After a Year of Hype, Augmented Reality Finally Gets Useful

Augemented reality was one of the most overused buzzwords of the year, but for the most part, the applications we saw weren’t really augmenting reality. Instead, like Layar and others, they take a phone’s camera picture, GPS coordinates and compass heading and provide users with an overlay of nearby sights and shops. For some apps – especially stargazing apps like Star Walk – this is fine, but for most use cases, it’s not really useful.  Another type of augmented reality (AR) app that’s hot right now uses paper markers and replaces them with 3D animation on your phone’s screen – even Hallmark is getting in this business now, but it’s more of a gimmick than a useful application of AR. The real promise of AR reaches far beyond this, however.

According to a new report by Forrester analyst Thomas Husson, AR is indeed ready to become more than just a gimmick. Husson thinks that “in the years to come, it will be a disruptive technology changing the way consumers interact with their environments. It will bridge the real and digital worlds, enabling new ways to engage with customers via advanced digital interactivity. Because mobile AR makes the most of unique mobile attributes, it will help in transforming mobile phones as the new remote control of our personal daily lives.” Indeed, the first apps that get close to this vision are now making their way to users’ phones.

Word Lens

Last week, we got our first glimpse at what real augmented reality can look like. Word Lens takes the live video from your iPhone’s camera and automatically translates any text it sees. Right now, you can only buy Word Lens’ English/Spanish and Spanish/English translations as in-app purchases, but more languages will soon arrive as well.

Using this app is an eye-opener. Not only do you get the translation, but Word Lens actually replaces the text in the live video with the translation. That’s something we haven’t seen before and that gives me great hope for the next generation of AR apps that will interact with the actual images from your phone and not just the GPS and compass.

Wikitude Drive

Another app that pushes AR further is Wikitude Drive, which was just released for Android in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The app should come to other platforms and locations soon.

At its core, Wikitude Drive is a turn-by-turn navigation app, but unlike similar apps, it can display live video in the background. Thanks to this, you never really take your eyes off the road as you drive down the street and the AR mode shows you exactly where you need to go. The app doesn’t interact directly with the camera images, but it clearly shows an area where current apps can be extended with AR views that provide lots of additional value.