Augmented Reality added value

11:25

I recently wrote about what technically Augmented Reality (AR) is all about and, this time, I’d like to express my opinion on the user experience and interactivity (or lack of it) of current AR applications.

Although AR has been around for a long time, its applications have been limited to controlled spaces and are usually costly. Only recently, thanks to the rapid evolution of computers and cellular phones, the general public has had the chance to try it out.

The release of FLARToolKit, an open-source port of ARToolKit to AS3, made this technology available to any Flash developer. It all started with GE’s “plug into the smart grid” and since then everybody is doing it. Unfortunately, most of these applications only show an object floating on top of a marker. This prompted Anatoly Zenkov to create the following sarcastic “Me too!” video:

Me too (doing some AR stuff)! from Anatoly Zenkov on Vimeo.

This raises the big question, what does augmented reality add to the current interfaces and user experience? From the online AR applications I’ve seen, not much. Check out the presentation of John Mayer’s AR video clip at the Adobe MAX 2009. Really cool, for 5 minutes. Notice that the presenter, although enjoying it and smiling, has to change hands holding the marker. Arms become heavy after a little bit in that position. Moving the marker, moves the virtual camera, allowing to see the scene from different points of view. That can also be done with a mouse, like in Street View of Google Maps. The frame rate is awful. Flash brought us back 20 years on 3D programming…

Mobile AR applications suffer from these same problems. What does it add compared to the oriented map displayed by the Maps Ap with pins for points of interest?

iPhone Maps App

On the map I can better visualize distances and best routes. It’s a bit like comparing analog and digital speedometers. When looking at the pointer of an analog speedometer, even at a glimpse, it’s possible to see, current value, relative position to minimum and maximum values, rate of acceleration, etc. The digital meters are cool but most cars have the analog meters…

The user’s position when using mobile AR causes not only the “heavy arms” problems but also, like Supert3d mentions on Twitter, “using an augmented reality app in public makes me look like a real creep. Trying to see tube stations turns into pervy guy videoing girls”.

I don’t want it to sound like AR is useless. It’s quite the opposite. It’s just that, although the concept exists for a long time, real world applications are still in their infancy.

Virtual reality went through this same process in the late 90’s. It failed to deliver most of the promises but it’s still used where it makes sense. Let’s see where AR will fit in…

YDreams is also following this quest based on our experience in this and other fields. We were pioneers in the development of maps for mobile phones, one of the first location-based games for mobile phones, 140 versions of the Cristiano Ronaldo game to make sure it would run on most mobile phones, etc. And we’ve had our share of successes and failures…

There is a couple of in-depth articles about interaction design in augmented reality that I suggest reading: “Inside Out: Interaction Design for Augmented Reality” by Joe Lamantia, and “Enhancing User Interaction With First Person User Interface” by Luke Wroblewski.

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