There's a lot of giddiness out there about Augmented Reality (AR)... and (this time) I'm not talkin' about the kind you find on LA beaches or at Las Vegas nightclubs. This is the AR, experienced through an application on a mobile phone, that blends imagery of the world around you as seen through your device's camera (reality), with data about that world based on GPS, mapping software, compass, accelerometer, etc. (the augmentation). It's all very cool, very sci-fi stuff, that ostensibly has a lot of commercial potential... and companies like Nokia (who call their version Mixed Reality) have been playing with this technology (including extra-cool image recognition features) for yonks.
Media coverage of AR has really heated up in the wake of Layar B.V.'s launch of the first meaningful consumer version of this technology, Layar Reality Browser, on iPhone in early October (it's been on Android for months), followed by a Symbian launch last week. The Dutch start-up, which just got another $1mil in funding, looks at their application service as a platform (smart) on which developers can build different "layers" (basically mobile websites that sit on top of images). Users can customize these layers based on their interests, which is similar to what Google Maps is now doing with their mobile application (and funnily enough, they also call their augmentation layers). Currently Layar has over 183 layer partners, such as Yellowpages.com, Yelp, Wikipedia, real estate site Trulia, UC Santa Barbara campus map, etc. Monetization will come from advertising, sponsored layers and, presumably, affiliate deals.
The company claims, in a Venture Beat story, that its free application has been downloaded 250k times and that they have 100k unique users per week. Early consumer reviews in the App Store have been mixed, with a fair number of complaints about the App's UI design and its heavy tax on battery life. That said, most consumers seem genuinely excited about the possibilities of AR on the phones... and I tend to agree.
I think, if executed properly, AR presents a massive new opportunity for brands, content owners and venues, to leverage the unique features of the mobile medium, in order to reach consumers via opted-in, contextual marketing. AR should become a hyper-targeted, mobile specific extension of search marketing, and it definitely feels like a space that Google will eventually want to own. The ability of AR to realize this potential will, as always, come down to execution. AR application developers need consumers feel that these applications are useful and relevant in their daily lives, so that they become a regular part of their interactions with their devices, and take great care not to overwhelm them with gimmicky features or messaging that will make the applications feel trivial or overly promotional. I'm hopeful that Layar, or someone else, can pull this off artfully and I'm unabashedly super-excited to see how this space evolves in coming months.