Lastminute.com has launched an app for the T-Mobile G1 that does a pretty amazing job of creating an "augmented reality" interface on a cellphone. But, amazing as it is, it's just a flavor of what next-gen cellphones will deliver as augmented reality displays—true sci-fi stuff is coming sooner than you think.
Lastminute's Nru app—pronounced "near you"—is part of the trend of location-based services that tell you where nearby food outlets are located, along with shops, entertainment sites and so on. But instead of delivering the data in a boring old list, it does something rather splendid: it displays the info in a real-time swirling compass-like wheel that responds to both your location on the planet and which way you're pointing when held horizontally, and as a fab "reality overlay map" when held vertically. Check it out in the video.
It's simple, but very effective since it combines both the GPS system in the phone and the electronic compass, and maximizes the 3G broadband network to deliver timely data based on your location to your phone.
Augmented reality's been around for years as a concept, if you start with the idea that a pilot's head-up display is a very crude form. The view Iron Man has through his visor is a more modern sci-fi representation, closer to what current technology can achieve. The technology is a recent focus of many tech companies—we recently showed you Vuzix's new display goggles that can do both VR and AR, for example. Nokia itself showed a lab-built technology demonstrator dubbed MARA (Mobile Augmented Reality Applications) a few years ago, that combined a camera-equipped cellphone with GPS and accelerometers. The system located itself and downloaded info about the landmarks surrounding the user. The team also worked on image recognition—the imagery from the phone was sent to a central computer that could then determine what the phone was pointing toward and send data back, as a graphical overlay to the display.
Crude augmented reality has taken off, mainly in Japan, as a bit of a craze in the form of QR codes. They're simply 2D barcodes, with protocols enabling them to store data like phone numbers, contact details and URLs, and since they're easy to produce they can be printed out as stickers and slapped on just about anything. To read them you simply snap a picture with your cellphone's camera, decode the QR stamp with a simple app and follow the linked data.
QR codes may not be high-tech augmented reality, but it's a pretty powerful demonstration of the potential of the tech all the same.
And it's in the next generation of smartphones that augmented reality will really take off. Nru is a basic demonstration, using the current consumer state-of-the-art tech in the G1 Android phone, which also has an excellent navigation AR system in Googlemaps. Similar apps exist for the iPhone, which lacks an electronic compass. But both of these smartphones lack truly fast graphics chips and have camera units that are very slow to update.
Partly this is a space-saving consideration, partly it's for reasons of cost and battery life. But with 8-megapixel camera phones hitting the market, electronic compasses becoming cheaper, improved battery tech and the promise of excellent graphics chips and more powerful, less power-hungry mobile processors for cellphones, the very next generation of smartphones will be powerful enough to handle augmented reality properly. Apple's recent patents, for example, show the company's very seriously looking into location-based services—possibly for the generation 3 iPhone.
And here's why: AR is basically a killer app for smartphones. Your phone becomes more than a communications and entertainment device—with good AR it becomes more like a digital companion.
Perhaps even more importantly, location-based services let advertisers reach highly specific audiences more accurately and for less cost. The clue is in Nru's owner: It's a travel and entertainment website itself.