Creating new vistas with your mobile phone is a hot area for portable devices.
Free on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Symbian, WinPhone 7
Augmented reality is typically a live view of something real, with a computer-inserted overlay that makes it more informative or entertaining. It is related to virtual reality, but instead of using the real world as the background for a computer-generated image or character, with augmented reality (AR) the real world is the part that matters.
AR has moved from relatively expensive high-end applications, such as head-up displays in fighter aircraft, to mass market reality in just a few years. As is so often the case, a lot of that is down to mobile phones, because smartphones - and tablets too, of course - are ideal AR platforms. They have cameras to capture images of your surroundings, wireless links to pull in the augmenting data, and large colour screens to display the result.
And now AR toolsets are making it possible for anyone with data to create new reality-based mashups, or build AR views into other applications. Wikitude World Browser is a good example of this - not only is it a classic AR app in its own right, but the underlying platform can also be used to develop new apps and AR views.
As the name suggests, Wikitude World Browser lets you view the world around you with Web-like annotations. These can come from a long list of public sources that share geo-tagged content, such as Wikipedia, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube, or you can add your own'points of interest (POIs) and use Wikitude's'MyWorld'feature to share them with'friends. You can also use it to search, in which case it highlights the closest results it finds.
One caveat is that its location lists are not always terribly complete. For instance, standing outside a budget hotel, it told me the closest hotel was just over 1km away - its main listings come from Hotels.com, which omits several of the budget chains as they have their own private Web booking systems.
You are also at the mercy of the Internet when it come to those listings being up-to-date and correctly located - quite a few are not. On the plus side, there are lots of other databases or Web listings that you can add to the local view, and one of these will often fill in the gaps - those budget hotels, for example - especially if you use the "Around Me" view. This may be the most useful view for many users, as it shows the closest 50 (or whatever number you choose) items from all your chosen listings added together.
If World Browser has a fault, it is that it reloads its location lists every time it starts. This is tedious, and could be unnecessarily expensive if your phone is roaming on a foreign network. Apple users should beware too that anything less than an iPhone 3GS or iPad 2 cannot handle AR.
Car Finder AR
£1.99 or free trial
Defining your own geo-tags or markers is key to a range of mobile AR apps, especially as the objects being tagged can themselves be mobile. Car Finder AR takes this idea and applies it to the task of finding your way back to where you parked your car (although it can also be used to find anything else that you might want to tag), which could obviously be a boon when parking in a strange town, or simply in a hypermarket's giant car park.
Once you have stored the car's location, the app mashes in Google Maps to provide walking or driving directions to get you back there. Several apps offer the same capability in map form, the difference with Car Finder AR is that it also offers direction data overlaid onto the image from the camera.
Other useful app features include the ability to automatically store its location on Bluetooth disconnect, i.e. when you turn the engine off and the car-kit disconnects from the phone. You can store the locations of up to three cars, keep a log on Google Calendar, add notes ("parked by red front door"), and set an alarm to remind you that the parking meter is about to run out. You can also send a location to another phone via email or SMS, or simply share your location, either of which could be useful if you are trying to arrange to meet up with others.
Of course, with all of these applications you are at the mercy of how good your phone is at locating itself accurately. Basic GPS takes time to lock on, and even then it is only accurate to within a few metres. Plus, if the car park is indoors then GPS is unlikely to work at all - and Car Finder AR only works with GPS, and not with other location methods such as triangulating on the local Wi-Fi signals or using the handset's accelerometers to count your paces. It will warn you if you try to save an inaccurate GPS location though.
The extra information added by an AR app does not have to be a textual or graphical overlay - it can also be in the colours. An interesting example of the latter is eyeCam, an AR app for Android which aims to support colour-blind people, both by helping them to distinguish and recognise colours and by enabling others to see the world as the colourblind would see it.
For colourblind users, it can add false colours or apply the Daltonise algorithm, which is a technique for altering the colour balance of a picture so that the detail is more visible to the colourblind, but without distorting the picture too much for anyone else. This could also allow designers to do a quick check before investing more time and resource in Daltonising their designs.
Conversely, the app can simulate colour blindness, which has obvious applications in Web design, graphic design and public safety, as well as in entertainment and IT. In all these areas, it is extremely important to understand how others would see your pages, posters, user interfaces and suchlike.
EyeCam can also turn on the flash to help illuminate the subject, and you can freeze the image, for example if you need a screenshot. Be warned though that eyeCam is still in beta, and at the time of writing the author still had a few problems to overcome - getting the flash to work correctly on Samsung phones, for instance. Note too that this is quite a different app from the one with the same name on the Apple Appstore - that one is a webcam viewer.
Want to see how a picture might look on your wall, visualise a particular tablet PC on your desk, or check if an appliance would fit in your home? Augment is an app that combines augmented and virtual reality techniques to insert the appropriate image into the real-world view on your smartphone screen.
It uses a fiduciary marker - an object or image that is placed in the field of view to give the app a point of reference and a measure of how big things are. In this case it is a black and white print of an abstract-looking image, downloadable in various sizes from the developer's website.
The size of marker required depends on how far from the camera you want to place it. In essence though, you stick the marker to your wall or place it on a table or floor, and the app visually swaps it for something else. You can then pan around with the phone, and the virtual object will shift perspective to match its real-world background.
Although it started with 2D images and includes a link to a website that sells posters, which you can use as test subjects and purchase online, Augment now handles 3D cuboids as well. It offers a user-contributed gallery of these to play with, from cornflake packets and PC system boxes to table lamps and an aquarium, or you can create your own. You can even display two virtual objects simultaneously, in the iOS app at least, as long as you use a different sized marker for each.
The developer says it should work on most Android devices running 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3. We did experience a few problems with it under Android 4.0, but to be fair the app is still under development. Again, at least an iPhone 3GS is needed for the Apple version.