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Mobile augmented reality lets users bring up location-based applications on their smartphones, giving travelers in unfamiliar cities the power of a local.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/18/2010 9:51:39 AM ET 2010-05-18T13:51:39

As COO of NYC Media, New York City’s official broadcasting operation, Todd Asher works in Manhattan, but often travels throughout the city’s five boroughs. Recently, while searching for a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, he took out his iPhone, opened the Monocle feature on Yelp.com’s mobile app and panned the street in front of him.

As he looked through his phone’s camera, several restaurant listings popped into view. One of them was Brooklyn Fish Camp, a casual “fish shack” about four blocks away and one block over — and therefore physically out of sight. “I saw the listing, read the reviews and we went there for lobster rolls,” says Asher. “We had a great meal.”

Welcome to the world of mobile augmented reality, which is on the verge of making the transition from tech-geek toy to genuine travel tool.

Street scenes and data streams
So, what exactly is augmented reality (AR)? “It’s the idea of bringing digital media into the physical world to give you a view that blends the real world with the virtual world,” says technologist Tish Shute. Head-mounted digital displays, James Cameron movies, those moving first-down lines on televised football games — all use AR in one form or another to provide added dimension to a physical scene.

These days, some of the biggest buzz is in mobile AR, which lets users bring up location-based applications on their phones (provided the device is equipped with a camera, compass and GPS). Depending on the app (most of which are free), the camera’s view is overlaid with digital information pegged to local landmarks, nearby hotels and restaurants or the people in your social network.

At this point, the universe of mobile AR apps is still small — not surprising considering that only 20 percent of Americans own smartphones and only a fraction of those support AR functionality. But it’s poised to grow as manufacturers pack more features into more devices and developers create more geo-tagged content. Among the recent developments:

Junaio: While many early AR apps have taken a kitchen-sink approach, this platform from Munich-based Metaio highlights specialized “channels” for the likes of Eventful.com (nearby events) and San Francisco’s BART transit system (nearby stations, estimated arrival times, etc.) Originally limited to the iPhone, the company is now rolling out apps for Google’s Android platform.

According to Lisa Murphy, the company’s U.S.-based product marketing manager, the Android apps will also facilitate natural feature tracking, an image-recognition technology that avoids the inaccuracy common in mobile-phone GPS. “It ties the data to the physical object in front of you rather than its [GPS-derived] location,” she says, which also means it works indoors and on objects that haven’t been geo-tagged.

Tripwolf.com: This social travel guide combines professionally written content with insights and reviews from its global community of travelers. Earlier this month, the company rolled out its first AR app, which draws content from Footprint Guide Books to provide geo-tagged information for 60 destinations around the world. The app (iPhone-only) is currently free, although premium guides with added features are $4.99.

Equally important, especially for international travelers, guidebooks can be downloaded to the device before leaving home, which means you can use the app offline when you get where you’re going. Translation: you don’t have to access a live Web stream, which means you won’t get socked with AT&T’s jaw-dropping international roaming fees.

Tagwhat.com: Just out of beta, this travel site focuses on the social side of AR, inviting users to geo-tag just about anything and create “digital breadcrumbs” for others to find. The app initially launched with four channels — Eat (restaurants), Drink (nightlife), Foursquare (the geo-tagging game) and Wikipedia — and works on Android phones. The app was recently made available on iTunes.

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Hype, hope and room for improvement
Of course, when anybody can post anything, all those digital breadcrumbs can also be seen as just so many empty online calories. Take that tiny phone screen and fill it up with lousy photos, commercial advertising tags and here-I-am-eating-breakfast tweets and you’ve got, not the next great travel tool, but rather, just another outlet for TMI gone wild.

Fortunately, most sites, including those above, let you filter the tag stream, but there are still issues with AR that will need to be resolved if it’s to become a truly useful travel tool. Phone-based GPS is still a work in progress — accuracy is generally plus or minus 20 meters, leading to all manner of misplaced tags — and it doesn’t take too many tags to clutter up the limited real estate on a small smartphone screen. Of course, if someone develops a tablet with the camera the folks at Apple left off the iPad. ...

In the meantime, the technology already provides a “fun, novel way to search your surroundings,” says Eric Singley, Yelp’s product manager for mobile. “It gives you the power of a local when you’re in a city that you’re not that familiar with.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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