We learned today that Layar, the trailblazing augmented reality (AR) browser, has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times to iPhones and Android handsets
, making it comfortably the most popular AR app by that metric. As I wrote that I was poised to incorporate that old simile about selling like hot cakes, but then I paused: firstly, because it’s a corny old phrase, and secondly, because, well, Layar certainly isn’t selling like hot cakes, as it doesn’t cost a penny. Besides, given away like hot cakes just doesn’t have same ring about it.
And therein lies the problem with AR at the moment. There may have been 1.5 million Layar downloads, but as it’s (a) a freebie and (b) doesn’t yet feature advertising, the flow of Layar-related greenbacks is conspicuous by its absence.
Don’t get me wrong; I think that, provided AR forms an integral, valuable part of an application rather than being tagged on for the hell of it/because the app next door has it; that the app within which the AR sits is itself entertaining, informative and easy to use; then, there is money to be made. But the recognition has to be made, firstly, that AR is only as good as the AR-app or browser in question; secondly, that the AR experience is only as good as the app enables it to be in combination with the various enabling technologies, such as the digital compass and GPS. And some of these technologies have – shall we say – issues.
Ah, good old GPS. Earlier today, I was attempting to use the Walk function in a well-known free mobile navigation app to plot my course to Telecom TV towers from Liverpool Street Station (it should be pointed out that any sense of direction assigned to me at birth clearly got lost en route and failed to turn up, but that’s by the by); after five minutes of wandering around aimlessly and becoming increasingly frustrated with “Waiting for GPS” flashing up in the corner of the screen, I used an older, more trustworthy form of mobile location-based service: namely, the telephone call. It found out where I was (“Where are you?” “Outside Deutsche Bank”) and told me where I needed to go (“Can you see Café Nero? Wait outside and I’ll come across and get you”). This method, however, has a number of disadvantages, not least that Mark Smith of the GSMA (for it was he on the other end of the line) will not ordinarily be able to come into play when I’m seeking to get to the Grand Hotel in Bournemouth or Hoburne Holiday Park in Torquay. So we really need GPS to stand on its own two feet, or at least propped up as part of a hybrid location-fixing technology.
For time-critical enterprise applications, it – and thereby its part-dependent, augmented reality – isn’t there yet: if a client needed to know the precise location of a piece of tagged equipment inside a building, he or she might end up being directed twenty, thirty, forty metres in the wrong direction. Even for consumer applications, where precision is not as essential, you can still wind up getting information about a tagged object which is supposedly in front of you and is actually behind your left shoulder.
As I said, these technologies have issues. They are not insurmountable; those hybrid technologies will get better; hopefully my next handset will be able to get a fix on me rather more rapidly even when I’m surrounded by (and possibly even within) rather chunky buildings. But their current inadequacies are in part responsible for AR remaining in large part a curio, a gimmick; only when they have been more fully addressed will we see a greater number of handsets incorporating them as the key building blocks for AR; only then will AR be available to a wider market; only then will it really have the opportunity to deliver a decent revenue stream.
And provided, of course, that you build it into good apps…