The surge of augmented reality apps to hit the iPhone and iPad has slowed somewhat over the past year, with only the odd interesting app surfacing above the myriad of translation tools, photographic utilities and music apps to grace the app store. Until recently, augmented reality, AR for short, was being touted as the next big thing. I was always dubious of this moniker for some key reasons which I will discuss shortly, but my view of AR may well be on the turn due to the new Google Goggles.
Just Because You Can…
The first impressive AR app I saw on the iPhone was a Subway (Tube for those of you in the UK) locator. It showed you where the nearest stations were with respect to your current location. Tilt the phone down and you get a nice top-down view of the arrows showing all of the various lines around you. It was pretty cool and did the rounds quite quickly however I was dubious of the true usefulness of such a product. AR apps by their very nature require you to hold them up and scan your surroundings so that the information the app presents can be overlaid on the camera feed. This scanning aspect means that you need to wave your phone (or tablet) around in the air to see all of the available content; how truly useable is that?.
When I walk down the street and want to know where the nearest Starbucks or ATM are, I don’t want to have to spin on the spot whilst panning up and down just to find what I am looking for. This is most definitely a case of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. A top-down map gives you a much wider perspective of your surroundings and makes the job a lot easier, if a little un-cooler.
Danger Will Robinson!
Putting aside the usability aspect for a while, although it is somewhat hard to do, there is a more pressing issue with AR applications; safety. Whilst walking down the street waving my phone around, I am paying more attention to the tiny screen on my phone and the jittery information overlays than I am of the real world I am interacting with. Sooner or later I will step out into traffic without noticing, fall down a man-hole cover accidentally left open or straight into a shop window. Augmented Reality is supposed to ‘augment’ reality not dominate it.
The theft potential for would-be thieves whilst I am waving my phone around is also more pronounced when using AR apps. My focus is detached from my immediate surroundings, and the thief approaching, and at the same time I am physically holding my phone out for them to take in one swift move. Not smart, not smart at all.
Go Go Google Goggles
So why do I think Google Goggles could change this? Well quite simply they make Augmented Reality ‘augmented’ again by bringing the content directly to the users viewpoint. You are no longer looking at reality on a small screen but actual reality in the real world, imagine that! By simply overlaying the information on your real environment, the user is no longer withdrawn from their surroundings and thus many of the issues and dangers are eradicated.
The theft potential may still be there, someone could still swipe the goggles off your head, but at least you’ll see them coming!
NOTE: The image does NOT depict actual Google Goggles 😉