Are you ready for some augmented reality (AR) apps that aren't gimmicky and pointless? So is Qualcomm. The chipset maker released its AR software development kit (SDK) for Android last fall and is preparing to launch an iOS version next month, in addition to supporting Unity's game engine for cross-platform development.
But Jay Wright, Senior Director of Business Development for Qualcomm, says criticism that AR has, so far, produced no "real world apps" are valid. He also told us he's working with two big-name retailers to put out some of the first truly useful apps leveraging the technology - instruction manuals served up as AR-enabled mobile applications. These apps will show you, as opposed to telling you, how to perform complicated tasks.
Why Qualcomm's Vision-Based AR is Different
The reason why we haven't seen these sorts of more practical implementations of AR technology has to do with how relatively new the developer tools are. The version of Qualcomm's SDK that allows for the development of AR apps for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, hasn't even been released yet, for example.
To be clear, there are many AR applications in mobile app stores today, including iTunes. But Qualcomm's implementation is technically different. It's offering "vision-based" AR, a computationally intensive type of AR (optimized for Qualcomm chipsets, of course) that turns the phone's camera into an eye that actually "sees" the world in front of it.
This is different technology than is found in most of the current AR apps, which typically use the phone's sensors, like the GPS and compass, to determine where you are and what you're seeing. Qualcomm's vision-based AR process involves scanning the camera frames, looking for objects, comparing those objects to a database, determining the position of those objects and then rendering animations or other digital content on top of them. At present, the database is stored in the app itself (the developer creates a limited database for use with their mobile app), but in the future, a "cloud" database will be available, meaning one stored outside the app, and accessed over the network.
Currently, Games and Gimmicks Dominate AR
As AR emerges, we're first seeing only gaming, play-oriented and advertising-based demonstrations and use cases for the technology. For instance, Qualcomm showcased several games that involve pointing your camera at inanimate objects to see characters appears on virtual gameboards. It also heavily promoted the Dallas Mavericks' implementation of AR which involved pointing your phone at a ticket or playbill to see a simple basketball-shooter game appear. Another demo, this one at yesterday's Uplinq 2011 keynote, showed DVD covers turned into movie trailers you could watch through your phone.
Future AR Use Cases
However, there are several still unexplored areas for AR's use. Visual search, for example, is one. Although there are companies, including Google and Microsoft, that offer visual search today, the process involves pointing your camera at a particular object which is then recognized and compared to an online database. AR-based visual search would be a smoother, more continuous experience, where the phone could move around and see several objects at once.
Another future use case would be the development of AR browsers, similar to the ones we have today, but that offer a better experience because of their improved alignment capabilities.
A third example would be using AR with print material, such as an ad in a magazine. Imagine a model wearing white pants, but the pants also came in three other colors. You could point your phone at the page, tap a colored box, and the pants change color. You could even turn the model around to see the back, or zoom in close to see the stitching. It would be like having an online experience with an offline medium.
But perhaps the most exciting future use case for AR is the most practical - and one that harkens back to AR's roots in aircraft assembly: virtual instruction manuals. You could point your phone at an object, like the buttons on a washing machine, a piece of computer equipment, an unassembled box of furniture parts, and be shown what to do.
When Will the Practical AR Apps Arrive?
Those apps are closer than you think. Wright says we'll see the first of these appearing this fall, in fact. He's currently in talks with two big-name retailers who will soon release mobile app instruction manuals, one of which will show how to put the ink in your printer - a task which, as anyone knows, is often more complicated and confusing than it should be.
Once people see more of these real-world examples of "practical" AR, users' perceptions may change. AR itself is not gimmicky, it's just that the way it's been implemented so far often has been.
Video credit: Mobile Industry Review