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Page last updated at 17:30 GMT, Friday, 21 August 2009 18:30 UK

Handsets enhance the real world


Layar co-founder Maarten Lens-FitzGerald shows the AR system in action

By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click

Imagine seeing interesting information pop up as you stroll around. It is almost like a sixth sense, and it used to be mainly the stuff of science fiction.

But Augmented Reality (AR) - in which live video images like those from a mobile phone camera are tagged with relevant data - is starting to be widely available.

This is largely because of advances in smart-phone technology, explained Chetan Damani, the co-founder of an AR application firm called Acrossair.

"Mobile manufacturers have started to add digital compasses into their mobile devices and that's allowed us to offer people augmented reality applications," he said.

"As the user moves the device left to right we can actually calculate where the user is pointing to and overlay the data accordingly," he said.

Add to that the ability to "geotag" - that is, add geographic information to places, pictures, or things based on a user's location handily grabbed from a handset's GPS - and the potential for AR applications skyrockets.

Landscape choice

Late August saw the global release of a significantly expanded version of an AR application called Layar - which has been dubbed the world's first augmented reality browser.

Sekai Camera application
The app Sekai Camera enables users to tag things they want others to see

The Layar system combines a digital compass and GPS co-ordinates to establish its location and where it is pointing.

Relevant information is then retrieved from a server and displayed in real time.

By scanning the landscape, the software shows houses up for sale, restaurants, bars, or Wikipedia entries that could be useful for tourists.

Also visible are Twitter "tweets" and photographs in various parts of the city that some people have geotagged.

In a follow-up report next week, Click will look at how AR tech might be applied to friends and creating new gaming worlds

"Layar enables you to see things that you didn't know about previously - data that was hidden in books or in the basement of a company," he explained.

Much of the content, he said, is created by users themselves.

"Right now anybody can make a Layar, and all this information is provided to you as a service, and you can make it and access it for free."

Layar has only been in development since April, but it recently launched globally for phones that use the Google Android operating system.

A version for the iPhone is slated for release soon after the upgrade of Apple's operating system, which is expected to give developers greater control to manipulate and merge on-screen graphics and the camera feed.

Augmented directions

In Japan, a new iPhone application is being used to help visitors navigate their way through a museum and to find data on the exhibitions.

Acrossair points users to nearest tube

Developers Tonchidot's Sekai Camera app enables users to tag things they want others to see.

Other applications have more immediate practical value.

In London, for example, the Acrossair application allows commuters to find their nearest underground station.

Acrossair's app enables iPhone users in central London to point their handset's camera and see underground stops float over the picture.

The accelerometer within the phone means that if the user points their handset to the ground, arrows will pop up into view pointing the way to the nearest stations.

With hardware like GPS and digital compasses becoming more and more common on handsets - along with the ability to download and use apps - it's easy to imagine that AR will become the means of choice for delivering information that's specific to wherever we are, whenever we're there.

Watch Click on BBC News Channel, Saturday 22 August at 11.30 (BST).

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