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.
What 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.