vol 8, issue 4

Software reviews

12 April 2013
By Bryan Betts
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HERE City Lens screen shot

The HERE City Lens app restricts its augmented reality labels to things you can actually see

Blippar screen shot

Blippar is a neat way of adding information in an attractive and smartphone-friendly way.

Junaio screen shot

Junaio pulls content in from a wide range of sources

Augment screen shot showing a penguin

Augment lets you gauge the wisdom of your purchases prior to commitment

Aurasma screen shot with Rolling Stones artwork

The Rolling Stones used Aurasma to promote their album ‘GRRR!’

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Software

We look at apps that turn smartphones into portable AR devices for navigation, information, advertising, and even Harry Potter-style video-enhanced newspapers.

Blippar 

Blippar 

Free on Android and Apple

QR-codes (for Quick Response) are those two-dimensional barcodes that you see everywhere these days, like the one at the top of our contents page. But how many of us have scanned more than a handful? And even when you do scan one, it usually just takes you to a website. Blippar (or blippAR) aims to change that, allowing you to use an image or object as its own barcode, and then presenting the tagged content (which it calls a Blipp) within an AR image. So you Blipp a cereal packet, say, and a pseudo-3D overlay jumps out at you, or a video starts up. You can also take AR-enhanced photos.

One clever touch is that the app shows you it is working: crosshairs scan the image as you watch, leaving small ring-shaped markers as they detect visual features. The Blipp – which can include sound – then tries to follow the image around the screen, waxing and waning with perspective. If you turn away from the object the Blipp stays on screen and remains clickable until you dismiss it – it would be unusable otherwise.

Whilst it is aimed at advertisers and publishers, who must sign up with Blippar, you can use pretty much anything as a marker. For example one Blipp, called Feast for a Fiver, uses a £5 note. (It also works on a tenner, mind you, presumably because enough features are the same, e.g. the Queen's portrait.) You do have to know that there is a Blipp there, though – there is not much point randomly scanning things on the off-chance, especially as it can take a few seconds to detect and then load the AR content – so publishers may want to print a Blippar logo.

Using an object or image as its own barcode is certainly not unique to Blippar – developers such as Layar and Aurasma use it to make print interactive, so maybe you view a page and in the AR image the pictures turn into videos, with 'buy me' buttons that will take you straight to the relevant online shop – but it is a neat way of adding information in an attractive and smartphone-friendly way.

Metaio 

Junaio Augmented Browser 

Free on Android and Apple

For the non-Nokia user, Junaio is the Swiss Army Knife of pocket AR. As well as a live camera view showing tags for local points of interest, with a small radar-style indicator showing where they are and how far, it can scan QR-codes and search photos to look for tagged objects, products and images. You can also manually switch the live view to a list or map.

It is not as polished or easy to use as City Lens, but has the advantage that it pulls in content from a wide range of channels. Wikipedia is there of course, but so are sources for home rentals and sales, speed cameras, hotels, supermarkets, geotagged Instagram photos and eBay listings, local events, webcams, museums and more, albeit with the usual caveats as to data quality and comprehensiveness. You choose your channel – there is no obvious way to have more than one channel at a time – then wait while it downloads, and labels pop up on screen.

One caveat: given that Junaio turns on pretty much everything power-hungry on your phone – screen, camera, GPS, mobile data – it shouldn't be a surprise that it really does eat your battery up; other AR apps were less of an issue though. So either use it sparingly, or carry an extra battery.

Metaio claims over 1,000 Junaio channels, with more created every month, while Junaio is also part of a development platform that enables users to build their own local AR apps – one of its highest profile users is Ikea for its AR-enhanced catalogue. Metaio offers other AR tools too, such as Creator Mobile, an app for 3D-mapping a building or area so you can add AR content to it.

AugmenteDev 

Augment 

Free on Android and Apple

AR is seeing more and more professional uses, such as site planning, assembly visualisation, or visualising designed objects in a real setting for better size estimation, and Augment lets you do something similar at home. You can see how a new piece of furniture would look in your room or how a new poster or print might look on the wall, or perhaps get a feel for the size of a new smartphone by visualising it on your desk next to your current phone.

