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Kicking Reality Up a Notch

By LESLIE BERLIN
Published: July 11, 2009

People in Amsterdam who download a free application called Layar on their cellphones can look through the camera and see information about nearby restaurants, A.T.M.’s, and available jobs displayed in front of buildings that house them. This information is provided by companies like Hyves, the Dutch social networking site, and ING, the financial services company. The businesses pay a fee to SPRXmobile, the privately held company based in Amsterdam that developed Layar.

Layar is available in the Netherlands for phones running on the Android operating system developed by Google. Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, a co-founder of SPRXmobile, says it will be marketed later this year in the United States, Germany and Britain.

A similar product for Android phones, called Wikitude.me, provides information on 800,000 points of interest around the world, according to Philipp Breuss-Schneeweis, founder of Mobilizy, the Austrian company that developed Wikitude.me. Much of this content comes from Wikipedia, he said.

Applications like Layar and Wikitude.me, as well as projects in the research stage at Nokia, use a phone’s global positioning technology to determine a person’s location and use the phone’s compass to discern the direction the device is pointed. In this way, the phone can guess what the user is seeing. The augmented-reality application then pulls in information about points of interest in that sight line and displays it on top of the camera view.

For such location-based applications to become mainstream, they need access to vast amounts of data tagged with location information, said Blair MacIntyre, director of the Augmented Environments Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Ideally they’d want to hook in with the same database that Google Maps, or Garmin, or TomTom uses,” he said. (Nokia, it should be noted, owns Navteq, which provides map data and content.)

This tagged information could also come from users. Last week, for example, Mobilizy introduced a feature that enables people to add their own content to Wikitude.me.

In the future, researchers will need to come up with a way to compensate for the shortcomings of GPS-and-compass systems, which are not perfectly precise, Mr. MacIntyre said. He expects that this can be achieved through image-recognition technology. And people may want their augmented-reality view of the world to come to them not through devices they pull out of their pockets, but through some sort of wearable technology, like special glasses or contact lenses. Such devices are still in prototype stages.

“What we are seeing today in this area are baby steps,” agreed Ori Inbar, who writes the Games Alfresco blog about augmented reality and is a co-founder of two young augmented-reality companies: Arballoon, in Tel Aviv, and Ogmento, with offices in New York and Los Angeles. “People are really excited, though, because they are seeing the next steps beyond these.”

Augmented reality will “reinvent” many industries, including health care and training, Mr. Inbar predicted. Already, researchers at the Technical University of Munich are looking at ways to display X-ray and ultrasound readings directly on a patient’s body. A research project at BMW is exploring how an augmented-reality view under the hood might help auto mechanics with diagnostic and repair work.

In the short term, the industry that may have the most to gain from augmented reality is gaming. Although video games have traditionally pulled players out of the real world and into a virtual one, augmented-reality games have the potential to “engage people in the real world in a different way,” said Daniel Sánchez-Crespo, a project leader at Novarama, a game developer based in Barcelona. “It finds a new meaning for space. Your kitchen counter is not just where you prepare dinner; it can be a virtual racetrack for a car game.”

Novarama has developed a game called Invizimals that makes it appear as if the world is populated by formerly invisible creatures that can interact with one another. Sony plans to release Invizimals for the PSP handheld device this holiday season in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia.

“The real world is way too boring for many people,” Mr. Sánchez-Crespo said with a laugh. “By making the real world a playground for the virtual world, we can make the real world much more interesting.”

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