What is that mountain you're driving past? Just point your iPhone at it and you can read its Wikipedia entry. Science fiction? Not anymore. Two new apps for viewing Wikipedia entries about physical locations you look at through your iPhone camera are now available in the iTunes store.
Wikitude and Cyclopedia are the names of the apps and both require the new iPhone 3GS. That's because the 3GS is the first iPhone with an internal compass - Augmented Reality (AR) apps use your phone's GPS to know where you are and the compass to know which direction you're looking at. Then these two apps can tell you what you're looking at that's written up in Wikipedia. Here's how the two different apps compare.
Cyclopedia (iTunes link) is the newest app from a dev shop called Chemical Wedding. It scores high on visual interface but is relatively simple, displaying only Wikipedia content. It got a write-up on Gizmodo yesterday, was read about by more than 10,000 people, but saw very little discussion. There is no Android version of this app and we haven't been able to test it yet, but it costs $2 in the iPhone app store.
The app has been out since July but the company hasn't been on the radar of any of the AR-watchers we know. GamesAlfresco, the leading AR news blog we've found, has never mentioned this app once. Presumably the company would have sold a lot more software if it had bothered to tell people it existed. When tens of thousands of people went crazy in August checking out the Yelp iPhone app, believing it was the first AR implementation live in the iTunes store, no one from Chemical Wedding bothered to speak up about having an iPhone AR app for sale. There's not even a link to the app in iTunes on the company's own website. Update: Chemical Wedding contacted us and said that the app really only went live a few days go after all and that the lack of a link was an oversight. We apologize if we were rude in pointing it out. :)
Wikitude is a well-developed AR app already available on Android phones for months. It just launched on the iPhone today. The company launched the app without telling anyone, but word got passed around this afternoon on Twitter.
Wikitude has a less shiny interface than Cyclopedia but has a lot more data and is more accessible for users to add data to. I really like Wikitude. It displays Wikipedia data, but also data from international local review site Qype. Most importantly, Wikitude lets anyone add Points of Interest to the Augmented Reality app through a dead-simple interface at Wikitude.me. I spent an hour last month marking up Portland, Oregon and now anyone in town can see my notes on locations through their phone and the Wikitude app.
It's because Wikitude is so open to user generated content that I find it the most exciting of all the Augmented Reality apps. Unfortunately, none of these apps that I've tested on Android are performing fabulously yet - the GPS is just too imprecise and the data too sparse. These are early days though, and even today it's a lot of fun to look at the world around you through Wiki articles.
Collaborative annotation of the physical world? It just doesn't get much cooler than that. Hopefully the technology will continue to improve and more people will learn about what these companies are doing.