Smartphone applications just got a whole lot smarter. The latest generation of apps uses a new technology to superimpose useful info and reviews on whatever you spot in your phone's camera viewfinder.
Just imagine the possibilities. You're standing on, say, a New York City street corner, you point your cell phone camera at a scene, and the image on your screen gets layered with restaurant reviews, directions to the nearest subway stop, historical information about a building... anything. Apps that use a technology known as augmented reality, or AR, work by combining GPS (to pinpoint your location) with the smartphone's internal compass and camera viewfinder. The first AR applications on the market were built for phones that use Google's Android operating system, such as the T-Mobile G1 and the new Motorola Cliq. But with the recent release of an updated iPhone operating system, the world of augmented reality is poised to explode. Here's a primer on some of our favorite AR apps that are available already.
Learn about landmarks
With the Wikitude World Browser app, brief user-generated entries pop up giving background information on famous buildings, ancient ruins, or other noteworthy sites in your field of view (on Android phones and iPhone 3GS, free).
Get restaurant or bar tips
Activate Monocle, an app from the user-review site Yelp, and as you scan the street with your phone, text boxes appear that supply the names, ratings, and other key info about the restaurants in your view (iPhone 3GS, free). A similar app called Nru ("near you") from Zagat shows restaurants as dots on a circular virtual compass, with your location at the center. Tap on a restaurant name for ratings, reviews, and prices (on Android phones, coming soon to iPhone 3GS, free).
Find subway and bus stops
Hold up your phone, and an arrow on the screen points out the closest subway stops, along with how far away they are and the name of the train lines. The apps, all for the iPhone 3GS, include London's Nearest Tube ($2) and London Bus ($1), Metro Paris Subway ($1), and for New York, Chicago, and D.C., Bionic Eye ($3).
Do all of the above and more
Apps that call themselves "AR browsers" let you search for information from multiple sources. Layar allows users to access content from Google's local search, yellowpages.com, and other partners (on Android phones, coming soon to iPhone 3GS, free). Robotvision uses Bing's local search; it also displays Flickr photos and Twitter posts that are geotagged to your location (iPhone 3GS, $1).
APPS ON THE WAY
Family Finder If a family member goes missing, scan your surroundings with your smartphone's camera, and an icon appears in the direction of the missing person's phone, along with information about how far away they are.
TwittARound Survey the horizon for people near you using Twitter—and read their messages.
Wikitude Drive Ditch your GPS. Get turn-by-turn driving directions with arrows overlaid on a phone's real-time camera view and called out by voice commands. Eventually, augmented navigation apps are expected to use visual recognition to instantly read street signs and point drivers to open parking spots.