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Overlaying Reality with Your Cell Phone

Photo courtesy of soundwalk.com

That house over there. Is it for sale? Is there a good restaurant nearby? Jut pan the neighborhood with your camera-enabled Augmented Reality (AR) cell phone and find out.

Layar, the first AR browser on mobile, is taking us one step closer to Vernor Vinge’s vision of simultaneous virtual "overlays" on the actual world. By holding your camera phone in front of you and panning an area, information about your surroundings is layered on top of the camera’s display view. Here’s a video that shows Layar’s amazing capabilities using an Android phone:

For all points of interest that are displayed, information is shown at the bottom of the screen. On top of the camera image (showing the physical world), Layar adds content layers. Layers are similar to web pages in normal browsers – and there can be thousands of layers. You can switch easily between layers by selecting another layer using a menu button or by swiping your finger across the screen.

Verner Vinge, familiar to most h+ readers as the mathematician and SF writer who helped coin the term "Singularity," writes of augmented reality and virtual overlays in his novel Rainbow’s End. In Vinge’s fictional world, your own virtual landscapes — or those of your virtual social network — become like a skin over the actual world when viewed through special contact lenses. Rather than contacts, Layer uses the camera lens of your cell phone. The reality of 2009 is not that far from the fiction of 2006 — or so it would seem.

Layar is currently available for the T-Mobile MyTouch, HTC Magic and other Android phones. The MyTouch is essentially the same phone as the Google Ion, also known as the HTC Magic. The biggest change between the MyTouch and the original Android handset — the G1, also manufactured by HTC — is the physical QWERTY keyboard. It’s now gone, replaced by an on-screen soft keyboard.

Photo courtesy of media.svennerberg.com

Layar (the company as opposed to its software) has a good amount of momentum behind it – it claims that 100 developers are already hard at work developing reality layers that users can toggle, and an additional 500 developers are being added into the mix with the latest release.

Layar’s software is not without the standard Release 1.0 problems. "The Google-powered Layar local search — arguably the most important reality layer bundled with the software — is a little annoying to use, primarily because the search box has no history or suggestion capability which means you’ve got to type out a full search every time you want to use it," says Chris Siegler at Engadget.

Photo courtesy of phandroid.comLayar announced an upgrade in late August 2009 that adds social features to the act of layering data on the physical world around you. If you’re using Layar to look through your mobile phone’s camera to scan real estate listings for the buildings nearby and see social networking messages left by your friends at a particular place or Flickr photos from the area — you can now share that data set’s layer with your friends by sending them its URL.

Cell phones take on almost religious significance these days, reminiscent of the everpresent Mac vs. PC debate. Layar is currently available only for Google Android phones, but the company is testing an iPhone version that is expected to be available by the end of September 2009. Layar was just made available globally on Android phones in August 2009.

The ability to scan your surroundings by panning your cell phone’s camera… will begin reshaping our perception of reality.

If you’re considering the purchase of a 3G phone, Layar availability on an Android phone like the MyTouch is certainly a compelling reason to take another look at one. But does this make the MyTouch an iPhone killer? “Show me the definition of an iPhone ‘killer’ and we might be able to debate the issue,” says John Klimut of ModoGadget. He goes on to complain about the exclusivity of Apple’s iPhone deal with AT&T and suggests that the iPhone is merely a status symbol because – unlike the MyTouch – it can only run one app at a time. “A cool one, but a status symbol none-the-less," says Klimut.

Layar is not the only player in the rapidly accelerating AR market. Even without official support for AR on the iPhone, the market is heating up – RoboVision, Wikitude, Yelp, PresseLite, and AcrossAir either have product offerings or will offer products soon.

Photo courtesy of blogcdn.comRobotVision was built by Portland, Oregon’s Tim Sears, a developer at a major PR firm by day and a side-project innovator by night. He expects to launch it this month. Sears believes that once iPhone support is available, as many as half a dozen other competitors may pop up. Sears plans to build 1-off white label implementations of RobotVision. For example, universities might want a version for campus locations. RobotVision works by leveraging the Bing search engine’s local search capabilities to glean location and business review data based on access to some key Bing features like aggregated reviews from CitySearch, Judy’s Book, and Yelp. Bing looks at the reviews of restaurants and tells you how they stack up in aggregate for a business’ food, ambience, service and more.

AR apps like Layar and RobotVision are the cutting edge of what is likely to become a standard feature for cell phone users, particularly in urban areas. The ability to scan your surroundings by panning your cell phone’s camera to find restaurants, shops, offices, parking structures, real estate listings and to selectively layer social networking content, text messages, email, and pictures will begin reshaping our perception of reality.

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