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Your phone will soon recognize things it sees

Augmented reality + visual search = phones that tie the physical and digital worlds together.

augmented reality scan-to-share app
No more hunting for the online version to share print articles with friends. Video screenshot by Eric Smalley/CNET

Mobile-browser maker Layar is about to make augmented reality all that you thought it could be. The company has added visual search to its augmented-reality browser. Point your phone's camera at an object in the real world and an appropriate digital activity will occur on your handset.

For instance, point your phone at a historic house and a video clip will play; point your phone at your friend's new shoes and a buy button will pop up; or point your phone at an article in a paper magazine and a social-media button will pop up asking if you want to share the digital version with friends.

Layar's augmented-reality browser for iPhone and Android runs apps written for it. Layar also offers a player that software makers can embed in iPhone and Android apps. Both will gain visual search. The browser app upgrade will be in app stores at the end of the third quarter. The player upgrade will be available in the fourth quarter.

Most augmented-reality apps that use your phone's camera let you scan QR codes--black-and-white spotted squares printed on objects--to trigger actions like playing video clips. Layar's upgraded browser and player work with unadorned images. This makes augmented reality much less expensive--no need to attach a tag to everything. It also keeps the world nicer-looking, as the tags are pretty ugly.

A related technology, visual search, uses image recognition technology on a server to recognize objects in a picture you snap and send that information to your phone. Think Google Goggles. Take a picture of a CD, DVD, or book cover and you'll get the current price on Amazon and links to the item's page. The downside is you have to snap a picture.

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Augmented reality (just point, no shoot) plus visual search (no tags needed) is greater than the sum of its parts. Visual search becomes nearly immediate and overlaid on your phone's field of view. And augmented reality comes closer to its potential of digitally enhancing the real world.

On a related note, Qualcomm has developed a vision-based augmented reality app that plays a movie preview when you point your phone at the movie's DVD cover. The app is a demo. Qualcomm showed it to Giga Om's Om Malik on his recent visit to the company. Never mind that this particular app isn't all that useful (when was the last time you browsed DVD covers in a video store?). It shows off the power of mixing digital with the real world.

Qualcomm's demo augmented reality app
With this app, misleading DVD back cover text is no longer a valid excuse for bringing home a dud of a movie. Om Malik (c) 2011 GigaOM

What's your favorite vision-based augmented-reality scenario from science fiction, company come-ons, or your own fertile imagination?