Since we started playing around with Create-a-Scape at Sheffield East CLC, I’ve got a geeky thrill at the possibilities afforded by augmented reality. It combines 2 areas of interest for me; spatial awareness (or spatial literacy) and mobile technology. There’s something quite exciting about adding layers of meaning and interaction onto the real world to get people interacting with it and each other. Create-a-Scape was great but an idea ahead of its time. We never really found a mobile device that would host it reliably and the amount of time and effort we had to expend on getting it to work was immense. I remember one geography teacher in Sheffield who was desperate to try it but threw in the towel after the frustrations reached critical mass – a real disappointment for him and us.

Finally, though the technology is emerging into the light. It’s still early days though. I’ve been having a bit of a play with a number of apps for the iPhone;

They all provide a similar function – point the camera in different directions and you see icons attached to real world locations: points of interest or POIs. These can be clicked to link to web pages or media. This information can be viewed by channel so you can separate information according to theme (e.g. culture, architecture, shopping etc). Junaio has more of a social approach where you can add your own locations fairly easily and share them with a network of friends, announcing them via Twitter.

Junaio in action

Junaio in Action

The other apps are more delivery platforms with less scope for creating your own content but using Hoppala was a reasonably easy first step in creating my own Layar layers (although, not for the feint-hearted).

They are worth a play with but I think the next generation of AR is going to be a lot more interesting.

I found the current crop of apps quite clunky to use. The main issue was overload of information. In a location that has many POIs it can be difficult to read all the text on them and selecting the desired one for viewing.  I had to spend a bit of time trimming out channels on Wikitude as it assumed I wanted to find a hotel room (of which there seem to be lots in Newcastle!)- personalising the POI’s shown was a repetitive task.

The other factor is that it’s difficult to relate what you are seeing in AR to the real world in dimensions other than distance. Also,  distance is represented still isn’t intuitive. I can grasp that a particular landmark is south from my position and it might tell me it’s 500m away but actually navigating towards that point is tricky and requires checking a traditional  map display.

As such, tools like Google and Bing Maps still have the edge for me.

Also, the actual response time of the phone when pointing in different directions leads to a slight lag in the POIs catching up which got a bit frustrating.

Plus, you do look a bit of an idiot waving the phone around at eye level!

Of more interest is the development of visual search with apps like Google Goggles (not available on the iPhone yet.) With this you can point your phone at certain objects and it will identify it and search for information. Link that with location-aware capabilities and that provides a much more useful form of AR.

I’m also intrigued by apps like the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum. This overlays historical images of London over your live view, giving you a window on how locations looked through in the past. I’ve not had a chance to try it out in London yet but I’m looking forward to it. It would be great if this sort of thing incorporated audio as well as visuals (something which Create-a-Scape was designed to do). Have a look at History Pin for a non-mobile, beyond London version of this.

There’s the whole other area of AR tagging of objects using QR codes to add extra layers to things like text books and museum exhibits but that’s something I hope to have a look at later.

The growth in location aware stuff is really exciting (and not without risks). I think the opportunities for informal learning, participation and breaking out of institutional walls could offer real educational benefits. It will be interesting to look back on this in a year’s time to see how much has changed.

Have a read of Nick Shackleton-Jones’ vision of the near future.

NOTE: I followed up on some of these ideas in another post shortly after.