Mobile Future

Dear Phone—Find Me a Place to Eat!

"Augmented reality" apps that meld the virtual and actual world are popping up for everything from dining choices to sightseeing narratives. These applications marry a phone’s GPS and compass features with access to high-speed wireless networks to provide users with local Web content.

The first phones with Google’s Android operating system, which enables augmented reality, have come out in the past year. The iPhone debuted a compass app in June, and Apple recently joined Google in making it possible for software developers to overlay images on the phone’s camera view. And other companies are following suit.

Amsterdam-based Layar recently released an augmented reality browser for Android phones. Layar lets you search for things on Google, but delivers the results based on your location as determined by the GPS readout. Users also can sign up to have certain types of information automatically appear on phone screens. The company is working on a 3-D function that it hopes to release in November.

Another "augmented reality" leader is Yelp, a Web site with business reviews written by customers.  After the iPhone got a compass, Yelp created Monocle, an app allowing information to overlay onto a real-time view of the world. Built by a Yelp intern, Monocle combines the iPhone’s camera view with tiny tags indicating the names, distances and user ratings of proximate businesses.

And then there is Robotvision, a 99-cent program built by Portland, Ore.-based developer Tim Sears. Hold your phone parallel to the ground and Robotvision displays a map of your surroundings. Hold the phone up, and Robotvision hits augmented-reality, highlighting places like coffee shops and bars.

Sure, there are some issues hindering augmented reality apps.  There are technological limitations – cell phones need to be more powerful, cameras and graphics improved, and GPS more precise. But, as cell phones get even smarter and GPS and wireless networks improve, consumers may be spending more time in a virtually enhanced world.