Reality just got slightly more augmented, thanks to AR technology being shown off by Qualcomm at this year's Uplinq conference in San Diego.
Augmented reality (AR) is a fancy name for using your mobile phone or tablet to overlay images or information on a picture of the world around you. The Layar app, for example, can superimpose an image of the Beatles having a stroll when you point your phone's camera at the iconic zebra crossing on Abbey Road.
Layar uses the phone's sensors to detect where you're pointing the camera, so it can line up the image. But the effect can be shaky. Qualcomm's AR technology locks down the virtual image much more tightly to the background, so it feels more real. It also allows for more detailed AR, rather than objects that float nebulously around large areas of your screen.
To do that, Qualcomm AR analyses the image taken by the phone's camera at lightning speed and maps it, so it knows exactly where to place the virtual elements. The effect doesn't rely on the phone's sensors, so it's not subject to the vagaries of a dodgy GPS signal or an inaccurate accelerometer reading.
The downside is that the AR system has to know what it's looking at for it to work. That means current examples all rely on you having a specific image to point at, like a movie poster or an event ticket.
We saw a bevy of AR games that all required a printed mat to play on. Paparazzi, for example, requires you to print out a mat or alternatively, use an American dollar bill. This game features a monocled, tea-sipping celeb you must pap from various angles. Irritate him and he'll grab your phone, which you have to shake to throw him off. Seeing close-ups and angles is where Qualcomm AR really shines, so we can see why this app won its developer contest.
But our favourite was Inch High Stunt Guy (pictured above). The goal of the game is to arrange ramps and tracks to direct the eponymous tiny stunt bike rider through a 3D hoop. Because you have to look at your setup in three dimensions to make it work, it really benefits from the ability to look at the screen from all angles.
These games are just the tip of the iceberg, however. The fact that they require a printed target to work means you can't just download them and play right away, and we don't fancy carting around a print-out on the off chance we fancy a quick game.
Using a dollar bill (or a £5 note) instead of a custom target is a good idea, but it still requires a flat surface to get your game on. Also, most games aren't improved by being dragged out of the magical world of barrel-chucking gorillas and zombie-strewn wastelands and into the mundane real world. Seeing a dragon on your desk is a fun novelty, but we'd rather immerse ourselves in the dragon's world than bring it into ours.
We'd like to see apps that are more innovative than a game or an enhanced advertisement. We'd love to be able to point our phone at a pile of Ikea rubble, for example, and see instructions overlaid on each piece that tell us exactly where to get started.
Eventually, we'd like to have AR that's out in the world, like Layar, but with the locked-on solidity of Qualcomm's technology. But it won't happen until your phone can recognise what's around you, from the buildings to the trees. Hopefully, that will come when someone like Google combines an enormous database of images, like the one that powers the Google Goggles app, with AR.Qualcomm's AR SDK is free for developers to use to create more applications, so now it's over to them. For now, it's Android-only, but we also saw a demo of the same system working on iOS on an iPhone 4 and an iPad 2.