Traveling with Augmented Reality

Earlier this month, DK Publishing, the printing house behind the popular Eyewitness travel guides, released an impressive Paris app for the iPad. The app provides mostly the same wealth of information available on the printed version, but it takes advantage of the iPad’s interface with visually stunning features and various levels of interactivity to personalize the travel guide. Introducing the app, NY Times’ Gregory Schmidt explains some of the cool features:

An interactive map pinpoints hotels, restaurants, and other Parisian accommodations, which is convenient if you're staying, for instance, in the Marais and want to find a nearby cafe, bar, post office, or Metro stop. A tap on a pinpoint reveals more information, like an address, a telephone number, and hours of operation. To help navigate the streets of Paris, the iPad's GPS chip reveals your location on the map, which can flip over to reveal a color-coded Metro map.

Sure, you can find the print edition online for just a few bucks, but the consumer clearly stands to get much more out of the 236MB, $17 iPad version. One of the coolest features allows users to select a heart icon at any location to remember their favorite restaurants, shops, or attractions. But as one review points out, the full potential of digital travel guides isn’t nearly grasped:

What DK had done, like many publishers, is translate their beautiful printed guides into an app. What they haven't done, and [what] perhaps is the next step, is throw away the book and re-imagine the guide just as an app.

The developing technology of augmented reality could be travel publishers’ answer to this problem. AR uses a mobile device's camera, GPS, and gyroscope to display information about users’ surroundings in real time, enabling them to merge the physical world with a wealth of digital interactive information. NDN wrote about AR 16 months ago, explaining that device hardware at that time was just too limited to support AR apps, but predicting that the arrival of Android and tablet devices would help get mainstream devices up to speed.

That time has arrived, as “superphone” devices are now powerful enough to run demanding AR programs. With this capable hardware have arrived amazing AR apps such as Google Goggles that improve anything from medicine to mechanics. But digital travel guides haven’t really tapped into this vast AR potential.

As USA Today reported earlier this year, small-scale AR projects have enjoyed modest success in the digital travel guides market. One Beatles-themed app displays an icon of the group when the phone points towards Abbey Road. The RealSki iPhone app helps skiers identify runs and find lodges as they hit the slopes. Lonely Planet, a popular competitor of DK Eyewitness, has released a simple AR iPhone app for ten U.S. cities which displays basic information when the phone is pointed at various landmarks. But as one review explains, the technology behind this app is “clumsy” and the offering is very limited. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

Eyewitness’ iPad Paris app is also a step in the right direction. But to truly “re-imagine” the guide book as a digital app, it needs to capitalize on AR technology. The future of digital travel guides will feature two levels of interactivity working in concert with one another: Between the user and the device; and between the device and its physical surroundings. The next iPad, slated to boast not one but two cameras, should be DK’s opportunity to radically transform travel guides (imagine an app with all the features described earlier -- but when you point the device at a row of restaurants, their menus appear side-by-side for a quick comparison) by capitalizing on augmented reality.

A couple lessons can be learned here. The first is that AR apps are clearly limited by the sophistication of the hardware of devices in the market. The second lesson is that this barrier is less of a concern than ever before, and developers and publishers alike should take advantage of the vast potential of augmented reality to make our travel experiences more enjoyable, easy, innovative, and interactive.