Merging Worlds: Augmented Reality

The real and digital worlds merge on your smartphone (screenshot: iTunes)
The real and digital worlds merge on your smartphone (screenshot: iTunes)

Augmented reality (AR) is set to fundamentally influence the course of the Information Age by fusing the real and virtual worlds (see also “Business IT Trends for 2011”). The basic premise of this technology involves superimposing your current environment with text and graphics in real time, thus providing you with tailored information.

The ongoing triumph of the modern smartphone is making AR apps increasingly popular. Such software can enhance much of what a smartphone’s camera sees with additional data. Standing before the Reichstag in Berlin, for example, you can read about its history – or how to get to the nearest sausage stand. From fun to useful applications, the possibilities are many; one can only imagine what the future holds, but the first steps have already been made.

The following pages will show you just what AR can do on smartphones and which fields it will enter next.

Next page: How AR works

Junaio, an AR browser (screenshot: iTunes)
Junaio, an AR browser (screenshot: iTunes)

How AR works

Today’s iPhones and Android-based devices sport modern internal instruments without which mobile AR would be impossible. Gyroscopic compasses, tilt sensors, GPS, and cameras provide the user’s current location and perspective. This serves as the basis upon which AR software identifies the user’s environment and displays the distance to and information on points of interest (POI). Since even the latest smartphones don’t have enough internal memory to store so much potential data, most of it is obtained online.

Depending on the application and desired function, AR enthusiasts can make use of a wide variety of information – from user-generated content on Twitter and Qype to specially configured databases that display the nearest Starbucks or the work of virtual graffiti artists. Meanwhile, what’s really special about AR technology is how it overlays virtual content onto your camera’s perspective in real time; shift your view, and new objects become visible.

Having a constant eye on the distance to your destination saves you the trouble of switching between a map and your actual surroundings or paging through a travel guide. When you want to know more about a certain object, you simply touch the corresponding icon on your display to bring up additional text or video content. AR apps deliver exactly what you need, when you need it while on the move without the need to type in search terms or even open a Web browser.

It should, however, be mentioned that GPS positioning does not work optimally in buildings and can also produce distorted results in outdoor settings. That said, serious problems are rare and ongoing technical advancements should continue to decrease the number of aberrations.

Next page: AR browsers and social media

Wikitude’s browser also makes a “conventional” map view possible (screenshot: iTunes)
Wikitude’s browser also makes a “conventional” map view possible (screenshot: iTunes)

Find hotspots or play Woomba Mania with Layar (screenshot: iTunes)
Find hotspots or play Woomba Mania with Layar (screenshot: iTunes)

AR browsers: Wikitude, Layar, Junaio

Wikitude, Layar, and Junaio are the most popular browsers designed specifically for AR. Having been on the market the longest, Layar is the most prevalent and offers the most content. All three apps can be downloaded for free from the iTunes Store or Android Market.

Users can choose from various services to provide each app with information. Such services are referred to as “layers” in Layar, as “worlds” in Wikitude, and as “channels” in Junaio. The content itself comes from databases like Wikipedia and, and each of the three providers offers development tools and interfaces (APIs) third parties can implement to create their own services. Users themselves can also contribute to the growing knowledge pool.

Sourcing data from social media

Along with the databases of various providers, social networks are a key source of information for AR applications. Users’ posts are current, and their private nature makes them credible. Geotagging – the process of adding geographical information to text, images, or other media content – makes it possible to link tips, photos, and videos with a particular POI. Those using the same service can view each other’s tags.

Twitter and Qype are the most popular services for sharing reviews, opinions, and other brief input, while Panoramio and Flickr serve as intriguing photo repositories. Wikipedia provides detailed information on demand, and YouTube all manner of videos. Finally, Gowalla and Foursquare handle location-based messaging.

In, Wikitude has an AR community of its own in which users can attach self-made logos to their posts. Junaio fans, meanwhile, can create their own channels with the help of Juniao Glue.

Want a glimpse of the future? The software Augmented ID – currently undergoing testing by its creator, Sweden’s The Astonishing Tribe (ATA) – will soon make it possible to display the social network of any person whose picture you take with your smartphone’s camera.

Next page: Other useful services

Augmented ID, displaying a socially networked citizen of the 21st century (screenshot: YouTube)
Augmented ID, displaying a socially networked citizen of the 21st century (screenshot: YouTube)
Augmented ID, displaying a socially networked citizen of the 21st century (screenshot: YouTube)
Augmented ID, displaying a socially networked citizen of the 21st century (screenshot: YouTube)

Other useful services

Each of the AR browsers presented here has its share of useful applications, most of which are free and available for iPhone and Android-based devices. The links below lead to the respective browser or provider. Services not included with your browser of choice can be obtained from Apple’s App Store or the Android Market.

