Layar: The Web Browser for Reality - Coming Soon to iPhone

You've heard a lot about Augmented Reality recently, but what is it—and why exactly should you care about the technology? We spoke with Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald, one of the founders of Layar, an Amsterdam company that is leading the charge with their smartphone app, to gain insight.

LayarWhat is Layar's Augmented Reality App All About?

Imagine your Web browser was a window onto the real world. Instead of seeing Web pages inside that browser window, you see the environment around you—except with an added layer of data on top of it. Layar's AR is a bit like that. "We're like Firefox, we're a window in an operating system," says Lens-FitzGerald. Only this one works through your smartphone camera, where its on-screen viewfinder displays the camera view enhanced with extra information connected with exactly what you're looking at, or the direction you're looking in.

Layar's trick is that all this augmented data is stacked up in layers, meaning you can choose different layers of information to view. Point your phone's camera at a building, for example, and one layer will be about the architectural history, click to a different layer and you can access the menu for the restaurant inside the building.

That's all very cool, but why do I care again?

Because this is the natural evolution of the computer-based explosion of creativity that gave us the WWW. Everything's primed for it: Broadband networks are in place to transport fast data transfer, computing tech is cheap, powerful and portable, and geo-positioning is easy too. But it's really about the smartphone, which is perfect for AR—it could become the killer feature for your portable comms device. There are other AR browsers out there, including Acrossair and Mobilizy. But Layar already has 87 apps (which they call Layars) in its content catalog, and 600 keys have been released to developers who are interested in creating more.

Where Can i Try Layar Out?

The company announced the global availability of Layar yesterday, and it will be pre-installed on the Samsung Galaxy in the Netherlands. It's been developed for Android phones at first, because Android's code has a lot of simple API hooks that make it work—all the geo-locating is done transparently by the phone, for example, so the Layar code merely has to ask the phone softwhere "where is this phone now?" Other platforms will follow later, since they tend to be more difficult to write for—a Symbian version will require more time and cash to build, since it needs a whole map machine in the Layar code itself.

So when is Layar Coming to the iPhone 3G S?

"We have a working version right now," says Lens-FitzGerald. He doesn't want to us to publish a screenshot because it's not looking final enough.) Apple had not allowed app developers to access the iPhone's camera function until the most recent beta version of its SDK. That is likely to change with Apple's September announcements, at which point Layar (and lots of other developers) will submit an application for an official app—and then wait for Apple's approval.

Will it work on my iPhone 3G?

Not intially—the iPhone 3G lacks the digital compass of the 3G S, meaning Layar can locate you on the planet, but won't know which way you're facing. That's a big limitation for the AR tech, but the Layar team will build a separate 3G app with some kind of work-around like a swipe-to-rotate screen because, as co-founder Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald puts it, "We don't want to make a cool app that early adopters just can't use."

What Augmented info can I see on Layar so far?

It's lots of location-based stuff—things like geo-tagged Flickr imagery, localized Wikipedia, BrightKite communities, and you can even locate where nearby Twitterers are, if they've shared their location. You can see all the currently available layers here.

Now Layar's opened up its doors to everyone, and it's up to developers to make the different layers of data come alive in different parts of the world. "We've built the TV and some channels," says Lens-FitzGerald. "We just don't have the viewers yet."

Does Layar have a social networking angle?

Most apps are one-way at the moment—the purpose is to deliver location-sensitive data to you as an end-user, rather than facilitating social sharing. But social apps will be the biggest use, says Lens-FitzGerald: "It's not going to be about finding an ATM, but you and me playing virtual soccer from Battery Park to Times Square." He envisions a soccer game, but the ball only appears at a certain location in Times Square every 15 minutes, and you have to open your EA games Layar to see it. In the nearer future, he sees quiz engines galore—if you're visiting the Anne Frank house, you point your phone there and answer questions that pop into view. The game saves your score on a leaderboard, and you compete against other players. One intriguing idea is that you could share your AR view with someone else elsewhere on the planet, which brings a sort of hyper-reality angle to it.

What's the company's business model?

It's refreshingly different. The company has a very open culture, and isn't flat-out commercial. Think of Firefox's business model—where does Mozilla make money from its free software? Or perhaps think of Twitter, with its explosive growth and mysterious slow-burn plans to monetize its service. Lens-FitzGerald suggests that his company will charge layer developers an admin fee, something like the domain name model, and that's how things will start. But as the layers get busy, people will likely want their app in a "featured layer" section, which could attract a fee, and there's also the possibility of paid layers.

The company's management are trying to create a "pull" culture, a coolness that'll attract investors and developers, rather than forcing their foot in the door of other companies. That's how they connected up with Samsung for the Layar-install on Netherlands Samsung Galaxy phones, for example.

What kind of AR stuff will Layar do in the Future?

Lens-FitzGerald notes that Layar's pretty good at the moment for letting you find where you can buy Pizza near your location, but he has ambitions far beyond that. There's the possibility that AR-sensitive movies could arrive, with the on-screen action dependent on your location, the sunshine level in the room, other people present and so on. Then there's all the AR ideas that have popped up in cyberpunk novels, and the idea that VR goggles may replace physical displays on smartphones—that'll cause a big jump in AR usage, Lens-FitzGerald suggests. This stuff is all years away, but it gives you a taster. Until then, check out the Layar 2.0 launch video for more insight.


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  • david black

    It is crazy to think about what could be done with this if you meshed it into some really cool social networking and social media sites. I can't wait to see this come to life. boat yard ft lauderdale

  • Michael Brown

    Here's a great Layar app: "Car-Finder" (I just made it up). Assign a tag to your automobile so that you never again have to worry about not being able to remember where you parked. The real usefulness of such a feature will pay for itself the next time you and your family try navigating the parking lot after a long day at Disney World.

    And how about a Key-Finder app for...well, you know.

  • Aaron Cole

    @Kit Eaton
    The imagination runs wild thinking of how this tech will change how we perceive the world. Not if, but when we incorporate this tech into VR goggles I can see many applications for both advertisers and user. Everything from having virtual billboards on the side of buildings (think ever changing flash animations) to virtual costumes for reality. For instance, Pirate theme. Install a file and suddenly everything is "pirate" theme. The software gives all of the buildings virtual facades and the people get virtual costumes placed over their bodies. Perhaps even cities could get in on the action and create virtual architecture. Say for instance San Francisco (near where I live) wants a futurism look and through this technology when you look at the city or portions of the city you see virtual additions or maybe even spaceships floating above.

    I could even see the virtual presence of individuals not able to be at a location physically. Perhaps Four people want to meet up, three are in one town the other is hundreds of miles away. Using the VR goggles the lone individual creates a virtual presence of him/her self and establishes that presence at the location of the other three. Using the cameras of the other three creates a virtual realm in witch the lone user can interact with the group and the other three (through their VR goggles) are able to interact with that person.

    Fun times.

  • Shevonne

    This looks amazing. Definitely can't wait for the iPhone to come to Verizon, so I can get this!

  • Kit Eaton

    @Aaron. Me either--I think it's a very potent tool indeed. AR gaming sounds like fun :)
    @Maarten. You've got a very fascinating app on your hands there!
    @Allen, if you want to see what Layar does, check out this article:
    It's not mobile internet, per se. If you can't imagine the ROI on mobile 'net, then think about things like real-time location-aware restaurant reviews next time you're visiting a new city.

  • Allen Laudenslager

    How about a link so I can see what is does? I carry a smart phone without the internet ($60 bucks a month)and can't justify the cost. I still don't see the ROI for mobile internet.