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Augmented Reality Kills The QR Code Star


Augmented reality leader Layar just took its system to a whole new level by installing a real-world object recognition protocol that's a little like Google's Goggles. In one swoop it may have turned AR apps from intriguing, inspiring, and occasionally useful toys into serious tools for information discovery and, of course, advertising. Let's call it hacking the real world.

AR was a tech that really grabbed the headlines over the last couple of years, propelled by increasing ubiquity of smartphones with always-on Net connections, sensors, and high-quality rear-facing cameras. This tech trinity allowed clever apps to work out where the phone was in the world, what direction it was looking at and then deliver useful information to the phone user, such as where the nearest Metro station was, and how to get there. But creating digital "events" in the AR world required developers or users to tag reality with geo-located flags—actual fixed positions in space—which limited its usefulness for more spontaneous access to data.

Which is where Layar Vision changes everything: What if you could hold your AR-enabled iPhone up to something in real life that you just came across—say the cover of Fast Company magazine—and get an overlay of data about it, perhaps an option to click to this web page or a special offer of subscriptions? That's something Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald, founder of Layar, suggested to us is one of the most powerful exploits of the new tech. Vision really does behave like Google Goggles does: When Layar "sees" an item it recognizes, wherever it may be, it returns data to your phone immediately. In Google's case it's just its traditional search result list, accessed in a very visual way. In Layar, it results in whatever action has been associated with the object. All it takes, Maarten explains, is for the developer to choose the planar object they'd like to be recognizable, upload it to Layar's servers to act as a fingerprint, and then the app does all the rest.

The object can be anything from a poster to a magazine to a small item, and the action can be anything from overlaying a 3-D graphic to playing a video file to sending you to a web page. Maarten was careful to note "I really think that for the publishing industry it'll work best" at first: "Say you just wrote a book and want to market it. Upload a picture of the cover to our server" and then you can "link a bio, a photo of the author, a video or you can show a 3-D object, for instance a spaceship if it's a sci-fi novel." And from there, for the user who sees the AR effect, it's "so easy then to say 'I Like this' or 'I'll Tweet this or comment on this,'" perhaps meaning the "real world can now be very easily linked to the digital world."

Instantly there's the power of this system, laid bare. Layar developers really can "hack reality" now. Imagine, Lens-Fitzgerald suggests, that there are really practical uses: "Say you're buying chicken in the supermarket, and you hold your phone over it—then you can see there're antibiotics in the meat" for this particular package, because a developer has made a food facts database, and uploaded an image of the typical store chicken label, linking it perhaps "to an article by Reuters about it." That's one way to circumvent, or subvert, advertising, but of course advertising may be one of the earliest beneficiaries of this development, alongside publishing. As a magazine, you could upload your next cover art to Layar, and give the first 1,000 visitors who click on the Layar-discovered hyperlink a prize or gift of some sort. Meanwhile advertizers could plop a 3-D image of the latest sleek concept car onto the flat 2-D image in a two-page newspaper ad, adding in all sorts of interactivity and detailed specs.

You may recognize this kind of function: It's what QR codes have been used for until now, on everything from advertising to business cards to Sony's EyePet interactive PlayStation game. A QR code is basically a machine-recognizable system that contains short snippets of text, a phone number, or a web link—but to access it you need a compatible app, and you have to plaster the QR code in a clearly readable way onto the object, be it a mag advert or a website. This is powerful, but clumsy.

And Layar's made it a little irrelevant—the object itself is now the real world "tag," and because Layar is a browser, it lets the data associated with the tag be much richer and more dynamic than a QR code could manage.

There's just one sticking point: How do you know a random real-world item is actually an AR tag? QR codes define themselves as a tag, but a random magazine page doesn't, unless it's labeled as such. Until AR becomes more ubiquitous, this may be a problem.

But the utility of this kind of trick can't be overlooked. Using a different AR system (Junaio) an anti-public advertising group just released an app that blanks out ad billboards, suppressing their message for an artistic end...essentially an attempt to declutter your life. As Lens-Fitzgerald notes, one of the biggest lessons Layar learned for Vision was "at MOMA in New York when an artist put up different art pieces on every floor using just geo-located AR," and with the new system "this is much easier because you can put what you want wherever you want." This kind of novel use of AR object-recognition tech will only emerge as more people use it, and the object-recognition power is one way that developers may be tempted to build richer and more rewarding AR experiences because of it.

In fact, there are use cases that extend from security and anti-terrorism right down to, thanks to object-recognition, apps that show you how to program your newly purchased microwave oven with dynamic, interactive graphics. And with giant players like hardware manufacturer Qualcomm getting into the AR game, and predictions that the industry could be worth over $1.5 billion by 2015, it's a tech that's only going to get more ubiquitous. Augmented reality is essentially growing up, moving from toy status to genuine utility, and bringing big money-earning potential with it.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

Read More: Your Face Is Your Key

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  • Felix Morgan

    This functionality has existed, and been used by countless brands already. The leaders in the market at the moment are Aurasma, and Blippar also have a similar product.

    We ran a very successful campaign for Panasonic earlier this year using Aurasma, which you can read about here -
    We also have a few in the pipeline with FMCG products which are really going to push this technology to it's limits!

  • John Harrison

    In response to George Butler and this article 'focussing on objects and not people'. I'm co-founder of We enable people to create their unique QR barcode through FB login and manage their own 'scan page'. When scanned, people can connect to the users' social media accounts with the click of a smartphone button.

    In essence we enable people to connect the real world (people they actually come into contact with!) with their online (social media) world in an easy and fun way.

    Will we be going into AR? Maybe (as Sean says) when we're all wearing AR glasses or contacts! The fact that 2D barcodes are obvious when seen and literally every scanning app can read it means that this is where we'll stay, for now!

