The cranky elves that run the iPhone App Store may be warming up after all to the emerging field of Augmented Reality (AR). AR app makers, who are building sci-fi-like interfaces for viewing data about the physical world on top of the mobile phone's camera, were beginning to feel spurned.
Today Apple both approved the most eagerly anticipated Augmented Reality app yet, Amsterdam's AR browser Layar (iTunes link), and made its primary challenger, Wikitude (iTunes link), a featured app in the iTunes App Store.
Those moves came a month after many AR-watchers were dissapointed that Apple didn't offer big support to Augmented Reality when launching the latest version of the iPhone OS. Some critics complain that even if some forms of AR are being permitted by Apple, the company still has a tight grip on APIs that could enable whole new methods of displaying data on top of the phone's camera view if made publicly available. It's not a happy relationship, but perhaps that's beginning to change.
Layar is a browser that displays geo-located information like real-estate listings and restaurant reviews on top of a mobile camera's view of its surroundings. The company has used well-made demo videos to stoke excitement among iPhone owners for months. The app has long been available on Android handsets but just emerged from the dark and mysterious iTunes App Store approval process this morning.
Its competitor Wikitude displays Wikipedia data (as Layar does) as well as user-generated Points of Interest input through its website Wikitude.me. Wikitude was made a featured app in iTunes today, just hours before Layar went live in the store.
A long list of AR companies were at the edge of their seats waiting for a big announcement in September, believing that Apple would make public all the technical hooks they needed to create an Augmented Reality experience. Instead of the expected opening-up and perhaps some publicity for this very eye-catching software niche, Apple opened up only some of the APIs needed, didn't make any public mention of AR and has slowly let AR apps trickle into the App Store with no fan-fare over the last month.
All of this creates a very different experience for startups compared to the way they can launch apps on Android phones. They simply post them to the Android App Store, no approval process needed. Application developers are also working on AR for Nokia, a handset with far greater user numbers than the iPhone has - but everyone's been waiting for AR to bloom on the much-hyped iPhone and Apple hasn't been very supportive.
Robert Rice wrote in an open letter last week that:
"One of two things needs to happen. Either Apple needs to quit screwing us around and make [all] the APIs public so we can get back to the business of innovating and building a new industry, or the respective communities of developers and venture capitalists need to abandon Apple entirely. There are good alternatives out there that may not be as shiny, but are certainly as powerful and definitely more open for us to work with."
It's also possible that Apple hasn't been offering AR apps meaningful support because so far they are a little dissapointing once consumers get their hands on them. GPS data is clumsy, data sets are incomplete and the user experience still hasn't been nailed yet by anyone. It's also borderline embarrassing to wave your phone around in the air when out in public, surrounded by people you don't know. That's quite unlike the usual experience Apple tries to associate with itself.
Perhaps things are changing, though. It's exciting to think about bringing latent geo-located data out into a view accessible through a mobile phone. It would be nice to see Apple help advance this early field, instead of giving it the cold shoulder and silent treatment. End-users should recognize as well that the super-wow but controlled experience of the iPhone could be holding back other, even more exciting innovations.