People are getting very very worked up (hyperventilating, sweating, etc.) over the discovery of an “Easter Egg” in the update to the Yelp iPhone app that unlocks an augmented reality experience (see video here) called “monocle.” As you move the camera and pan around, you see Yelp reviews of nearby businesses. Part of the reason that people are so excited is that this is the iPhone and augmented reality is still so novel.
It’s noteworthy that Yelp, a Twitter-API app and a number of transportation-related apps in Europe have now brought this new experience to the iPhone. But this is “augmented reality 1.0.” More on that in a minute.
It’s worth pointing out that Android beat the iPhone with augmented reality, first Zagat’s NRU and then the Layar “reality browser,” which contains Yelp’s content among many other content sources from third party APIs and sites. But many more people will start to notice apps that appear on the iPhone because the audience is so much larger.
As I wrote at SEL a couple of weeks ago, augmented reality is a form of (mobile) search. It’s another way to input and access content on your mobile handset. However the reality about augmented reality today — hence the lamentable “1.0″ label — is that, as a practical matter, it’s not all that useful. That will change over time as developers figure out how best to integrate and employ it.
There are more mundane yet effective ways to get restaurant reviews and other types of content than augmented reality today. Using conventional search and browse tools on the Yelp iPhone app are going to be lots more efficient than scanning the landscape with the camera for reviews. The “nearby” button is going to get me to the same information more quickly and in a way that’s easier for me to digest, so to speak.
This is what I wrote about the Layar browser for Android when it was recently released:
The experience as it currently stands — while very cool — is cumbersome and not an immediate replacement for traditional search or apps, as ways to get content. For example, it’s easier and quicker to use apps from Yelp, AroundMe, Places Directory, Superpages or numerous others to discover restaurants or other business types and locations near me than it is to scan the immediate area with the camera on my handset using Layar. Beyond the visual field, I discovered that Layar also shows results and information (often from Google) from farther away than the immediate area in front of me . . .
I’m unlikely to use Layar to find something to do or someplace to eat later today or this evening, somewhere else. But if I’m right in front of a restaurant, I might use it to get reviews and prices, etc. Similarly I assume that it will extend to products (reviews, prices) and other objects and experiences in front of me. It’s much less useful when I’m not near the thing I’m considering or interested in.
So it’s new and impressive accordingly, but has limited utility compared to other tools and methods of finding information. Another noteworthy aspect of augmented reality is that its a search/discovery tool uniquely suited to mobile vs. an effort to squeeze the conventional search experience onto the mobile handset.
Now that augmented reality is truly here we should get some apps and experiences that are a good fit for the approach. On Layar, for example, you can get Wikipedia entries tied to GPS location. I can imagine something like that in a museum where one you obtain lots of background on a painting or work of art you were immediately in front of (although GPS wouldn’t get you that info; it would have to be triggered otherwise). But you get the idea.
There are use cases and scenarios that will emerge over time that will be very well suited to this new interface and search tool. Today what we have however is a kind of demo version of future experiences that will be truly useful and impressive.