‘Until Augmented Reality is part of the Operating System, it probably won’t be that useful for consumers’

Imagine you got someone before you who has a general interest in augmented reality. ‘Yeah, putting digital layers on top of my physical surroundings, I like that. Pretty cool, and hey, I got this fancy new smartphone.’ Which app would you recommend?

I asked the question on the Google+ Augmented Reality community page. I suggested Layar, Junaio or Wikitude. Professor Blair MacIntyre at Georgia Tech was kind enough to answer. He said that it depends on what the user wants to do – but those apps are not very generally useful. I must admit that this corresponds with my own appreciation: even though I’m a fan of the possibilities of Augmented Reality, I don’t have such a ‘wow’-feeling when I actually stare through my smartphone to find out where some restaurant is or to find some wikipedia-entry floating around. Often I get the feeling that Google Maps – especially the newest version on the iPhone 5 – is hard to beat (can we consider that as Augmented Reality?).

Anyway, here is what MacIntyre told me:

The fundamental problem with “the AR browsers” is that they impose a single User Interface on top of the data they display. So, if you want to build something that is different than just looking at some data or animated models (i.e.., virtually anything useful or interesting) you can’t easily do t with them. They are good for small things, and displaying bits of data.

Compare them to web browsers, where each site has its own look, feel and behavior. Sure, many are vanilla, but most aren’t.

That’s why we started working on Argon years ago as a research project. It’s coming along, and I expect more and more we will see AR integrated into apps and eventually Operating Systems.

Heretical hypothesis: Until AR is part of the Operating System, it probably won’t be that useful for consumers.

MacIntyre is project director of the augmented reality browser Argon, in this video he explains the ideas behind that browser:

Augmented Reality platform Layar gets second round of funding

The Dutch augmented reality platform Layar got a second round of funding, about $14 million, led by Intel Capital. In total (both rounds) Layar got $17,4 million. Layar says the next phase in the life of the company will be all about content:

The next phase is all about content. In the last year we have built a global platform for Augmented Reality. The coming period is about identifying the content formats that can attract and build an audience. We will not wait passively but will be actively involved in supporting our publishers in this process.

The company remains based in Amsterdam but is also opening a US office in San Francisco. So, is this yet another example that augmented reality becomes big business? Not so fast. Robin Wauters on TechCrunch says

The question remains: is augmented reality a fad or poised to go mainstream?

The jury is still out on that, but Intel Capital and Layar’s initial backers are clearly betting on the latter to happen in the near future, and on the Dutch startup to help make it a reality.

Well, let’s hope it works out. I have Layar on my iPhone, and even though I played with it, it remains one of the apps I hardly use these days. It seems that my old-fashioned Google maps (combined with location based services such as Foursquare) cover my needs most of the time. I could imagine interesting applications such as putting layers of historical images on the physical reality of all major cities. Maybe there are not enough content creators to provide such cool layers (instead of yet another listing of restaurants), and so users give up on it, making that potential content creators are frustrated because of the limited user base.

Kevin C. Tofel on GigaOm gives an example of historical information on Layar. Now just imagine ways to have this kind of view in a more compelling way than through your smartphone camera and also imagine to have these layers in an ubiquitous, interactive and real time way – then I think something like mainstream traction becomes very probable.