Augmented Reality is coming soon to a life near you, thanks to the latest crop of sensor-equipped smartphones. Navigation is, perhaps, the most natural fit between AR and useful technology. Simply put, when you're going somewhere, you need to know both where you are and where you're going. You often need both pieces of information when you're someplace unfamiliar and don't know quite what your destination looks like. Cue AR: A technology that's intimately tied with your location and that can access information sources that will improve your understanding of how to reach your destination.
The simplest and most accessible AR app known to many is Google Street View, which Google created when it added Street View to Google Maps. Browsing what your route would look like on a desktop PC could give you great local knowledge when you're on the road. But when combined with a smartphone, it's even more useful.
Street View lets you do point-to-point navigation, with visual cues at each turn, based on pure A-GPS location, and a pre-determined route. It's a bit like some of the more advanced in-car GPS systems that give you a preview of what difficult freeway junctions are like so you can get in the proper lane.
Take the A Train
Enhancing pure navigation, the next step for AR is to get you quickly to places of interest. That's what Acrossair's New York subway map does. Using location info from the iPhone's GPS and compass sensors, it shows you where you are and where the nearest subway stations are.
Though the direction indications are much simpler than a full-on GPS navigation route, merely indicating stations as the crow flies, it's pretty easy to take that information and follow it on foot.
As the Crow Flies
Check out Enkin, an AR navigation system developed by two scientists and demonstrated last year. It's a sample of how AR nav systems really could work, combining GPS, digital compass info, live video as well as 3-D graphics and Web services such as search. Though still not available, it competed in the last Android Developers Challenge, and although it didn't win, Enkin hints that it'll develop its app for Google's platform.
If you thought Enkin was clever, check out this concept from Robert Winters at Eindhoven University called AUGNAV. It combines the best features of in-car GPS units with smartphone cameras, pattern recognition of road signs, and smart optical character recognition. Basically, it's a fully integrated, end-to-end navigation system that starts with auto-recognizing a snapshot of the destination address.
Amazing, no? The "parking is available ahead" feature is absolutely the killer here; it's also exactly the kind of information that's possible with location-based services that plug into local information databases over the mobile network.
Best Foot Forward
Once this research demo evolves into an available app, this is pretty much how you're going to be navigating on foot from now on. Where Google Street View uses 360-degree video footage to create its street-level imaging illusion, Occipital's solution is way more clever. Between A-GPS and smartphone digital compasses, particularly in urban environments, the accuracy with which the system locates you can be less than ideal. So Occipital has found a way to create a sub-meter accurate location system that starts with GPS, then sends off the smartphone camera's live imagery to a remote server that compares it to a 3-D street database using pattern recognition. The result is an incredibly accurate location-sensitive system that superimposes your navigation route onto a rendered view of the street in front of you.
To the Future
So why is this technology going to change the way you navigate? Forget struggling with a street map and tourist attraction guide and trying to cross-correlate the two. AR can do all that for you--and infinitely more. It's going to change how we think about maps, both virtual and physical ones, turning them into rich, interactive, location-aware dynamic systems. You may never get lost ever again.