Augmented reality — or the addition of a layer to the world before your eyes (aka the “real world”) using technology — is the next big tech trend. Already making its debut in everything from mobile apps to kids toys, “AR” will clearly soon be talked about by everyone the way they used to talk about “social media” and “Web 2.0” before that.

While augmented reality has its uses — although many of them just involve oohing and aahing at nifty apps — this trend is already in danger of being over-hyped, even though it has barely gotten off the ground.

AR Apps We’ve Seen So Far

We’ve been fascinated by augmented reality for some time now, especially after we got wind of a new mobile application built for Google’s Android platform called Layar. The app, an augmented reality browser, “layers” sets of data on top of your mobile phone’s viewfinder as you point the camera at the city around you.

Once our interest was piqued, we began imagining what future apps could be built using this platform, thinking up everything from people search to place data.

Only days later, another mobile AR app made the news: TwittARound, an app which shows you nearby tweets. Designed for the newest iPhone hardware – the iPhone 3GS – it taps into the phone’s GPS and compass to determine your physical location. It then floats the avatars of nearby Twitter users across the screen. You can click these icons to see those users’ tweets.

Then there is AugmentedID, a facial recognition technology using algorithms, from Polar Rose, a startup that delivers photo-tagging tools for Flickr. With this application, you can hold your phone up to a person’s face and see their online profile, contact info, social networking links, and any other information they’ve chosen to share.

At the moment, though, mobile applications such as these are being primarily designed for Google’s Android platform, as its open nature allows developers to access the phone’s hardware and the video feed. However, we’re on the verge of seeing an explosion of AR apps thanks to the soon-to-launch update for the iPhone OS. The next version, due in September, is widely expected to provide an official means of accessing the necessary controls to make AR apps possible through a new Application Programming Interface (API). Already, apps like acrossair’s “Nearest Tube,” a train finder for the London underground, are poised to go live as soon as Apple is ready.

AR Discovered by Marketers. Let the Hype Begin!

Don’t look now, but marketers have discovered augmented reality and have started to incorporate it into their advertising campaigns. This can only mean one thing: we’re about to be inundated with pitches and products touting AR products…not to mention AR ads.

Perhaps we should have clued in to this coming deluge when we saw how Mattel was pitching their next-gen action figures for the comic book-inspired “Avatar” movie. (Hold the included 3D tag up to a webcam and the toys come to life on your computer screen!)

Now we’re seeing big box electronics retailer Best Buy incorporate augmented reality into their printed ads. Their recent augmented Sunday circular featured a 3D image of a Toshiba notebook computer. (Hold the ad up to a webcam and the laptop comes to life!)

Only days later, we’re getting emails from Kia Motors — yes, the car manufacturer — about the company’s new “augmented reality Facebook application.” Using the computer’s webcam, the players of Kia’s “Go Hamster Go!” game control the action using their facial expressions. (Is that really augmented reality, though, or is it just neat?)

There’s also news about a company called Metaio, creators of a mobile AR platform that lets people leave and view notes and 3D animations in places using their phones. And since Metaio is known for working on marketing campaigns like the AR Lego packaging, there’s little doubt that they could soon start including ads on the new platform.

Time to Dial Down the Hype?

We think marketers need to carefully consider whether AR will truly benefit their clients before blindly hopping on the AR bandwagon. Case in point: Best Buy said their AR ads exceeded expectations, with more than double the number of users than they had planned trying them out. But that number was only 6500 out of a Sunday ad circulation of 43 million. Out of those 6500, 12% actually clicked through to other Best Buy websites, a number the company touts as “fairly decent.” Although the company plans to do more AR campaigns in future, they’re also of a size to be able to engage their customers in a variety of ways on a number of platforms. Smaller companies may not have the luxury to do the same.

And we are not the only ones thinking that AR is about to hit its full hype potential. Gartner shows that in their latest report, “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2009,” AR is steadily climbing towards the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.”

The problem with over-hyping this technology prior to it really taking off is that it could become diluted and meaningless before we even have a chance to explore the potentially world-changing applications it could help create. (And no, we don’t mean these AR exotic dancers.) But don’t get us wrong: for a while (possibly a long while), we’re going to be completely enamored of each and every AR-infused application that passes us by. However, there will come a time when AR, like every over-hyped buzzword that came before it, will be overused, its meaning skewed and stretched to encompass anything vaguely interactive, whether it’s truly AR or not.

Let us instead heed the words of Robert Rice, CEO of Neogence Enterprises and Chairman of the AR Consortium, which he shared in a recent interview with Tish Shute:

“Don’t be misguided by the gimmicky marketing applications now. Look ahead, and pay attention to what the visionaries are talking about right now… AR has long-term implications for smart cities, green tech, education, entertainment, and global industry. This is serious business, but it has to be done right.”

Image credits: Best Buy ad, AdAge; Hype Cycle Chart, Gartner; AR on the mobile, Flickr user Mr.Whisper