Augmented reality. It's that future tech we've all been waiting for--point your phone at something in the real world, and gain all the cyber knowledge the interwebs can provide. Wondering what species of tree you're looking at? Just direct your iPhone camera to it, and Wikipedia fills you in with a textual overlay.
Unfortunately, the technology still has plenty of kinks to work out. Most AR apps are gimmicks, offer super niche utility, or just don't work very well. But we have to admit, it is getting better with every update. The App Store has some pretty neat augmented reality offerings that take great advantage of the iPhone's geolocation abilities.
Of course with the neat comes the not so neat too, so we at Mac|Life have done you the service of sifting out the junk. We've gone through just about every augmented reality app we could find, and here are our four favorites. They may not be the first apps you think of when you think about augmented reality, but they're actually useful. In fact, we'd say they're the best. And, iPhone 4 users, they're all updated for viewing on that gorgeous Retina Display.
All these places are across the street, but on the same block.
Acrossair has been doing augmented reality on the iPhone for a while now, including apps for places, Wikipedia entries, and public transit. Until now, all these apps were $1.99 each. But, lucky for us, the company has wised up a bit and released their newest AR app, simply titled Acrossair, for free.
Acrossair combines just about every database you might use for augmented reality purposes, dwarfing previous contenders in the augmented reality game, like Stella Artois' bar guide (included in Acrossair), Panoramio, and even Layar (more "layers" and a better interface than this competitor). You can also check out Tweets, Flickr uploads, YouTube videos, and a whole lot more of what's been posted or exists around you.
Acrossair's display isn't perfect, but it does overlay information accurately within about 200 feet. Well, sort of. It pretty much gets you within the block. But, if you're looking for a full augmented reality browser that's easy and intuitive to use, Acrossair is a great start. Did we mention that it's free?
Yelp's labeling is spot-on, without any waving your arms around nonsense.
We know what you're thinking: isn't Yelp about reviews, not augmented reality? It is about reviews, but its augmented reality add-on, the Yelp monocle, is pretty handy. Acrossair might overlay Yelp information, but we think the Yelp app does it even better. Results overlay more accurately, and with less twitch. And, with Yelp's gigantic database, you'll get results for just about any business you're looking at, not just restaurants.
It's extra helpful that links take you right to Yelp reviews within the app. Use Yelp, but haven't found the monocle? Go to the "nearby" tab and it's in the upper right hand corner. It's definitely augmented reality on the iPhone at its best, especially because it's free, you probably already use the app anyway, and it has some serious functionality! Get it here.
Imagine this overlay somewhere else--like Yosemite National park or Burning Man.
If you can learn how to use it, Spyglass is perhaps the best example of actual augmented reality in the app store. The app is essentially an augmented reality tracker, with loads of other information. For all you outdoorsy types, this navigation tool has a compass, constant bearings, sun, moon, and star locations, rangefinder, angular calculator, inclinometer, maps, and more. And, it lets you track and find GPS locations of your choosing. Lost your campsite? No problem. Though remember to use Spyglass to record your location first.
Not the outdoorsy type? Spyglass' compass still holds something for you. Have a hard time remembering where you parked? Use Spyglass to keep track of it. Visiting a new place and want an easy tool to help you navigate? Plot restaurants and shops, and you won't get lost. It's handy that you can target multiple locations, and that they're marked by different icons. And, if you want to feel like a super sleuth, use one of the in built HUD color filters (green or red are both good choices).
Spyglass packs in a ton of features, is cleanly designed, and its applications are only limited by the creativity of the user. With that said, it's also a bit of a challenge to figure out--all those numbers can be a little overwhelming. But if you can get over the slight learning curve, this is an app well worth your $1.99!
4. Star Walk
There aren't a lot of stars up there, but the arrow accurately points to the direction of the moon above.
Star Walk is last, but not least, on our list, and that's only because some people will say that it isn't quite augmented reality. But, it's a great app that serves the exact same function as AR, so we're keeping it on the list. The app, for those who aren't familiar with it, charts the night sky, showing users names of stars, planets, and constellations.
So where does the augmented reality come in? Activate Star Walk's "star spotter" by pointing your phone's camera to the sky. Star Walk will display exactly what you're looking at, complete with labels. Looking for something specific? Select a constellation and Star Walk will point you in the right direction.
If you're a hardcore augmented reality fan, it might be disappointing that Star Walk doesn't overlay the information on camera input that reflects what you're actually seeing. But for those of us in a city, or a foggy place like San Francisco, Star Walk's representation of what's actually in the sky is infinitely more useful. Not to mention, Star Walk doesn't suffer from the tweaking out that many other AR apps do, and it runs super smoothly. If you've got any astronomical curiosity, be sure to check it out--it's just $2.99.
So there you have it, the four best implementations of augmented reality in the app store. Disagree with us and think something else should be on the list? Let us know in the comments!
Follow this article's author, Ambika Subramony, on Twitter.