Nearest Tube iPhone App Makes Directions Real


How’s your reality? Blasé, run-of-the-mill, so-so? Fear not — an augmented reality is right around the corner, so long as you own an iPhone 3GS. Yes, Android is well ahead of the game in this particular area, but at least one app is already awaiting Apple’s (s aapl) approval that makes use of this exciting, new technology. It’s called Nearest Tube, and it tells you where to find the nearest tube (station) in London.

Now, I’m not in London, and most of you probably aren’t either (though a few of you are), so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that this app shows off what the new iPhone 3GS is really capable of in terms of augmented reality, and also what it specifically isn’t, which may be more important in the long run.

First, the good. According to the developer’s tech demo (see video below), and CNET UK‘s own trial of the software, it works as advertised, displaying a color-coded heads-up display of floating tube station markers with distance and station name superimposed on the live feed from your iPhone’s camera. Laid flat, the iPhone displays arrows pointing to each of London’s tube lines.

It uses GPS information and the 3GS’ built-in compass to determine your location and orientation. When you hold the phone up, it arranges individual stations by their proximity to you. CNET points out that that proximity is based on a straight-line distance, so it isn’t always entirely accurate, but it’s close enough to be practically useful. The usual compass caveats apply, including steering clear of magnetic interference. Making a similar app for any major metropolis, including U.S. ones, shouldn’t present that much of a challenge. Thanks to the Maps API, even more advanced directional abilities should be possible, too, including built-in walking and transit directions.

Now, the bad. The Nearest Tube app has to make do with images from the iPhone’s camera, instead of the preferable live video feed. This means that it’s basically just using GPS and compass features, and then pasting that info on top of the camera images. It can’t interact with the pictures themselves, as apps can on Android. That means no fancy image-recognition tricks involving famous landmarks for the time being.

Nearest Tube developer Acrossair has joined up with 14 other iPhone software companies to petition Apple to grant access to the video API in the same way that they have the device’s camera to make this possible. Hopefully, Apple listens and includes this in an upcoming firmware revision, or else we’ll still be playing catch-up with Google’s (s goog) mobile OS for the foreseeable future.