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Software Reviews: VR & AR on your phone

From safer driving through self-guided tours to using your phone as a VR headset, we look at mobile apps that are augmenting the reality your phone sees.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology
Terminal Eleven


Free or £1.30 on Android, iOS

There is a whole raft of star-mapping apps designed to help you locate and identify objects in the night (or, occasionally, day) sky. However, while many claim AR, what most really do is use the device’s sensors to track where you are and where the device is pointing, so the app can show you its image of the same segment of sky.

SkyView takes the actual image from the device’s camera and overlays information on it, like most other AR apps. If your device’s sensors are accurate - and they can be affected by external factors, such as movement or strong magnets, so this is a big ‘if’ - you should be able to line up what you can actually see in the sky with the image from SkyView’s database. You can then click on items to name them and pull up information.

You can also search for objects in the sky; the app adds an arrow to the AR view to show you which way to turn to find whatever you’re after. Usefully, it highlights which objects are currently above the horizon, but you can still look for the others should you want to know, for instance, that the International Space Station is ‘right under’ your feet.

The free version contains a long list of stars, plus major planets and constellations, the latter appearing on-screen with drawings overlaid to show what the Ancients supposed them to resemble. Upgrading to the premium version (around £1.30) fills out the list with thousands more objects, from stars to nebulae, galaxies and more. Once downloaded, the app does not need a data connection, meaning that as long as you can tell it roughly where it is, you can use it anywhere.

Robin von Hardenberg

TimeTraveler Berlin Wall

Free or €2 on Android, iOS

Of course, AR overlays don’t have to be about the world around you today. They can also show you things from the past that are no longer with us. TimeTraveler is just such an app, recreating the infamous but now largely vanished Berlin Wall for an audience which would otherwise see only open ground where once there was concrete, barbed wire and a death-strip.

While it can use GPS, it is designed to work in specific locations. This means you merely have to stand in the right place, hold up your device, and overlaid upon the image of a united 21st-century city are images of desperate attempts to escape the East, say, or of the DDR blowing up an historic church to create a clear field of fire for its border guards.

Similar storytelling apps also exist in other places. For example, at Union Station in Kansas, an app called Living History allows visitors to take a self-guided tour. Hold your phone up in the right place and it overlays the image of today with costumed actors recreating key moments in the building’s history, including visits from notables such as Harry S Truman, Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway.



Free app on Android, iOS

One of the issues with virtual reality is that it needs a headset to give the immersive effect, which rules it out for a smartphone – or it did until Google introduced Project Cardboard. At its most basic, this is a cardboard box modified into goggles, with an Android phone or iPhone mounted sideways inside as the screen(s).

It is actually a bit more complex than that - it also needs lenses and other non-cardboard components to give the stereoscopic effect and control the apps, but essentially it can turn your phone into a VR helmet for £20. It lacks features such as 3D audio and motion tracking, though this may well change with the next version, and it is not as neat as Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Microsoft’s Hololens, but it’s a lot cheaper.

The Cardboard app is what provides the necessary services on your phone so it can display two side-by-side stereo images. It also offers some VR samplers, but is really designed to enable other VR apps, which you can find in the Google Play store and elsewhere.

You can cut out and fold your own Cardboard headset, buying and adding the necessary extra parts, or buy a complete kit. There are quite a few kits to buy now, and several are made of more robust (and less cheap-looking) materials such as plastic or even aluminium.


Here Maps LiveSight

Free on Windows Phone

Here Maps for Windows Phone gives a good idea of what is possible with mapping and AR. Start the app and once it has your location, hold up your phone and press the LiveSight eye icon next to the label for your location. Up will come the image from the camera with more labels overlaid on it to show all the nearby places in Here’s database.

The higher the label appears in the field of view, the further away that place is. You can show all, or select only one category - eat & drink, say, or shopping. Here Maps is also a full turn-by-turn navigation app, with street-view imagery and real-time traffic data for many countries.

Formerly part of Nokia, Here is now owned by a consortium of German carmakers. While its eponymous map app was originally only for Windows Phone, Nokia eventually released versions for Android and iPhone; sadly these lack the AR capability, although the hooks exist for other Android software developers to add AR overlays to Here Maps. While the AR is amusing to try out, most of us can already read a map, and it is not clear (yet) what AR can do that an annotated map cannot.

If you want to try this kind of AR on Android or iPhone, your best option is probably Wikitude. This pulls data from a variety of sources, primarily Wikipedia, which gives it plenty of information on local historical sites and so on, but also from the likes of TripAdvisor. Sadly, while Wikitude is information-rich, its user interface is clunky. For instance, press the back arrow and instead of taking you to the previous screen it drops you right out of your current session and back to the opening screen.

The Wikitude team offers a software development kit to build AR content and projects, such as interactive adverts. There is a lot of competition in the advertising space, however, including for example Layar, Blippar, Aurasma and Augment.

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