Does augmented reality need to use the camera?

I blogged about Dutch virtual reality business Layar last week and I spent 20 minutes last night playing with the app whilst I was waiting for a friend to come meet me for a drink in north London.  As I mentioned in last weeks post they have an active developer community and what these developers do is write Layars which run within the Layar augmented reality browser.  All Layars share the same underlying structure – when the Layar is opened the iPhone/Android phone opens up the camera and the screen shows the camera view augmented with content relevant to that Layar which is tied to a specific location and within a distance set by the user. 

mobypicture have written one of my favourite Layars and from the iPhone screen grabs below you can see how the interface works.  In the first image you can see the wall in our office augmented with pictures taken nearby.  The circle in the top right corner has white dots for all the photos within 800m and the photos layered over the top and the detail at the bottom shows pictures in the direction my phone was pointing.  I was pointing the phone in the direction of Google’s offices in Victoria and as you can see in the second and third images the Layar found a picture of my friend Anil who heads up corp dev for Google in Europe. 

The Layar browser provides the camera interface, link to the compass in the phone and format for displaying the content on the screen.  Each Layar then integrates whatever content they are interested in – in the case of mobypicture it is pictures taken nearby, other interesting apps are the Tweeps around (3D), and the Rolling Stones Exile on Your Street campaign.

image image image

As you can see for Layar the notion of augmented reality is taking reality as per the camera view and augmenting it with interesting content.

Foursquare however has come up with a different idea which doesn’t use the camera and the phone’s compass, but simply takes the location information from a user checks in and pushes the relevant data via an on screen alert.  For example, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) just announced a ‘layer’ on Foursquare which takes descriptions of places crowd sourced from the IFC member base and then pushes them to Foursquare users who opt in who get to see ‘the world as IFC fans see it’  – see the picture below.


The Wikipedia article on augmented reality focuses heavily on adding content to video in the way that Layar does, so the Foursquare notion stretches traditional definitions in this area, but they do so in quite a cool way. One of the limitations of Layar is that you have to open the app and wave the phone around to find the content you want, which (for now at least) is not a natural feeling process (trust me…).  To access the Foursquare augmentation of reality I only have to make a single opt in and then use Foursquare as I normally would, which seems like a lower barrier to adoption. 

What do you think – is augmented reality just hype? is the camera view important?

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  • martinowen

    AR through the audio channel is important. When you are in a real space – you don't always want to be looking at a phone screen when the real scene is in front of you. However you may still want an information overlay. Audio is less intrusive and requires less focus than looking at a screen to see a picture of where you are or to read text.

    I conceived of an AR game some time ago ( that mapped virtual space onto real space – just through the audio channel. I still think it is “a” way to go.

  • Very good points and I have long had issue with small smartphone screens and too many layers of content obstructing the view – that said I think there are two issues here. One is that Augmented Reality is not just about layering over a camera view of the real world (more clarification on my site – linked below) but also as we are seeing with larger tablet displays (think how more useful the iPad is over the iPhone for general web activity) and soon to be commonplace AR glasses, a larger view really starts to make the experience more immersive. Here is a video showing a slightly different approach using a larger screen… – I am currently developing AR using glasses and larger screens so we agree really that limited display size will not get widespread traction and that true social utility and more immersion in the experience I believe will…

  • That looks like an interesting game. Thanks for the link. And the point re audio.

  • Nice video! And I like your tunes. You definitely get something more out of a larger screen.

  • Hi Nic,

    Perhaps AR will be one aspect of the wider visual search category? Plink being another. Google Places Pages would work nicely with both.

    I've used various apps down here on Dartmoor and in London. An OS map solved the problem down here much more efficiently but I found AR pretty useful in London/Bristol etc. Would be great for property or land search, too, if out and about exploring an area. Personally, I think it's far from hype and the tech will get better, fast.


  • Hi James – I think maybe there is a difference between visual search in the Plink sense of searching the web for pictures and augmented reality which uses vision to search for local content through the camera view.

    You might be onto something with the idea that B2B apps like land search could be where AR gets started.

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