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Put Your Phone Down: Augmented Reality Is Overblown

While Layar pushes forward with augmented reality apps and Nokia finds ways to embed AR cameras in our clothing, the rest of us wait breathlessly for a world in which our maps and data are overlaid on what we see, a world in which our smartphone serves as our all-knowing eye.

Or, frankly, we don't.

Augmented reality has been the stuff of R&D labs for years, but it's still a technology without mainstream enthusiasm. For people excited about AR, this should be disconcerting. Non-techies have embraced plenty of new tools virally—everything from cell-phone cameras to digital music to IMAP email. But few of the "normal" smartphone users I talk to can get excited about augmented reality. Sure, they're not thinking five years ahead, as we're told tech visionaries do. But augmented reality isn't five years away anymore. With 4G networks popping up everywhere and phone hardware improving at warp speed, AR is in its last trimester. And few people seem to care. (Layar for Android, below.)

Layar

Esquire seems to have proven the point. Its augmented reality issue features pages that come to life when you hold the magazine up to a webcam. I thought this was pretty cool, until I showed an industrial designer friend of mine. "You have to read the magazine like that?" he asked as I held my issue in front of my laptop. Yeah, I guess you do.

Talk to the people doing AR research, and they seem to think that the awkwardness of using AR—holding your phone up in front of you; holding your Esquire in front of your computer—will work itself out. But they may be underestimating the power of human habit. We have been ingesting information the old fashioned way for hundreds of years: by looking at a static image and using our brains, not our smartphone cameras, to meld it with reality. Maps, newspapers, books, computers—they're very different "technologies," but they all work essentially the same way: our brains provide the milieu. AR wants to derail that relationship. That's going to be a tough sell.

Even some the people who should be most excited about AR aren't. I've been working on a book about iPhone design and programming, and in the course of my research I've run into several iPhone developers who just don't see how AR stands to improve anyone's user experience.

Jonathan Wegener is the mind behind Exit Strategy NYC, an app that helps New Yorkers navigate the ins and outs of the subways system by showing all the exits, entrances and transfer junctures. You'd think map-app makers like him would be most excited about AR. But Wegener doesn't intend to ever involve augmented reality in his app's roadmap. "It's a total fad," he says of AR. "Looking at a tiny screen to show you overlaid information about the world around you is a really awkward and a broken user experience."

How many of us agree without even knowing it? Surely lots of people have the Yelp app for iPhone, which has a pseudo-AR mode. But how many of us actually use it that new mode to find a restaurant? Sure, we try it once, or pull it out to show friends, but that's about it; once the newness wears off, we're back to using Yelp the same old way.

"I think consumers will get tired of AR, and it will not really catch on," says Wegener. "But I think businesses will keep trying," he says. He compares AR to CueCat, the at-home USB bar-code reader that was supposed to change how we search for information on products. Neat, sure. But in the end, the old way of searching won out.

AR isn't bound to fail—that's not what I'm arguing. Iteration after iteration will be pushed on consumers until the technology finds its niche. Some have suggested that technicians will use it to see exploded technical diagrams, for instance. But if you're expecting apps like Layar to drastically change the way you live your everyday life, well, that's just not reality.