Augmented reality is catching on in education

Augmented reality is catching on among software developers.

You’re walking down the street, looking for a good place to eat off-campus. You hold up your cell phone and use it like the viewfinder on a camera, so the screen shows what’s in front of you. But it also shows things you couldn’t see before: Brightly colored markers indicating nearby restaurants and bars.

Turn a corner, and the markers reflect the new scene. Click a marker for a restaurant, and you can see customer reviews and price information. Decide you’d rather be sightseeing? The indicators are easily changed to give information about the buildings you’re passing.

This computer-enhanced view of the world is not just available to cyborgs in science-fiction movies. Increasingly, it can be found on cell phones, for free or on the cheap, through programs that provide “augmented reality.”

These applications take advantage of the phones’ GPS and compass features and access to high-speed wireless networks to mash up super-local web content with the world that surrounds the user.

That means you can see available apartments on the block you’re moseying down. You can view photos other people have taken at the park you’re passing, or find the nearest bus stop, campus coffee shop, or hotel room–all by holding your phone up and peering at its screen.

The possibilities for melding the virtual and actual worlds have just started to become apparent. There’s even growing interest in applying augmented reality to all levels of education.

The first phones with Google’s Android operating system, which enables augmented reality, have come out in the past year. Apple’s iPhone became augmented-reality-friendly with the compass that debuted in June on the iPhone 3GS. Apple also recently joined Google in making it possible for software developers to overlay images on the phone’s camera view.

As cell phones get even smarter and GPS and wireless networks improve, we might soon be spending more time in a virtually enhanced world, using information gathered from the internet to inform everything from eating, to learning, to playing video games.

One company working to make this happen is Amsterdam-based Layar, which recently released an augmented reality browser by the same name for Android phones. Layar lets you search for things on Google, but it delivers the results based on your location, which it determines from your phone’s GPS readout. So you can search for, say, a bike shop or a bookstore close to where you happen to be.

If you don’t feel like actively searching, you can sign up to have certain kinds of information automatically appear on your cell-phone screen. For instance, Layar lets other companies build on its system to overlay information about such places as skateboarding spots and local landmarks. A startup called Brightkite uses Layar to let people post virtual tags, with their locations and activities, that other people can see if they use the same app.

Layar’s goal is to create a “serendipitous experience” that lets you discover new things about your surroundings, says co-creator Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald.

For a year, Yelp, a web site with business reviews written by customers, had an iPhone app that used the device’s GPS and wireless internet connectivity to deliver local search results. But when the iPhone got a compass, bloggers wondered whether Yelp would go further and make its app overlay information onto a real-time view of the world. After noticing the speculation, Yelp quietly created such an app this summer, spokesman Vince Sollitto said.