There are many reasons to distrust the current buzz around augmented reality. Many of the people buzzing about it are the ones who get excited about any new novelty technology – they’ll be onto flying cars (again) in a few months, probably.
Meanwhile, nobody seems to have much of an idea how to make money from it. And to say current mobile phone battery technology struggles with applications that require simultaneous use of GPS, camera and data connection is an understatement.
What’s more, many of the current uses for mobile AR technology arguably don’t need AR at all, as they can be done with maps. Find my nearest pub or restaurant? Icons on a map with a blob showing my current location will be fine, thanks. Restaurant reviews? I can read a sign and look it up on Qype thanks.
Wikipedia overlays on tourist hotspots? It gets confusing if there’s lots of them in one place, and when that’s not the case – well, why use the camera to identify it? Live AR house prices? Forgive me for being a trifle uneasy at the prospect of pointing my camera phone at people’s homes.
The arguments for the usefulness of mobile AR need some work, it’s fair to say. But maybe they don’t – maybe it’s the gloriously crazy potential of this technology that will win mobile users over quicker.
Some examples from the last couple of weeks: Someone’s created a Beatles tour layer for AR app Layar that lets you see an animated Fab Four strolling across the famous zebra crossing at Abbey Road. Presselite has made an iPhone app called Firefighter 360 that gets you to put out virtual fires in the real world.
HIT Lab has launched a game called Splatter Bugs that makes it look like cockroaches are pouring out of your furniture, requiring you to splat them. And Japanese firm Tonchidot just raised $4 million to develop AR mobile apps, with its own investor happily heralding the prospect of giant robot battles superimposed on real-world cityscapes.
Giant robots are always a good thing.
I’m not suggesting you won’t look ridiculous waving your iPhone about as a pretend hose in public, or that you won’t risk road-rage abuse from Abbey Road motorists wishing you’d get out of their f***ing way and stop taking their f***ing photograph while you’re at it. And I’m in no way suggesting these apps have a more obviously lucrative business model right now than the more sober AR uses listed earlier.
But with mobile AR in its infancy, the more sci-fi-esque uses for this technology can create a real buzz among mobile users, giving developers breathing space to figure out more appealing ‘sensible’ applications. Google knows this, judging by its decision to give its new Android AR app the satisfyingly silly name of Google Goggles.
Mobile AR may yet be the revolutionary technology that its proponents say it is. But a fine start would be making us laugh, gasp and rush to tell our friends about it.
At least, those of us who haven’t already moved on to the flying cars.