In the past year, developers around the world have started launching applications that use Augmented Reality with the aim to make the virtual world an inherent part of our daily lives. Tarmo Virki reports
Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald signs off his messages with a little joke: “This email might have been written while cycling.” It could be an apology for his spelling, an allusion to the fact he’s Dutch or even a hint at his oddball imagination. Or perhaps, given Lens-Fitzgerald is the head of a company that wants to fuse the virtual and physical worlds, it could be taken literally.
The 39-year old is the founder of one of the hottest prospects in the mobile space, Layar. The Dutch company wants nothing less than to become the platform of choice for the burgeoning new medium of Augmented Reality (AR). Running on smartphones and tablet computers, AR overlays digital information – text, graphics, games – on images of the world around us.
Some executives in the mobile industry think AR will be huge. While revenues from AR alone amount to no more than a few tens of millions of dollars, that number is set to double annually to reach $350 million in 2014, according to New York-based ABI Research. The impact across the broader mobile and computer industry could be much bigger, convincing consumers to use their mobile devices even more than they already do.
Samsung Electronics used Layar as the leading feature of many advertisements for its hit smartphone model Galaxy S, last year’s top iPhone rival, which generated revenues of $5 billion.
In August 2009, when Wired magazine claimed “If you’re not seeing data, you’re not seeing”, AR was still more whimsy than real world. But in the past year, developers around the world have started launching applications that use AR and aim to make the virtual world an inherent part of our daily lives. Tech heavyweights including Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung have noticed and are all developing AR strategies.
Informed by such sci-fi authors as William Gibson and Vernor Vinge, and Mitsuo Iso’s anime TV series “Denno Coil” (Electronic Brain), Lens-Fitzgerald and a few fellow developers are at the forefront of this potential revolution. Intel’s venture arm Intel Capital invested 10 million euros in Layar in late 2010. “Other guys are about technology, while Layar is about usage, and that’s the unique thing,” says Marcos Battisti, regional director at Intel Capital. Then comes a big – and familiar – ‘but’. “The numbers are very big, it is sticky,” says Battisti. “The key is, how do they monetise it?”
Sitting around enjoying a sandwiches-and-milk lunch with colleagues in the company’s open-plan office in Amsterdam’s former docklands, Lens-Fitzgerald almost sounds like a Silicon Valley script from the late 1990s. Wearing a violet sweater hauled over an untucked shirt which lends him the air of a geeky scruff, he argues that the question of profit, while important, misses the point: “The promise is so big, we do not want to limit ourselves with a business plan.”
Technology analysts Forrester also see potential for AR to become a force that fundamentally changes the way people behave. “In the years to come, it will be a disruptive technology that changes the way consumers interact with their environments,” says Forrester’s analyst Thomas Husson.
One thing is clear: if the hype around AR feels at times like Dotcom Boom 2, then the sequel will be in 3-D, if not in 4-D. Many of the apps so far depend on where you are, and what you see around you and are triggered by your movement within a space. “Location,” tweeted Nokia sales chief Niklas Savander last October, “is the next big thing.”
From helmets to layers
As a technology, AR is not new. Originally associated with the backpacks and helmets that nerds used to carry the equipment for techno games, the fusion of visible reality with computer-generated digital information has been under development for more than a decade. In its simplest everyday form today, you can see it in action in sports TV: in the line superimposed over footage of a race to show where it ends, or the pitch-side advertising banners that can change depending what market you’re watching a game in.
What takes AR onto less familiar ground is the surging popularity of smartphones and tablet PCs. Smartphone sales grew more than 50 per cent last year to 289 million handsets, and tablet sales grew from almost nothing to 55 million, according to research firm Gartner.
That growth, combined with the availability of good-quality location data via Global Positioning System (GPS) and faster data speeds, has opened up a plethora of new possibilities, which so far mostly revolve around ways of delivering information to handhelds as their users move through, look at and listen to the physical world.
“AR is a continuation of the map. It’s at the core of the user interface,” says Michael Halbherr, Nokia’s Chief of Services Products. “I think it’s big.”
For a basic example, take the story of Layar’s first customer: an Amsterdam real estate broker which liked the idea of offering clients a real-life look at the properties on its books. Using Layar’s technology, it built a smartphone app – what the Layar team call a ‘layer’ – to let users access details about apartments for sale in a building just by pointing their smartphones at it. That was in May 2009. “Then all hell broke loose,” says Lens-Fitzgerald.
History made cool
Today, Layar has more than 1 million active monthly users, and its technology – which offers a platform or browser on which people can build their own apps rather than the end-products themselves – has been installed on more than 10 million phones and tablets. So far, its system works only on iPhones, or those that run Google’s Android or Samsung’s bada. A version for Nokia’s Symbian, the largest smartphone operating system, is due out soon. Of the 1,500 layers created so far, popular apps include a virtual Berlin Wall, which tourists can use to see what a neighbourhood looked like when the Wall was still standing; the Beatles tour, which has a nifty 3-D model of the Fab Four crossing Abbey road; and the AR marketplace, eLay.
Others see the potential of AR and location-sensitive computing, and are working on projects that could help – or hurt – Layar’s ambitions. A multitude of AR apps are currently under development for different handheld platforms. As was the case with the Web, AR backers aim to make the infrastructure platform-agnostic.
That means that even if AR might be used as a weapon in the battle for market share among handhelds in the short term, the longer war will be less about hardware than the quality of content.