Smartphone applications augmenting city realities

Wikitude is a library for location based Augmented Reality.

Wikitude is a library for location based Augmented Reality.

by Valentin Schipfer

A recent post (see here) by Brendan Colgan opened the topic of smartphones and the city. He posed questions such as: Are smartphones leveling the playing field for citizens so they can engage more directly and better identify with their city? Do they make cities more attractive? Can they be a mechanism of city re-branding? Do I like my city more because of my phone? Even if I am a local, am I really learning or exploring my city if the only reason I am at the “local hotspot” is because of my phone? Do smartphones provide an opportunity to change how we organize, structure our cities – both socially and physically?

The aim of this blog entry is not to find answers but rather to explore a notion of what we are talking about. For this purpose I have collected what I think are some exciting examples of location-based “augmented reality” applications for smartphones. All of them can be experienced in urban environments.

In general, augmented reality refers to the computer-based augmentation of perceiving reality. Different to virtual reality where the user dives into a completely virtual environment, augmented reality wants to depict additional information. This usually happens by visually displaying information into real-time views through your smartphone’s cam: thus by adding images or videos with computer-generated additional information or by overlays with virtual objects. Besides the term augmented reality, mixed or enhanced reality are common synonyms. In this way virtual reality can be combined with physical reality by putting virtual and real objects into 3-dimensional relation. How this allows real-time interaction, is currently being explored by different software developers.  New applications are released almost everyday.

One of the first in the world was the Wikitude World Browser application which was invented by Austrians. It is a real real-time browser based on location-based Wikipedia and Qype content. You can search from 350,000 world-wide points of interest by GPS or by address and displayed in a list view, map view and enhanced reality cam view. It is apparently very handy for planning a trip or to find about landmarks in your surroundings.

The same company offers a new and safer way of using navigation systems for smartphones. Instead of following a map you simply follow a line and you never take your eyes off the road. Navigation takes place in real-time in the live-cam image of your smartphone and driving directions are directly drawn into the real road you are driving on. Like that you still see what is happening in front of you when looking at the display of your mobile augmented reality navigation system.

Another pioneer among these mixed reality applications is the Dutch company Layar. It also displays real-time digital information on top of the real world as seen through the camera of your mobile phone based on your location. The difference to Wikitude World Browser: Layar is a platform open to everyone to create their own enhanced reality application.

For example National Geographic  has already announced that together with the magazine National Geographic Traveler it will create a mobile augmented reality experiences on the Layar platform. The first city to be augmented will be Washington DC, with travel news, environmental news, historical information, photographs and videos. National Geographic wants to inspire people to care about the planet and believes that enhanced reality helps to provide better and more inspiring learning experiences.  Maybe the app will even lead you back to your car like GeoTravel does.

A contribution to answer Brendan’s question if smartphones make citizens more engaged and better identified with their city, could be found in the application called Glow. As it is posted on the popupcity Blog Glow lets you map your feelings and sentiments in urban districts. You can easily share your feelings using a simple star-based rating system. Feelings are then geo-located and tagged to a map that shows how people around you feel, represented by glowing colored orbs that range from blue (“awesome”) to red (“not so awesome”). In addition, the app has an augmented reality component that shows layered ‘glows’ on top of reality. As this app can be seen as channel for citizens to express their feelings in public, it maybe can help them better identify with their city.

Have you ever dreamt of being part of a movie? Then hope that this app will quickly be developed. Until now it has no name yet but as shown in the video below it displays different movie scenes on top of spots where they’ve been shot. This app could definitely be fun by making you feel close to movie stars. As movies are responsible of what we know and think about a city, it can even enhance our city’s mental images.

In spite of all these futuristic and gimmicky impressions and their promises for more comfort and fun, the list of questions just got longer. Don’t some of these apps hold people off personal communication? Don’t some of these apps reduce people’s surrounding by pretending augmentation?

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2 Responses to Smartphone applications augmenting city realities

  1. Pingback: Guerilla Marketing vs. boredom and stupidity! | Places.

  2. Pingback: From Augmented to Integrated Urban Realities « Places.

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