Reality needs augmentation

Normally when I get a notification about “augmentation” it heads straight in one direction — no stopping, no passing Go, and definitely no collecting $200. That place is my spam folder, as the kinds of dodgy “augmentations” they're offering are of zero interest to me. It's all in perfect working order, and I've had no complaints, for what that's worth.

The persistent buzz for the past few months has related to augmenting something else.

Reality.

Now, before I start, I should point out that I really hate the term “augmented reality”. It's a dippy marketing term that ranks up there with “Web 2.0” and “iDeviceNameHere” in my hit list. But what is augmented reality anyway?

Well, the basic idea's pretty simple. Given that a GPS-enabled mobile phone (like, say, an iPhone 3G/3GS) can pretty accurately track where you are, and it's possible to combine that location information with real-world information, and such phones often have cameras sticking out the back, why not combine all three? Use the camera to display a real-world view through the iPhone's screen, the GPS to work out where you are and what you're pointing towards and the data connection to feed you relevant data. It's rather like GPS SatNav, but in real time, at least in theory.

It's not an exclusive iPhone-only idea; one of the better-known augmented reality applications, Wikitude, uses the location data present in Wikipedia entries to give you an overlay with points of interest depending on what Wikipedia knows, and it's been available on the Android platform for some time now. It came out for iPhone just a few days ago.

A not-entirely-dissimilar application is "Bionic Eye", available (according to its developer) for the US, UK, France and Tokyo. Quite when Tokyo became a country in its own right eludes me, but while you can buy the foreign apps in the Australian iTunes Store, there's no Australian App. I guess if you wanted to know exactly how many thousands of miles you were away from a Burger King in San Franscisco it could be used — but I've no idea why you'd want to know that. Developer AcrossAir does offer an App called "Places" that performs a similar function, but it’s remarkably coy — even on its support Wiki — about which places Places actually knows about.

This brings up the other problem with augmented reality applications, at least for the time being. The “reality” part of it is OK — if a little wet, cold and unforgiving at times — and even though the GPS chip within an iPhone is notably slow, it's quick enough for this kind of pedestrian application. It's in the augmentations that things really suffer, as the apps will only be as good as the information they can impart. And it seems that this kind of information isn't easily forthcoming for Australian audiences.

There are obvious sources of that information within Australia, via the Points Of Interest data that map companies Sensis and Navteq harvest for GPS navigation applications. There are two problems that I can foresee for an Australian iPhone AR app, however: First, while Telstra (owner of Sensis) does sell the iPhone, it's never been with that much enthusiasm, and it would largely rather pitch its own phones and content solutions. If Sensis data's going to turn up on a phone in an AR sense, expect it to be a Telstra-exclusive phone.

OK, so that leaves Navteq, right? Well, it’s owned by Nokia, which brings with it its own challenges in a phone sense. But even if you do get past that hurdle, there's a bigger one — cost. Neither Navteq or Sensis will give up that POI info for free, and it's not likely to fall into that comfortable $2-$10 pricing space. Nobody's willing to talk due to commercial confidentiality, but it's unarguably clear that a whole lot of the $70-$99 price of the available Aussie GPS apps is eaten up in map costs.

There is one other AR app that's had some publicity lately, although it's not much of an app, and I have my doubts about quite how "AR" it is in a proper sense. That's Fairy Trails, a game that uses the camera and compass to show the hidden fairies that otherwise hide just out of sight of mere mortals. You know the ones.

It's not a terrible idea for a game — and my own testing suggests that it's a great way to keep a seven-year-old in the back of a car happy as she realises there's a fairy hiding in her shoe. Then again, the other side of that is that you do get some very funny looks on a commuter train waving around your iPhone and catching brightly-coloured mythical creatures in bikinis.

Fairies touts itself as “augmented reality”, but realistically it's anything but, if only because the fairy placement is pretty random, and certainly not GPS tracked.aA quick test on the aforementioned train proved that quite quickly. Whack a Wikitude-enabled phone out a train window and you'll see the local points flick by as you move. Whack Fairy Trails by the window? Nothing. Not a sausage, nor a fairy to be seen, even though I was clearly moving. It's a cute enough (if somewhat emasculating) distraction, but this isn't "real" augmented reality.

Err ... better make that "genuine" augmented reality, at least until we sort out what's real anyway.

How's your reality doing lately? Let's discuss in MacTheForum.

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