Reality augmentation, the next big thing

This iPhone AR application — used in a joint tourism campaign by the city of Atami, Japan, and gamemaker Konami Digital Entertainment — uses small, black-and-white panels at 13 of the city’s tourist spots to overlay an animated image of a girl to photos taken at that spot.

Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald signs off his messages with a little joke: “This email might have been written while cycling.” It could be an apology for his spelling, an allusion to the fact he’s Dutch or even a hint at his oddball imagination. Or perhaps, given Lens-Fitzgerald is the head of a company that wants to fuse the virtual and physical worlds, it could be taken literally.

The round-faced 39-year old is the founder of one of the hottest prospects in the mobile space, Layar. The Dutch company wants nothing less than to become the platform of choice for the burgeoning new medium of augmented reality. Running on smartphones and tablet computers, AR overlays digital information — text, graphics, games — on images of the world around us.

Some executives in the mobile industry think AR will be huge. While revenues from AR alone amount to no more than a few tens of millions of dollars, that number is set to double annually to reach $350 million in 2014, according to New York-based ABI Research. The impact across the broader mobile and computer industry could be much bigger, convincing consumers to use their mobile devices even more than they already do.

In August 2009, when Wired magazine claimed that “if you’re not seeing data, you’re not seeing,” AR was still more whimsy than real-world. But in the past year, developers around the globe have started launching applications that use AR and aim to make the virtual world an inherent part of our daily lives. Tech heavyweights including Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung have noticed and are all developing AR strategies.

Lens-Fitzgerald and a few fellow developers are at the forefront of this potential revolution. Intel’s venture arm Intel Capital invested 3.4 million in Layar in late 2010. “Other guys are about technology, while Layar is about usage, and that’s the unique thing,” says Marcos Battisti at Intel Capital. Then comes a big ‘but.’ “How do they monetize it?”

Many of the apps so far depend on where you are and what you see around you, and they are triggered by your movement within a space. “Location,” tweeted Nokia sales chief Niklas Savander last October, “is the next big thing.”

A new life for old technology

As a technology, AR is not new. Originally associated with the backpacks and helmets that nerds used to carry the equipment for techno games, the fusion of visible reality with computer-generated digital information has been under development for more than a decade. In its simplest everyday form today, you can see it in action in sports TV: in the line superimposed over footage of a race to show where it ends or the pitch-side advertising banners that can change depending what market you’re watching a game in.

What takes AR onto less familiar ground is the surging popularity of smartphones and tablet PCs. That growth, combined with the availability of good-quality location data via Global Positioning System and faster data speeds, has opened up a plethora of new possibilities — which so far mostly revolve around ways of delivering information to handhelds as their users move through, look at and listen to the physical world.

“AR is a continuation of the map. It’s at the core of the user interface,” says Michael Halbherr, Nokia’s chief of services products. “I think it’s big.”

Case study

For a basic example, take the story of Layar’s first customer: an Amsterdam real-estate broker that liked the idea of offering clients a  real-life look at the properties on its books. Using Layar’s technology, it built a smartphone app — what the Layar team call a “layer” — to let users access details about apartments for sale in a building just by pointing their smartphones at it. That was in May 2009. “Then all hell broke loose,” says Lens-Fitzgerald.


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