Not so very long ago, location-based search involved thumbing through a grubby copy of the Thomson’s Local Directory so that you could find out that there were, in fact, no Thai restaurants in the vicinity of your hotel and that you’d better make different plans for the evening. Then along came the Internet and GPS, and suddenly your phone knew roughly where you were and could tell you, if you accessed a search engine, that, OK, maybe there’s no Thai around but that there are still half a dozen eateries within half a mile and that three of them have scored eight out of ten from customer reviews.
Most of you will agree that this is a few steps up from the first approach, if only for the fact that the good old Thomson’s didn’t have Anon from Havant warning you off the kippers at Alfonso’s. And now, with the advent of a digital compass and an accelerometer, there is the opportunity to take things a little further.
Over the past few months, a small but steadily increasing number of smartphone applications and browsers have been appearing which utilize augmented reality – digital information overlaid onto the physical environment as seen through the viewfinder of a mobile’s camera. These apps and browsers (early pace-setters here include Layar, Wikitude and Nearest Tube) include layers of metadata about physical objects which have been geotagged: either by the developers of the app/browser in question or (in the case of open solutions) by third-parties, increasingly including members of the public.
The apps/browsers then identify where the user is via the GPS in the handset and which direction he or she is facing via the digital compass: this combination allows the handset to recognise what the viewer will be seeing via the camera viewfinder and thereby which (if any) items within that view have been geotagged.
Thus – assuming I had a compatible phone and had downloaded a suitable app – I could simply look at the world through my cameraphone and icons illustrating the location of those half a dozen eateries would appear; one click and I’ve learned more than enough about Alfonso’s kippers.
The potential uses of these technologies clearly extend far beyond local search; there has been much interest in AR in games (the first such title, Mosquitoes, launched earlier this month) and, in the longer term, in enterprise applications.
But before we get carried away and imagine that we’ll wake up tomorrow and the world will have turned into a Spielberg sci-fi epic, there are a fair few barriers to address. Firstly, and I’m sorry to tell you this, your phone probably doesn’t do AR. Unless you have an Android handset, or an iPhone 3GS, or an N97, it won’t have that magical GPS/digital compass/accelerometer combo. And while other vendors will gradually begin to roll out these enablers in their high end handsets, this process will take several years.
Secondly, some of the technologies aren’t up to the mark yet. For example, GPS is notoriously unreliable in-building: an object which your phone is telling you is thirty metres in front of you could be the same distance behind you, rather problematic if you’re engaged in a time-critical exercise.
Thirdly, and most importantly, just because phones can enable AR doesn’t mean that it will suddenly become the be all and the end all. For apps to succeed, they must be good apps. For AR to succeed, it must add value to apps, be they games, local search or enterprise apps, and those apps must be attractive and compelling to the end user.
We do believe that AR provides a significant opportunity – for brands, operators, vendors and developers alike – and that, within the next five years or so, that opportunity will be worth several hundred million dollars: but it will take a lot more AR-handsets on the ground, and a lot more strong AR apps, before we reach that point.
*The other week, while blogging on mobile dating services, I observed that Flirtomatic had 1.2 million UK customers. Sapna Burton from Flirtomatic has asked me to point out that at the time that figure had already reached 1.5 million. I am more than happy to do so.