Back in June, my colleague Michael Hickins called augmented reality the "killer app" of the cell phone and mentioned two companies, Layar and Mobilizy. There's just one problem. An Apple patent getting press this week could mean that such vendors might have to get permission to do what they do, because, if granted, it would seem to give Apple a lock on augmented reality on a portable device.
Michael has said that augmented reality is the iPhone Achilles' heel because, as Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb noted, Apple won't let augmented reality apps into the iPhone App Store. Why? The answer might be patent application number 20090175499, called "Systems and methods for identifying objects and providing information related to identified objects". The first claim in the application is a doozy:
A method of providing a user with information related to an object in real time comprising: identifying the object with a portable electronic device; establishing a communications channel with an external source; searching for information related to the identified object on the external source, acquiring the information via the communications channel; and enabling the user to access at least a portion of the information on the portable electronics device.In other words, Apple wants a patent on having any portable device be able to identify an object and then obtain additional information about it. And they're not just talking about pictures. Apple wants to extend this to virtually any identification technology, including but not limited to camera, RFID, or IR image capture.
I did a quick check, both of applications and of granted patents, for both Layar and Mobilizy and found nothing for either company as an assignee. That's not definitive proof. It could be that the applications do not mention the company names, much as Amazon has been known to file patent applications under the radar. Also, it takes 18 months for an application to become a publicly available document. But it does suggest at least the possibility that Apple could be first to the table with a patent application. While that alone isn't necessarily the final word in the US, Europe and Japan both work under a first-to-file approach, which could leave Apple with a strategic weapon in some big markets that would give it tremendous leverage in any negotiation.
Of course, no application, or even patent, is enough to give you a lock on a technology. And just as Microsoft had an application for a multi-touch interface that predated Apple's, it just so happens to have an application for "Augmented Reality and Filtering", including mobile devices, that was filed about six months before Apple's. And that's just from a quick check on the term "augmented reality" in patent applications. So maybe Layar and Mobilizy have nothing to worry about. Well, at least from Apple.
Image via Flickr user In Veritas Lux, CC 2.0.