Augmenting Reality: Physical World, Meets Virtual World

A new technology called augmented reality is changing how we see the world around us.
September 06, 2011

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Occasionally, a technology familiar from science fiction actually makes the leap to everyday reality: video conferencing, space tourism and powdered fruit drink, to name a few. But get ready to add another to the list: “augmented reality,” the techies’ term for superimposing information—restaurant reviews, historical snippets, the location of the nearest doughnut shop—onto the live image captured by your cell phone’s camera.

Behind the clunky term is an intuitive idea. Point your phone at a place, and information about that place appears on the screen. Hold it toward a painting in a museum, and explanatory text becomes visible. Crave a latte, and an arrow—like an electronically painted-on first-down line in a televised football game—points the way. It’s as if your smartphone became a magic monocle.

Buck Rogers may have dreamed up the technology (and fighter pilots have been using a very expensive version of it for years), but what’s making augmented reality, or AR, available now is the convergence of online databases (like Google Maps) with powerful handheld devices like the iPhone and Motorola Droid. All have fast processors, built-in cameras, GPS and—the final, crucial element—electronic compasses, so the phone knows not only where you are, but also which direction you’re facing.

Yet, more important than any new technology is our new sensibility. Consumers have become accustomed to getting information on the go; in fact, we demand it.

“People really grasp this idea of cross-channel communication, of having online information connected to the real world,” says Denise Gershbein, creative director at Silicon Valley-based Frog Design, which has a booming practice in what’s known as location-based services. “We’re at a place where our expectations are in line with our abilities and our desires. Augmented reality is not a sci-fi leap of faith anymore.”

Maarten Lens-FitzGerald grasped that insight before nearly anyone. In January 2009, banking company ING Group hired his Amsterdam-based mobile innovation consultancy, SPRXMobile, to create a cell-phone application to guide Dutch consumers to ATMs. But rather than putting Euro symbols on a Google map, SPRX had a more ambitious suggestion: Why not build it using AR?

“It was so easy to grasp. Literally, my mom got it right away. It’s like, ‘Can you see that on the screen?’ ‘Oh, wow!’” Lens-FitzGerald recalls. “But nobody was doing it.” ING gave them a green light.

SPRX spun off a separate company called Layar, which hired programmers in India and China to begin building the application. They also began to grasp what they were really creating: not just a tool for finding ATMs, but a new type of information platform through which any type of information could be “seen.” If a Web browser is a program that points your computer at a faraway computer and then renders its information, then an AR browser like Layar’s merely makes that pointing literal, in a way that would work just as well for ATMs, apartment rentals and just about anything.

Layar’s custom application for ING was the first use of what became an entire platform. They launched last June with a handful of local content partners, including ING, the Dutch real estate site Funda, the temp agency Tempo Team and Hyves, the Dutch Facebook. At the time, Lens-FitzGerald saw revenue in a development model: “We’d build it for you and earn money that way.”

That changed when they saw the response. A simple demo posted on YouTube ricocheted around the Web garnering hundreds of thousands of views, and their three-person shop was deluged with requests from around the world.

So they opened up. Rather than gathering content from all corners of the world, Layars would provide developers with instructions for creating AR layers—or, as the company calls them, “Layars”—on their own. “We don’t know what’s cool and relevant in Japan or South America or the U.S., but you do,” says Lens-FitzGerald. “With the open platform you can make the New York Layar because you know where it’s fun to eat.”

The platform launched globally in August 2009 with 70 Layars from around the world—everything from Sapporo Hotspots to Trulia, the American real estate listings site. By press time that number had grown to 375, with 1,200 more in development, and Layar was being preinstalled on new phones sold by carriers around the world.

Layar has a new business model in mind. Rather than building newfangled websites, they’re looking at becoming a sort of iTunes store for AR, distributing paid and free content and facilitating payment processing. Yet, thanks to their success at leveraging programming talent globally, they remain a 20-person outfit.

“I still can hardly believe that we’re the biggest in the young AR field,” says Lens-FitzGerald. “I’m still cycling home every day.”

Andrew Blum writes about architecture, technology and infrastructure. A correspondent for Wired and a contributing editor for Metropolis, he is currently writing a book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, to be published in 2012. He lives in New York.

Illustration of Layar founder Maarten Lens-FitzGerald by Mario Hugo.

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