Smartphones Get Killer App

Last Updated Jun 26, 2009 4:06 PM EDT

A killer application has finally emerged that should allow smartphones to overtake conventional PCs and laptops as the computing device of choice: it's called augmented reality, and as absurd as that sounds, that's exactly what it is.

Mobile applications consultant Tomi Ahonen wrote on his mobile developer forum that, "this is one of those game-changer types of innovations."

Ahonen said that augmented reality illustrates the power of "mobile internet" compared with PC-based Internet browsing.

Vendors like Layar and Mobilizy have delivered technology allowing customers to "augment" their surroundings with metadata layered over what their smartphones capture through their viewfinders. This technology is already in use in the Netherlands and the U.K. for commercial purposes, allowing users to see pricing and other information about houses viewed through their smartphones.

Layar works using

location based services and works on mobile phones that include a camera, GPS and a compass... It works as follows: Starting up the Layar application automatically activates the camera. The embedded GPS automatically knows the location of the phone and the compass determines in which direction the phone is facing. Each [commercial] partner provides a set of location coordinates with relevant information which forms a digital layer. By tapping the side of the screen the user easily switches between layers.
Layar's partners include ING, the financial services company, as well as a realty, a social network, a temporary employment agency and a health care provider. Mobilizy, which provided the video above, has a partner in the tourism industry, and has also worked with IBM and Oglivy to provide "layers" at Wimbledon.

That said, the technology is currently available on Android-based devices only; developers are said to be working on a version for the iPhone, but the technology won't become "game-changing" until it's available on market-share leading Nokia and other mobile operating systems as well.

According to mobile marketing program developer Max Flanigan, "we can expect more in this space pretty soon."

Other improvements to augmented reality-based services, Flanigan noted, should include:

  • Connectivity with real-time data sources to provide actual user context (i.e. your Facebook friend is twittering about coffee nearby;
  • Integration with redemption systems to provide user value (i.e. book here now for 50% off)
We may not all be like ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick, who admits to having " long fantasized about being able to walk down city streets and get information on my phone about area demographics," but this is clearly a service to which vendors, advertisers and even end-users will become addicted. And when you can't do without something, it's become a game-changer.
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.