Here’s a small selection of services that have their uses both at home and abroad:

  • Hotels: If you’re planning your next overnight stay, (Wikitude) or Hotels and Resorts (Layar) can list available hotels.
  • Culture: Users looking for cultural enrichment will find AR art walk (Layar) or myMuseum (Junaio) useful in locating museums, galleries, and other exhibitions in their area. In addition to GPS, Junaio leverages the LLA Markers concept to facilitate positioning even when indoors. This makes it possible, for example, to access Wikipedia for information on exhibited works.
    In archINFORM, architecture enthusiasts can obtain consolidated knowledge on over 29,000 buildings and their respective creators. The service is available for all three browsers, whereby Layar also offers city maps in perspective and structural silhouettes in 3D.
    Looking for even more? The World Heritage List (Wikitude) contains all 890 of the worldwide locations UNESCO has declared World Heritage Sites.
  • Health: Hospital Finder (Layar) will put you on the fast track to your nearest pharmacy or hospital.
  • Environment: EPER 2004 (Wikitude) provides E.U.-wide information on the harmful emissions of industrial companies, and ecocritique (Layar) enables users to set digital tags regarding their local environmental situation.
  • Office finder: The SAP service partner CapGemini (Layar) is just one company whose branch offices can be located using AR.
  • Dating: With Dating Site, you can meet up with singles and others in your area, while those already in relationships can use Lovingplaces to find the most romantic spots in town (both Layar).
  • Mobility: Field service employees will likely be interested in Wikitude’s new app Wikitude Drive. Currently available only for Android, this program represents the first navigation system based on augmented reality. The user simply attaches a smartphone to his or her vehicle’s windshield like a standard satnav device, where it displays the actual road ahead in real time with the desired route digitally superimposed. As such, the driver never has to take his or her eyes off the road, even when looking at the screen. The Wikitude browser is not required, and routes can be displayed by conventional means when necessary.

Next page: AR as entertainment

The Layar home screen (screenshot: Layar)
The Layar home screen (screenshot: Layar)

Send unwelcome colleagues running for the hills with iPew (screenshot: iTunes)
Send unwelcome colleagues running for the hills with iPew (screenshot: iTunes)

AR as entertainment

Now, what would the world of mobile apps be without a bit of fun? Some programs provide plenty of entertainment while demonstrating the potential of augmented reality. An AR browser is not always required, nor is payment.

Here are some excellent ways to pass the time:

  • Virtual Public Art Project: VPAP displays digital 3D sculptures and other artworks, enabling users to observe them from any angle (free / Layar).
  • ARSoccer: Provides a virtual soccer ball you can kick through the streets without fear of breaking anything ($1.99 / iPhone).
  • TagDis: Takes the potential legal consequences out of spraying graffiti and seeing how your art measures up with that of others (free / iPhone).
  • Space InvadAR: The infamous alien hordes from the arcade classic have come to wreak havoc in the real world! (free / Android)
  • Gigaputt: This app turns your surroundings into a virtual golf course for you to master ($1.99 / iPhone). A preview version of a similar program, Urban Golf, is also available to Android users.
  • Album Cover Atlas: Find places all over the world that have served as the setting of the most famous album art ($1.95 / Layar).
  • iPew: Can’t stand that certain officemate anymore? Open fire on your tormentor with virtual missiles and lasers! ($0.99 / iPhone)

Next page: AR for business

TagDis: Virtual graffiti artists in Philadelphia, USA (source: YouTube)

SAP BusinessObjects Augmented Reality Explorer, recently featured on the Business Analytics blog (image: Timo Elliott)
SAP BusinessObjects Augmented Reality Explorer, recently featured on the Business Analytics blog (image: Timo Elliott)

What’s ahead: AR for business

Many of today’s trends are spilling from the private sphere over to the business world, and augmented reality is no exception. Warehousing, business data management, and marketing are just a few examples of areas in which AR is on the rise; one day, it could even play a role in surgery. Meanwhile, smartphones are hardly the only devices capable of serving as AR tools: Glasses outfitted with special chips that constantly display virtual objects to the wearer are no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Companies are leveraging AR technology in different ways. SAP, for instance, has developed SAP BusinessObjects Augmented Reality Explorer for the free BI app SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, which is designed not only to retrieve data while on the move, but also usefully link it to the user’s surroundings.

Stay tuned to to read about how companies are taking advantage of AR and what SAP’s first AR software can do!