Maarten Lens-FitzGerald is part of our impressive lineup of speakers at the ReadWriteWeb 2WAY Summit. As part of our ongoing series of interviews with those speakers, we fired off a round of questions at Lens-FitzGerald to learn a little more about who he is, what he does, and what he’ll be talking about at the summit.

RWW: When was the first time you really thought you were going to go into augmented reality? Has that always been something for you?

Lens-FitzGerald: I never thought of going into augmented reality, but cyberspace, any form of digital worlds, have always been one of the things I’ve been thinking about since I found out about science fiction. One of the first books I read of the cyber punk genre was Bruce Sterling’s “Mirror Shades.” Mirror shades, meaning, of course, AR goggles. And that book came out in 1988 and ever since, this was my world.

Almost 20 years later, when we started Sparks Mobile – that was the company preceding Layar – augmented reality was on our list of things that we wanted to do – and then I remember Android coming out with the compass and suddenly everybody could get a simple form of AR. And that’s what really got it going.

In Verner Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”, he talks about somebody standing on top of a hill and he’s flipping through all these versions of his ARs, or his realities, and that’s literally where the name “Layar” came from – we knew that layers were the Web page metaphor for augmented reality. The other side of inspiration early came from Denno Coil. It’s a Japanese anime that uses augmented reality in a great way that really is a near future scenario of what is about to come.

RWW: How do you define augmented reality? What’s the simple definition?

Lens-FitzGerald: Reality enhanced with digital information, preferably immersive.

Lessons From Building a Digital Layer on Top of the World
Tuesday, June 14
Speaker: Maarten Lens-FitzGerald (Layar)
Augmented reality technology has created the opportunity for millions of mobile device users to experience and share location and physical space in a multitude of interesting ways. But how will these interactions foreshadow future innovations in augmented reality? And exactly how will a digital content layer on top of the real world look? Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, co-founder and chief strategist of augmented reality platform Layar, will walk us through the insights, lessons, and ideas his team has collected as they work with thousands of users and developers. Get tickets.

RWW: How far off from better image recognition are we are?

Lens-FitzGerald: I think this year, functionally, you’ll see everyone coming out with image recognition one way or another. And then the years after that – 2012 and 2013 – you’ll really get the big object recognition going. I think the key is not really the technology but what people do with content. I always say, “It’s the format that’s important.”

The first time you guys in the U.S. ever had a TV on, it was a guy in front of a curtain doing a radio show and that was the TV show. Moving from there to American Idol, that’s what it’s about. It’s about finding the right content. And of course you need more than one channel, you need a good remote and eventually color and stereo and HD. Technology will grow as it always does but it’s more about finding the right content and format to have the people be engaged.

The good thing about a QR code is that it’s sort of a call to action, although I don’t have any incentive on average to point my phone at a QR code because I expect to be advertised to. One of the problems for augmented reality with a phone is, “When do I decide to point my phone at something to see if something is there?”

That’s the million dollar question. That will be when your mom knows, and that will be because she [sees] some kind of benefit, fun, interestingness – and again there I’m talking content over format. Yes, it’s around functionality, but there’s something she has to like. That’s when it crosses the chasm from a nerd thing. I think we’re so much in the beginning. It’s about timing and it’s about pace, but we’ll get there eventually. It’s very early days.

RWW: At what point in the grand evolution of augmented reality are we right now? What’s the next step? Is it hardware, software, both or none of the above?

Lens-FitzGerald: Suburban people – if Facebook somehow found a way to their life then we’ll find a way too. We’re not there yet, but that’s where it’ll go and right now, augmented reality, how many users would you guess it would have? Maybe a million, a million and a half? Layar has a million and a half active users in the last month and we’re the biggest, so hardly anybody knows about it yet but it’s getting there.

RWW: You’re going to be speaking about “Lessons from building a digital layer on top of the world.” What is that going to be about? What type of lessons are you talking about?

Lens-FitzGerald: We have thousands of developers – people creating cool AR content – and millions of users and I’ll be going through some examples of what we see, what works, what categories we see that work, but I think most important is what we see happening right now.

That’s what we call the democratization of augmented reality, meaning, it was very difficult a year and a half ago to make augmented reality. You had to be able to program. You preferably had to know how to do 3D and then you also had to be able to tell a story with that. All of that is pretty difficult. Not everybody can do that. What we see now is that more and more tools are being developed on top of our platform with which it is easier to make augmented reality, or even better it’s cheaper.