  • George Butler

    This is when AR becomes interesting! I'm surprised this article and all the comments are focussing on objects and not people - can you scan people too?  "Scan me to link to my social network, scan me to find out what I write about, scan me to buy this suit..." for politicians: "scan this pic of me in the Times for my latest thoughts on..." etc, etc.

    It makes the current social media look somewhat stale and inhibited.

  • dave nelson

    Very cool! I think the real sticking point is going to be in competing apps. QR codes have the advantage of a standard symbology so it doesn't matter so much which reader I use. As the AR technology becomes popular, many players will jump in with the hopes of creating the master app. Consumers will quickly get frustrated by having to download a new app or hunt through multiple apps to find the one that recognizes the object correctly.

  • Carly Foy

    I'm fascinated by QR codes am always thinking about the possibilities of their potential. I'm really liking the idea that LivingSocial has for redemption of vouchers through their app., but now with this upcoming recognition app. I'm thinking that soon enough, we'll have Gift Certificate-type redemption available on our phones. Although, say if I were to redeem for a coffee at Caribou Coffee... They would have to have the capabilities at the location to receive the transaction. Anyway, thank you for sharing this - I eat this stuff up! :)

  • Nick @

    An interesting article with a ridiculous title aimed at attracting the attention of the misinformed. 

    QR codes are not dead. The reason QR still trumps all the other technology is that it's *the* standard that everyone has installed on their phones. MS tags need the MS tag reader, NFC functionality is on very few phones at present and Layar? - I don't know a single person that actually uses that app. QR codes can be read by thousands of different devices, THAT is what makes them THE method to use. 

    In the past year we've seen QR codes coming to life more and more, driven by increased smart-phone penetration. That trend will continue. 

    The notion that NFC will wipe out QR codes is also flawed. At the moment, when "the NFC" guru arrives on stage and demonstrates the pain of scanning a QR code and then pulls out the NFC tag and his specialist NFC phone prepared with NFC "on", people are impressed. However, by the time NFC readers are on everyone's phones, QR code readers may well be in all phone operating systems as standard. At that point, the difference between the QR and NFC interaction is whether you want to hold you camera towards it or physically touch it - there's little difference. With NFC, you'll turn "NFC on", with a QR code, you'll hit the "QR scan" button. NFC will be commonly used in mobile payments and billboard advertising (and similar) but in magazine adverts and things like business cards (something our service works with), QR codes win hands down because of the zero cost of adding them into the production process.
    Nick, MD @

  • Russell Joyce

    AI builds as the brain would build cells called neurons(cloud) with nerve endings called dendrites(servers) and fired by synapses(apps)?  And know 3D image recognition is at hand!  With all the pun intended, but let your imagination contemplate the possibilities...?  Back in the early 1980 the Information Revolution projections did not even come close to the internet applications we have today, speak about multiple quantum leaps.

  • Sean Kent

    Where the heck are my AR glasses?  Soon we'll be seeing life like Terminator...

  • Red Star

    It is beginning of a whole new way to tag a marketable "thing". I would say once AR becomes accessible on smartphones, give it 3-6 months, and most of the "things" that are popular or sought after will be AR tagged. power of social networks !!

  • The QR Guy

    AR has a very exciting future in the real world, but as a QR artist, I am finding that in the states, only 30% are yet discovering QR, becoming enthusiastic about it, and going nuts over the stuff I'm doing with them. (See I feel that QR used creatively has many miles to rack up before something like AR takes hold in the mainstream. What do you think?

  • James Mueller

    QR codes are obvious—you see one, you want to scan it. But how will anyone know what is VR tagged and what isn't? I'm not going to be walking around pointing my phone at everything I see just in case it's tagged. I would say that's more than just "maybe a problem," but the difference between AR being a fun gimmick, and something legitimately useful.

  • Lora Kolodny

    I think any company (group, or person) that wants to use AR could put a tasteful "AR" somewhere on an object or poster they would like people to scan until the practice becomes common. Certainly, as crowds and companies have done with mapping and geolocation apps, I can see more making an effort to AR-enable just about anything from public works of art, to billboards and objects for sale. Maybe this is a problem that goes away over time, if the technology catches on and users embrace and help advance it. 

  • Doyle Buehler

    A great insight into what is coming down the pipe. There have been many ways to try to get the information from our surroundings into a situation where we can actually fully interact and engage with it - we need to be better able to connect with this information. This is a step in the right direction. QR codes are somewhat clumsy and affect the aesthetics of the actual medium itself - which will limit their adoption. Digital watermarks have also made some progress in this direction, but still has some limitations. This seems like genuine progress without the limitations of either of these current systems; a simple evolution of an idea based on the information that was presented to the developers of this amazing technology. The only drawback I can see is that it must already "register" the object within a database-like framework to be able to make the connection and provide the true representation of the data back to the user; the true advance will come from it being able to simply "read" what it is "looking" at. 

  • Guy Borgford

    This is where search, browsers, advertising, and information access is going. I think a $1.5B 2015 estimate is an understatement. AR is going to totally change the game. Guy Borgford @gborgford on Twitter

  • Dean Collins

    I cant stress how poor image recognition works with real world use.the reason this is a fail comes down to door knobs. yep thats right door knobs.when was the last time someone showed you "how to use" a door you hadnt seen used before? thats right you dont, you see a door knob and you know what the UX will be.The issue with image recognition is unless you can guarentee every print/object/surface in the world is linked to your database when people pull out their scanner and it doesnt work a few times they are going to feel like idiots.People understand the "practise" of using QR codes, pull out phone/scan/get result - same as door knobs.
    If Layer have a photo of the front door of every restaurant in the USA and as you are leaving you could vote then it would be a great app, but how many times are you going to do this before you give up with "restaurant not found"?