If you have trouble coping with reality, stop reading now.


This is a column about augmented reality — software that could be the killer app for smartphones; a remarkable tool for education and activism; and the reason why you’ll soon see pedestrians around you holding their phones in front of them like portable rearview mirrors.

But, what they’ll be looking at isn’t what’s behind them. They’ll be viewing a growing layer of geo-located data that will contain pictures, audio clips, annotations and links. That information will be floating and bobbing on the screen just like in the heads-up-displays that Ironman and the Terminator used to get bio-statistics and enemy locales.

A crude form of augmented reality has been with us for some time. The Murmur project, for example, started in Toronto’s Kensington Market in 2003 and has now spread around the world.

Murmur offers cellphone users in various urban locations a number they can call to get a walking tour of the vicinity centred on very personal histories of the neighbourhood. A green ear logo is your clue your near a Murmur narrative.

In Japan, Europe and more recently North America, owners of smartphones with close-focusing cameras have been snapping pictures of barcodes printed on products, in magazines or on subway posters to get additional info including song and video clips. iPhone and Adroid users who fire up the application SnapTell can take a picture of a book cover and watch as the phone pulls in prices, reviews and Wikipedia entries.

Or, they can start up a other application called Shazam, let the phone listen to a few bars of an unfamiliar song and have the phone identify they song, show the music video and band details.

But that’s just for starters. The next wave of augmented reality applications take advantage of not just a cellphone’s camera but also it’s GPS capability and, most importantly, its compass.

A compass? Yes. The Android-based G1 (aka the Google phone), some Nokia phones and the new iPhone 3GS have digital compasses built in so the phone knows which direction it’s facing, instantaneously and all the time.

That’s huge for augmented reality. Combined with the phones’ accelerometer and GPS data, the compass’s directional data allows applications to know not only where you are and which way the phone is tilting, the apps will also know which direction in the real world you’re facing. In other words, the apps will have a pretty good idea what you’re looking at in real time and can serve up additional information that overlays the world as it sees it through its built in camera.

The U.K.-based acrossair has already released an augmented reality London Underground application. Users hold up their iPhones and small virtual signs float on the screen exactly in the direction of the nearest stations. The station labels move, change and come into view as the phone is rotated or as users move about the city.

In Austria, Mobilizy has developed the Wikitude AR Travel Guide for the Android smartphone platform. Using Wikitude AR you can point your phone at a nearby point of interest (in the Mobilizy demo a castle 100 metres away) and get relevant historical info about the landmark that moves as the phone moves.

At last year’s Techcrunch Conference Japan-based Tonchidot demonstrated the Sekai Camera, iPhone app. It displays augmented reality information for shoppers who are looking for stores, deals or product geotagged reviews left by other users to hang permanently in the virtual air. It has yet to make it to the iPhone App store.

Then there’s Pocket Universe, a planetarium application for the iPhone that shows you the stars, planets and moons above you. It’s really a moving window on the universe as seen through and annotated by your cellphone.

This is going to be a huge category for smartphones. In fact, I think augmented reality applications could be killer apps for mobile devices. More and more civic data, already geolocated, is being made public. A growing number of photographers are geolocating their pictures and movies. And it makes smart business sense for companies to get their messages out to on-the-go consumers who happen into their neighbourhoods. And tourism? Don’t get me started.

But there’s also fantastic opportunity for citizen journalism and activism. Imagine hyperlocal journalism that comes to life when users are as hyperlocal as you can get — right on the spot.

So, the first time you see somebody holding their smartphone in front of them and rotating don’t think they’re crazy, or looking behind them. They’ll be taking an annotated look at the future.


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Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...