One startup that's attracted attention recently in the space is Amsterdam-based Layar, which has created an augmented reality 'browser'.
I spoke to Layar co-founder Claire Boonstra to learn more about Layar and the business potential of augmented reality...
What's the Layar story?
We have been thinking about augmented reality for over a year and half when Android handsets became available. We had located five content partners in the Netherlands who wanted to launch Layar with us.
These partners included a real estate agency, a bank who wanted to show ATMs, a temp agency who wanted to show local jobs and a social network that's like the Facebook of the Netherlands They immediately understood that this could be really interesting for them as a business and we launched Layer in mid-June.
We quickly received an awful lot of media attention and parties from all over the world have approached us about doing business.
You call Layar the first mobile augmented reality browser. For those who are unfamiliar with augmented reality, what does this mean?
Augmented reality means that a digital layer of information is
being superimposed on top of reality. It's digital information mixed
Tell us a little bit about Layar's approach and how you're using APIs and third-party data sets to build "layers" within your browser.
Before we launched, we had a plan to start in the Netherlands and gradually launch in other countries. But we immediately realized that this would not be a sustainable business model because we are a small company and would like to keep it that way. So we decided to open up our platform by means of an API so that everybody can develop their own layers.
We're creative but the world around us is much more creative than we are. So many really cool layers are now being developed by people all over the world who we previously could never have contacted.
We're enabling them to take their own layers and Layer is basically becoming a global platform for anybody with a location database.
One of the interesting things is that developers aren't just limited to the real world. If you're talking about the game scene you could even have games in augmented reality. A game would be a layer with a database that doesn't exist yet. In this scenario, locations are points where something happened in the game or a story is being told.
Layar is an Android app. What factors contributed to your decision to build on Android devices and do you have any plans to support other devices such as the iPhone?
Android phones were the first to have all the necessary features to do this type of augmented reality, namely GPS, compass and a camera. The GPS knows where you are, the compass knows in which direction you're looking and the camera is just being used to show the digital image on top of which layers are displayed. Our version of augmented reality is not marker-based.
Moreover, Android is a very easy platform to develop for but we are also developing for the iPhone and we announce on August 17 when we will be launching the iPhone version of Layar. We also plan to support other mobile platforms namely Symbian and Windows Mobile. We're hoping to launch for these sometime this year as well.
Currently it seems that much of the commercial activity around augmented reality applications involves building specific apps for corporations and brands. What's Layar's business model?
We provide our API for free. Right now having as many layers as possible is the biggest value creator for us.
We make money by developing layers for content partners. They pay us a small publishing fee for their layers. At some point in the future it will also be possible to create premium layers.
Can you tell us who some of your current partners are?
We're going to be announcing the names of all 50 partners who are developing for Layar on August 17 but one partner who has already made an announcement is a US company called GoWeb3D. They're developing layers for their own clients.
What's the value proposition for corporations and brands and what do the partners you're working with see augmented reality doing for them over the long term?
At the moment many of them are trying to stay on top of current trends and experiment with a new kind of presence. There's of course a PR component with this.
In the longer term it is very important for companies to be where the consumer is -- literally out there in the real world. You can be present on the internet but if the consumer is somewhere in the street looking for a movie, a pizza, a game, an ATM, you have to have a presence in reality so that the consumer can locate you.
This is a little bit different than what a lot of the mobile marketing is at this moment. People are often talking about mobile marketing as "we have a profile and we know who you are" but you don't always have context. If you're in the context of going out and you want to know where the cool places to go out are, you can find out with augmented reality. You can ask for all the layers which have something to do with bars for example. With your Guinness bar locator layer or your Heineken bar locator layer you can easily find what you're looking for. This opens up a completely new contextual mobile marketing opportunity which is going to be very important for companies.
You've received quite a bit of press attention lately, including a feature in the New York Times. Has adoption followed or is augmented reality still one of those "cool new things" that people are really interested in but don't quite know what to make of yet?
Already we've received so much interest from companies who see how Layar can work for their businesses.
At the moment we're still only available in the Netherlands which means that users in places like the United States you can't even find the application yet. Also the number of handsets is limited but this will be changing. In August we'll be announcing which countries we'll be expanding to and this year there will be a dramatic increase in the number of handsets which support Layar.
Where do you see augmented reality going over the next several years? Do you see it becoming a mainstream part of the mobile experience and what needs to happen for that to take place?
Absolutely. In the short term, many content partners have already asked us if Layar can become part of their own existing applications, which is something we're working on. So they're already starting to see augmented reality as part of their standard mobile offering and this will help introduce and promote augmented reality to a large number of consumers.
Over the long term, the mobile experience will change. At the moment it’s a 'heads-down' experience. You're looking down at the small screen on your phone. Augmented reality supports a 'heads-up' experience in which you're looking up at the world around you. In a few years' time we think there will be head-mounted mobile devices that take the augmented reality experience to the next level.