Saturday, December 5, 2009

E-Commerce: Augmented reality, coming to a mobile near you

by Chris Buck

If you haven’t heard of augmented reality yet, you’re not alone.  The nascent technology wasn’t supposed to be a feature of the iPhone 3GS until the popular restaurant browser Yelp! placed an “Easter egg” in its iPhone app.  But it’s here now, and 2010 should see a flood of new “Aug apps” be made to available to the public across several mobile operating systems.

Augmented reality is a digital layer that you see superimposed over real life when you move your camera phone around.  One of the most interesting examples of this is the Andriod browser appropriate named “Layar.”  The browser lets you see your distance to various points of interest, information about real estate listings, and your location on a map simply by panning your phone left and right.  (See video).  The Yelp! app allows you to find new restaurants and shows you the reviews, so if you’re in a major city, you would know whether it would be worth it to start walking in a certain direction, simply by pointing your phone in that direction.

There are Aug Apps for a variety of functions, finding subway stops – a lot of them understandably deal with mapping in one form or another – finding restaurants, first person shooter games that are played hovering over a map that you put on a table, and even social networking features.  Google Latitude is most likely a predecessor to a similar augmented reality app.

There’s no denying it, the apps are really cool.  But which phone should you choose if you want one right now?  It should come as no surprise that the iPhone dominates the app market, and for that reason the iPhone has the highest customer satisfaction rating.  But AT&T is the worst network in terms of customer satisfaction.  So if you are on Verizon or Sprint, you may need to wait a little while for Aug Apps to reach either BlackBerry or Android platforms.  Between the two, Android phones currently have the edge, with Layar making waves in the mobile market.

As processing power increases in hand held devices, augmented reality applications are a natural destination for app developers.  Some sophisticated map technologies already exist (See Bing’s new Map application), and layering real-time data over location based features is a match made in heaven.  The only worry is that we may have too much information at our fingertips, particularly when it comes to social networking.  But as long as one can opt out of letting their friends know one’s location at every moment in time, the value of that information should be pretty amazing.  If Yelp!’s app is an indication of what’s to come, there may never be a need to eat at a bad restaurant again.


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