Its main way of working uses trackers, which are 2D references that you place in the real world to enable the software to correctly size and position its models in the AR view. These must be printed out at a specific size for accurate model sizing, but the latest versions of Augment let you instead use a printed magazine as a tracker for a quick view, or even go trackerless.

You can also display multiple models in the same view and upload your own models – Augment reckons it is a great tool for webshops and salespeople in general, especially when run on a tablet. It enables them to give potential customers an almost-instant artist's impression of how their product would look in context.

Aurasma 

Aurasma 

Free on Android and Apple

Aurasma uses image recognition technology to identify all sorts of tagged triggers, from printed material to real buildings, and then adds AR content which it calls an Aura. The Aura can be interactive, 3D and even animated, and triggers can also be geofenced, so they only activate if you are in the right place – the Rolling Stones used this to promote their album 'GRRR!', with gorillas appearing on landmarks such as Big Ben, Paris's Arc de Triomphe and the Sydney Opera House.

You can also create your own Aura, tagging a trigger image via your phone and then assigning it an overlay, either from your device or from a library provided by Aurasma; the app then displays the overlay when it sees the image. This gives a quick introduction to (very) basic AR.

In the wider world, once again you do need to know the content is there before pointing your phone at it. Aurasma provides some accessible samples, such as Auras for the $20, €20 and £10 banknotes. The first two worked eventually, though it took the app quite a while to recognise them and load the AR layers; the last one we could not get the app to recognise at all, despite trying with both an iPhone and an Android phone. Perhaps a newer tenner might have worked, but then the €20 was a bit scruffy too, and that worked...

Now owned by HP, Aurasma started charging for commercial use of its development platform in January, after giving it away free for 18 months. While this disappointed some former users, and it could discourage some people from experimenting with the technology, it shows that HP believes AR is now a commercial technology. 

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Nokia 

HERE City Lens

The smartphone has made augmented reality both cheap and portable. There is no more need to buy and integrate anything – it's all there in your hand, and with the coming of large-screen smartphones it is more usable than ever.

The first major handset-maker to really understand this is Nokia. Yes, there are some great AR apps for other platforms, but Nokia has made it a standard feature of its newer Lumia handsets, loading them with its Lumia-only HERE City Lens app.

City Lens feels great to use. Sure, it is conceptually the same as earlier AR tools such as Wikitude – it takes your camera image, uses geolocation to find relevant data that is local to you, and then overlays the latter onto the former – but Nokia has made the whole thing smoother and nicer to use.

You can choose to have your phone show you everything local to you, drill down to a particular category such as 'eat & drink' or 'shopping', or type in a search term. You can pin a search to the phone's homescreen if it's something you will want to use regularly.

Several neat touches make City Lens more natural to use than comparable software. Freeze view locks the current AR view so you can examine it more easily, without the AR tags drifting about. Unfrozen, if you turn the phone to portrait mode you get a list ranked by distance instead of the AR view. Lay the phone flat, and you get a map, with the various items shown on it as icons. Touch an AR tag and you can get more information or call up Here Maps for detailed directions.

It also has a feature that is exclusive to Nokia – for now at least. Sightlines uses Nokia's 3D digital maps – the company recognised early on that location-based smartphone services were going to be huge, and bought digital map supplier Navteq in 2007 – to add intelligence to the AR image. It only tags those things you can actually see right now, leaving off anything that's out of sight around the corner. Cleverly – but confusingly at first – it doesn't even show the Sightlines toggle if none of the displayed AR tags are in line of sight.

On the downside, Nokia doesn't have 3D mapping or AR everywhere, so Sightlines only works in some places, and there is no AR view for directions. Also, the quality of any AR app will depend a lot on the quality of its data sources, and we found some of the City Lens data a bit scrappy, with no option to add or remove sources. Lastly, Nokia needs to address a few interface issues, such as the map view jumping around; fortunately, evidence suggests that the City Lens developers do listen to their users.

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