
Ingress is Google’s entry into the AR game market, and it’s easily one of the most creative AR applications we’ve ever seen. Basically, the game is an MMO that puts players into two factions — the Enlightened and the Resistance — and has them fight for control of virtual territories in a giant game of king of the hill. Players gain a material called Exotic Matter (XM) by simply walking around, and can use that XM to take over virtual portals. When three or more portals are taken over by either team, they gain control of the area between the portals. It’s a comprehensive strategy title at its core, heavily rooted in science fiction and bolstered by a continuous open narrative, while offering the most social experience of any AR app on our list. Google Ingress is an Android exclusive, but expected to land on iOS and other mobile platforms sometime this year.
SpecTrek (Android) — $2.50
SpecTrek is an AR game that essentially brings Ghostbusters to life on your smartphone — but without all the vacuum cleaners and cheesy lines from Dan Aykroid. The game populates your surrounding environment with virtual poltergeists and invites you to hunt down and capture them with your phone. Hold the phone flat to display an overhead map of the surrounding area, use your ghost radar to track them down, and then hold it vertically to bring up scanner mode and capture them with your smartphone’s built-in camera. Additionally, the game offers statistics, awards, titles, records, and other in-game features, and though the coupled animation is nothing to write home about, there are far less enticing ways of killing boredom on a Sunday afternoon than gallivanting around and netting ghosts in the local park.
SnapShot Showroom (iOS) — Free
Retail isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there will likely come a day when you’ll consider purchasing a decent sofa in lieu of the ratty, college-curated piece of work you call a couch. With SnapShop showroom, users can see what potential furniture may look like in the comfort of their living room, kitchen, bedroom, or any other desired area of their home. Once you capture an image of the desired room you wish to furnish, you can quickly browse and place assorted items (chairs, lamps, beds, tables, etc.) from the likes of big-name retailers like IKEA, Pier 1 Imports, Crate & Barrel, and Horchow, among others. Users can then resize the furniture, reposition it in the virtual environments, and try various patterns and color combinations until they find the right fit for their home. The furniture can even be purchased directly within the app afterward, conveniently saving you a trip to the store or the accompanying headache that goes hand-in-hand with the discovering you had the wrong dimensions all along.