Augmented Reality Doesn't Need Google Glasses

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“Augmented reality” interfaces that present data as a visual overlay on our perspective of the world had a moment in the spotlight a few years ago, sank under the weight of hype they couldn’t sustain (some of it under my byline) and are now back in the news for the wrong reasons.

Google Glass eyewear looks neat and makes for an impressive demo, but those connected glasses also cost $1,500 a pop and will set you apart from the rest of humanity as computer-wearing cyborg.

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But the fuss over Google’s cybernetic fashion accessory has given me a reason to revisit the smartphone “AR” apps that intrigued me back in 2009 — and a few that only recently arrived.

Start with one use case where I’d never set aside AR software: outdoors at night. The open-source Sky Map, formerly Google Sky Map, shows whatever planets, stars, meteor showers, nebulas and galaxies I might see in any given direction, all clearly labeled and searchable. Satellite AR tells me where to look to spot the International Space Station – and other, smaller satellites — flying overhead, with each object’s visible track shown in bright yellow.

(Those two apps run on Android, but iOS has no lack of astronomy and satellite-spotting apps.)

I’d forgotten about the utility of another type of AR program until last summer, when I realized that the simplest way to ID a strange glass tower a few blocks away at night was to download Layar and bring up its Wikipedia overlay. That experience, in turn, reminded me that the Yelp app’s “Monocle” view remains well suited for finding spots in crowded neighborhoods, where street numbers and signs can be hard to make out.

It’s since had me thinking of the ways you could display the data local governments increasingly publish in open formats — crime statistics, health inspections for restaurants, transit schedule data — in a camera’s-eye view of your surroundings.

A lesser-known feature of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 operating system may open up other possibilities for this genre of software: its Lens option makes it easy to add photo filters and other picture-enhancement tools but also serves as a simple way to add AR apps.

You shop for Lenses and switch to those you’ve installed by tapping that program’s Lens button, a circle with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. This both frees you from browsing through unrelated titles in the Windows Phone Store and reduces the odds of  these apps getting lost among all the other programs on your phone.

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There’s some silly stuff on display: The Face Lens puts clown noses, pacifiers and beards on nearby faces. But you can get some simple, useful add-ons too: I found a simple horizon-line app that uses the phone’s gyroscope to tell you when you’re holding the phone parallel to the earth (I’m inept at that on my own), then a reading-lens option that ups the contrast and zooms in on whatever you’re looking at.

None of this may be as cool as walking around with Internet-linked eyewear, but these programs are a lot cheaper and work on something you already have in your pocket. Maybe it’s time for AR apps to get a little renewed interest.

Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery