Augmented Reality Looks to Developers to Go Mainstream

Augmented Reality seems to be that great piece of demonstration technology that rarely finds its ways into people’s lives.

AR, the layering of digital information over the physical world, has all the whiz-bang you want (Look, floating icons for bars and restaurants superimposed on your smartphone camera view!), but the mainstream appeal has been elusive. While leaders in the field have tried to push the edge of the technology with limited success, they’re now making a concerted effort to empower developers to incorporate AR into their apps. They’re betting that, in the hands of programmers, AR can finally find a home in consumer’s lives.

Tonchidot Corporation, maker of the Sekai Camera AR app, announced $12 million in new funding last week to help it expand its new SoLAR platform, which will allow developers to integrate AR into their social and location-based apps and games. Osuke Honda, a Tonchidot investor and partner with DCM Partners, said the pieces are falling into place for AR, especially with the growth of location-based services and social gaming apps like Foursquare and Booyah.

Honda said AR helps create a natural intersection between online and the real world, something that is becoming more of a reality with the growth of smartphone use. “After social mobile and location-based services, AR can make it all more engaging and more powerful,” he said.

Earlier this week, Qualcomm (s qcom) released a software development kit for Android (s goog) phones and announced a $200,000 prize for the best AR app. Toy maker Mattel (s mat), which got some attention with its Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots AR demonstration,has signed on as an early partner and plans to turn the demo into a game. Another AR leader, Layar, last month announced Layar Player, an embeddable piece of code that iPhone (s aapl) developers can drop into their apps to enable augmented reality.

Providing easy tools for developers makes sense, creating wider momentum for AR and potential mash-ups that can resonate with users. That was one of the suggestions in a report earlier this year (subscription required) by GigaOM Pro Analyst John du Pre Gauntt, who outlined some of the improvements that AR needs to undergo before it finds wider acceptance. He said AR services also need to become more precise, something location-based apps like Foursquare might be able to help with through user geo-tags.

Unfortunately, AR looks like it’s in for a long slog. Widespread adoption might be a long time coming since the technology requires a smartphone, which is still only in the hands of about a quarter of the population. But this is the kind of technology that brings a smile to people’s faces. When combined with visual search features found in apps like Google Goggles, it really opens the world to a new level of exploration and engagement.

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