Apple patent hints at augmented reality camera app

A new patent application offers a potential look ahead at what Apple plans to bring to its camera application in the form of an augmented reality viewer that makes use of the iPhone's camera.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
2 min read
In this case, the app is picking up points of interest based on a search, then overlaying that information on-screen.
In this case, the app is picking up points of interest based on a search, then overlaying that information onscreen. US Patent and Trademark Office

A patent application unearthed today and detailed by Patently Apple, suggests Apple could be planning to bring augmented reality-based mapping and map search features to its camera app.

The patent application (PDF), entitled "augmented reality maps," details using the iPhone's camera and onboard sensors to pull up information about what's nearby. This is combined with a way to search, similar to what users can currently find in the maps app.

In one of the figures included in the patent (embedded above), the example user is pointing the device towards an intersection in downtown San Francisco, while running a search for "parks." Onscreen, the nearby Golden Gate Park, and Buena Vista Park show up as landmarks with distance markers, showing where they are, and how far away they are from the user's current location. In another figure (not pictured), there's a map with those locations, set against which way the user is facing.

In the patent, Apple describes that the need for such an application is especially important for providing people with a non-directions based approach for finding their way around, especially if they're not familiar with the city they're in.

"For example, an instruction that directs a user to go north on Main Street assumes that the user can discern which direction is north," the patent says. "Further, in some instances, street signs might be missing or indecipherable, making it difficult for the user to find the directed route."

Of note is that the example application very clearly looks like the current first-party camera application that Apple ships with its iOS devices, complete with a toggle to switch between the video and still camera modes, as well as a shortcut to the camera roll--all things that suggest the feature would end up there instead of in the maps app.

That Apple would be filing for this is of special interest given the company's relationship with Google, which currently supplies Apple with the data to power its maps application. Included as part of that deal is access to Street View, which offers a similar vantage point of roads and landmarks, complete with an overlay of road names, though it does not offer it as part of a real-time view of what's coming through the camera.

A first-party, augmented reality destination-finding application from Apple would join a host of similar ones from third-parties, including Layar's "reality browser" and the "monocle" mode found in Yelp's app. Apple currently offers augmented reality features of its own as part of the Photobooth application in Lion, which makes use of head tracking to augment depictions of hearts or birds on top of the live video feed of a user's head, as captured by a FaceTime camera.