By Frank Spillers

Augmented_reality A recent spate of game-changing applications for mobile devices have been emerging over the past few weeks and months. Their defining characteristic? Real-time global positioning providing helpful data overlays, or so-called Augmented Reality displays.

What is Augmented Reality?

Think of Augmented Reality as half virtual and half real. It takes existing physical spaces and supplements or "augments" them with information, objects, actions or interactions. One of the most extensive uses of Augmented or "Artificial Reality" involved interactive art installations pioneered by Myron Krueger, author of the ground breaking books Artificial Reality I and Artificial Reality II.

Put the capabilities of mobile phone GPS and real-time points of interest on a live camera view with data overlay and you have the next big thing (potentially helpful to users) in mobile user experience.

Examples of Augmented Reality:

1. Location based Restaurant finder with reviews

Yelp was one of the first well known sites to go live with Augmented Reality.

2. Location based Travel points of interest

Wikitude AR Travel Guide offers travel based historical context and place information.

3. Virtual pet for the iPhone

ARf is an Augmented Reality Virtual Pet on the iPhone.

4. Public transportation schedule and station finder

The London Underground Tube Map finder provides station way-finding and travel information.

 5. Virtual objects you can interact with in the real world

Gizmodo- an AR toolkit for creating virtual objects. Gizmodo has not released yet due to low frames per second processing (10 fps vs 20-30 fps)- this will change once Apple release a video API for the iPhone. This will allow 3D games and fast Augmented Reality applications to run without delay.

Drawbacks of Augmented Reality

  • Current performance levels (speed) on today's 2009 iPhone or similar touch devices like the Google G1 will take a few generations to make Augmented Reality feasible as a general interface technique accessible to the general public.
  • Content may obscure or narrow a users interests or tastes. For example, knowing where McDonald's or Starbucks is in Paris or Rome might not interest users as much as "off the beaten track information" that you might seek out in travel experiences such as those our client RentVillas.com offers. 
  • Privacy control will become a bigger issue than with today's information saturation levels. (See Privacy- your biggest user experience challenge). Walking up to a stranger or a group of people might reveal status, thoughts (Tweets), or other information that usually comes with an introduction, might cause unwarranted breaches of privacy.

Benefits of Augmented Reality

  • Augmented Reality is set to revolutionize the mobile user
    experience as did gesture and touch (multi-modal interaction) in mobile
    phones. See Multi-modal design: Gesture, Touch and Mobile devices... This will redefine the mobile user experience for the next generation making mobile search invisible and reduce search effort for users.
  • Augmented Reality, like multi-modal interaction (gestural interfaces)
    has a long history of usability research, analysis and experimentation
    (particularly in Automotive Telematics research) and therefore has a solid history as an interface technique.
  • Augmented Reality improves mobile usability by acting as the interface itself, requiring little interaction (this Interaction Design technique is known as Direct Manipulation).
    Imagine turning on your phone or pressing a button where the space,
    people, objects around you are "sensed" by your mobile device- giving
    you location based or context sensitive information on the fly. See my musing on where this might go, written in 2004: " Would you like a Pop-Up with that Traffic Jam?"

Augmented Reality for mobile phones is an exciting development and has the power to take the mobile user experience to the next level, offering users the value proposition they have long been waiting for on mobile phones and devices: helpful, simple, convenient just-in-time information and services. 

Best Wishes,
Frank Spillers, MS