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.

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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.

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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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