Simply put, the technology for augmented reality on a mobile device simply wasn't there five years ago. The hardest part of designing an augmented overlay is not producing the information itself, but identifying the object. A building or sign, for instance, can present itself in a million different ways, from a million different angles. What's needed is an algorithm or system to correctly identify that object, no matter the circumstance. A sign is still a sign whether it's covered in snow or bathed in sunlight, a concept AR software must learn.
Luckily, both iPhone and Android have applications that can do just that. Layar, for example, is described as an "app that shows you the things you can't see." Using a combination of GPS and live camera footage, user-created layers can display everything from nearby coffee shops to subway stops, all in real-time. Yelp has an app that works in a similar fashion, though for restaurants, shopping and entertainment. Other uses are more unique. DishPointer is a handy, multi-platform app that shows the location of nearby satellites, simply by pointing your phone's camera at the sky.
Transformers sequel released last year included an online promotional app that, by using your laptop's webcam, replaced your head with that of Optimus Prime. By printing out a piece of paper with a special pattern, General Electric allowed users to hold an entire wind farm in the palm of their hand.
Others still have taken that concept a step further by exploring full-featured games using the tech. One demo, created at Georgia Tech's Augmented Environments lab, shows a zombie survival game played on a smartphone. The level is simply a piece of paper with buildings and enemies layered on top, where users navigate by moving their phone.
But as cool as all this is, one can't help wondering if augmented reality is simply a gimmick, or a development fad. Implementations like Layar or Yelp prove that there can be useful information gleamed from AR apps, while other examples are far less practical. Perhaps the problem, then, is that we're just not thinking big enough. Many current applications boast the ability to reveal what we can't see, but what about improving what we already can? A demo from General Motors shows how an AR-enhanced windshield might function, identifying upcoming speed limits or approaching cars. Eventually the tech could even move common GPS functions, like routing and turn-by-turn navigation, right before or eyes. Such implementations are a long way off, but this could be AR's true purpose once the technology matures.
Microsoft placing faith into the idea, perhaps we're onto something. While it's cool being able to moonlight as an autobot, or identify constellations in the night sky, do you really think our future will be seen through the eyes of a phone?
Want to get your augmented reality fix? Mashable and Wired have you covered with some good mobile apps.
Image via Wired and Brightkite.com.