Augmented Reality Coming to Mobile in a Big Way

You may not be all that familiar with augmented reality yet, but you’re going to hear a lot about the stuff in coming months. A kind of marriage between the real and the virtual, augmented reality couples live video streams with computer-generated imagery and content. The term can refer to everything from those yellow, simulated first-down lines you see during NFL broadcasts to high-tech, head-up displays integrated into the windshields of military fighter planes.
The concept is not new:  The head-mounted display debuted in 1968 as a primitive virtual-reality system that used software that changed perspective depending on the user’s gaze, and the phrase itself was coined in the early 1990s by Boeing employee Tom Claudell in describing a digital display that guided workers assembling cables in aircraft. I remember playing a few reality-augmented mobile games a few years ago that integrated simulated images with the phone’s camera, allowing me to swat virtual flies or shoot aliens on the screen by physically moving the phone to target them.
But augmented-reality apps are finally making their way to smartphones, which have the technology to deliver a truly impressive user experience. Apple’s App Store – which wasn’t expected to support such offerings until the release of the 3.1 code for the iPhone in the next few weeks – last week began offering an AR app for Parisian subway passengers to locate the nearest stations as well as a new Yelp app for U.S. users. iPhone 3G S owners activate a feature, called “The Monocle,” by shaking their phones three times; it leverages the phone’s GPS and compass to deliver Yelp content about nearby businesses.
Layar, a Dutch startup, offers what it calls a “reality browser” for Android users that overlays as many as 87 content categories – including real estate, transportation, tourism and leisure — on the screen using the camera. The app is gaining traction in urban areas of Singapore, Portugal and the Netherlands and leverages content from notable sources including Flickr, Google local search, Twitter and Wikipedia. (For an impressive video demonstration, click here.)
There are still substantial hurdles for the space to overcome, however. A quick check of Layar’s offerings reveals a threadbare content patchwork that, for instance, delivers information about nearby bus stops for Seattle users — but no transportation offering for other U.S. users. Also, developers are sure to confront a host of problems as the space gains legs: Facial-recognition technology that can be used to access online information and profiles based on a simple photo is sure to draw flak from privacy advocates, for instance, and it’s easy to imagine the development of apps that could be used for criminal purposes.
As you’d expect, some onlookers are predicting a huge future for AR-based mobile marketing, envisioning real-time, image-based hyperlinking and GPS-enabled campaigns. I’m skeptical of such projections in the short-term, though — not only must uptake increase dramatically to support broad, AR-based campaigns, location-aware marketers will have to walk a very fine line to deliver targeted ads without seeming creepy.
But I believe augmented reality will quickly gain traction in the U.S. among Android and iPhone users, and that growth is sure to continue as more high-tech smartphones with GPS functionality and high-quality cameras come to market. Developers and media companies hoping to reach users through their phones should take note and plan accordingly. If you’re just using GPS  or cellular triangulation to deliver content and services to users based on location, you may already be a step behind. Because soon, users will expect you to know more than just where they are — they’ll expect you to know what they’re looking at and how it can enhance their lives.

Question of the week

How long until augmented reality apps find a substantial audience in the U.S.?