I’m not a programmer myself. I recently made my own layer about the neighborhood and the water tower that disappeared in 1920. I put it back in 3D and I can do that because there are tools for that. That’s a trend. If you think about TV again, TV was the domain of the big producers, the big networks in the U.S., until you started seeing video cameras. Video cameras slowly turned into YouTube.

That is, in the end, the way that augmented reality is heading. It’s going from the heavy duty people who can do a lot to everybody augmenting anything they want. Imagine that. I think that’s where it’s heading somehow. You can create the world that you want and I can create the world that I want.

Imagine that – we don’t even know it’s augmented reality. It’s integrated in our everyday life, in our everyday routine. You take it for granted like today you take for granted that all the computers are connected together and you have instant access to everything.


: Is augmented reality going to just continue to be a visual layer on top of the world? A visual information layer?

Lens-FitzGerald: I wouldn’t call it information, because that makes it sound boring. It’s not just ATMs. It’s history, it’s me being able to look back in time, it’s 3D so you can see the Berlin Wall or the World Trade Center towers.

If you see that then you, in one glimpse, get how big that change was now that those things aren’t here anymore. It’s about that impact. They always say that if you read a book, you have an idea about how something happened or what happened; if you see the video [you] have an idea of what it looked like. But if you are on location and can look back in time using augmented reality it really hits home. You really get it, you really feel it, you get an insight instantly.

That is the unique thing for this medium. That’s with history, also with art, with entertainment – you can come up with all kinds of concepts that are so deep in the experience that you can’t do it in any other medium.

RWW: So right now, you have the phone, you have the direction the phone is pointing and you have a video camera and that’s the basic medium, that’s like the clay you use to build something. Will we see any drastic changes in that? What’s the vision beyond the phone?

Lens-FitzGerald: The vision is vision. I mean, the key thing is that the camera will actually be able to see. And that’s what everybody’s working on. In your room you can see the lines in the room. Now what if the phone sees that and it can stabilize and image on that? And it can actually hang a picture there on the wall? That’s where it’s headed.

RWW: Any predictions on how far off we are from things like glasses that do this or other devices?

Lens-FitzGerald: Glasses, in a way, are there but they’re kind of clunky still. I think they’ll definitely come and it could be next year already. I wonder though, if you want glasses. It could be the car with wings, the flying car – we always think that we want it but looking back we can see that loads of version have been developed but nobody really liked them. We just thought we did. I think this could also be the case with the AR glasses. Of course, if you’re a fighter plane pilot then you really want them, but for everyday like I think the phone is perfectly suited to do whatever we want.

RWW: Looking backwards, instead of forwards, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced at Layar?

Lens-FitzGerald: Growing with the company. I remember in the beginning, when we were like swooped up by this tidal wave of attention and people offering stuff or wanting stuff, staying grounded, free of distractions – that was very difficult. It’s about the product. It’s about the company. That’s always been the challenge.

RWW: One last question – putting aside all the barriers that exist right now, what’s the ultimate future of AR?

Lens-FitzGerald: That is when AR is dead, when we don’t really know that it’s augmented reality anymore. You use it, you can’t live without it anymore – maybe by then it’s in our lenses. With a flip of a finger we change from the real reality to the bubbly version or with the flip of a finger I go to see your version that you’re seeing right now, like a Skype call but through your eyes.

Imagine that – we don’t even know it’s augmented reality. It’s integrated in our everyday life, in our everyday routine. You take it for granted like today you take for granted that all the computers are connected together and you have instant access to everything. It’s about the connectivity of people and objects and places and the visualization of that. AR will disappear.

RWW: What is the hardware there? Is the hardware us? Is the hardware the object?

Lens-FitzGerald: In the end, I think the hardware is the object. It could be a phone, it could be glasses, it could be lenses but I think that’s beside the point. It’s that it works. Of course your car is nice but it’s fun that you can go to your parents at Christmas with your car. It’s about that latter part, not how you get there.

Want to learn more from Maarten Lens-FitzGerald? Register for the 2WAY Summit using this link and get $200 off select ticket levels.

Interview has been condensed and edited.