Augmented Reality may well be the killer app for GPS and compass-empowered smartphones, but the tech has a significant drawback—it requires accurate points of interest to make it useful. A new start-up, L.A.-based unit called Factual, may be on the right track.
It's based around the concept of open data. Somewhat like Mayor Bloomberg's plan for the "Big Apps" scheme to create volumes of publicly accessible data on a wide range of services in New York, Factual plans to make a massive public data repository. On its homepage now, for example, is a "featured" data table of California restaurants.
Initial plans involve the use of data that's already in the public domain, things like government published stats and Wikipedia pages. Later, the hope is that users will exploit the open format of the system and start their own data projects—which could end up being populated by local communities. As the company explains it, the hope is that "by making data open to access (read) so that developers can create valuable new applications without complex data licensing restrictions...a groundswell of support for certain data verticals could emerge."
The idea could well have some traction, looking at the crowdsourced model that has made Wikipedia so successful, along with other community-populated data projects like H2G2. But without a killer application it's unlikely to garner much enthusiasm—after all, a dead database is useless if it's just data—so Factual's plan to charge for premium services like specialist APIs and guarantees of quality would fail.
Enter Augmented Reality—the technology which overlays useful information about real-world-located places, objects, and services via a digital head-up-display on a smartphone. AR systems like Layar absolutely rely on geo-located data to provide that information to their users—local data is why Layar launched in Amsterdam at first, since the company could negotiate with local suppliers. But a globally accessible, extensive, and diverse open-source database system like Factual could be exactly the data partner that AR needs, if users attach geo-tags to the data—and do it for free. From a user point of view, that sounds like a tech marriage made in heaven.