Augmented reality in action - travel and tourism

Go in to the Android Market or the iTunes App Store, search under "augmented reality" and you’ll find that at least half the results come under travel and tourism. These industries have been very quick to pick up on this emerging technology but why should that be so more than the other sectors? Which are the leading travel apps out there? Have any of them got it right yet and, if not, what’s holding them back but, most of all, of course, what is it that AR can ultimately do for the tourist? Step this way and we’ll take a look.

To answer the first question there’s some very obvious anecdotal evidence at hand. The rise of the smartphone has meant that we walk around with fewer hard copy books, papers and notes about where we need to go and how to get there. With maps, telephone numbers, address books and the backbone of information that is the Internet all incorporated into a single pocketable device, the mobile phone took on the mantle of the travel guide whether it meant to or not and the fact that we take it everywhere with us all the time has cemented its position.

We were already happy to take out or books and consult them standing on the streets, so it wasn’t much bother to do the same with our smartphones. So, why AR? According to Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall it’s about keeping your eyes where they should be.

“Augmented reality can help in both practical and inspirational ways. Firstly, it can open your eyes to what’s around you. When travelling, you spend a lot of time actively looking both at and for things and AR is an obvious companion for this. It helps you find places and sights that may otherwise be tricky. And it gives users a new route into accessing travel information.”



One of an ever-growing list of well known consumer facing travel giants to embrace AR, Lonely Planet has produced 25 of what it calls Compass Guides. Like the majority of AR apps in the same field, it’s a case of holding up your mobile phone in front of you and receiving annotations on your screen on top of the visual coming though the camera lens from the real world. To narrow down the information that’s pulled up, you can select from categories such as bars, restaurants, hotels, etc and you’ll see dots on your screen to let you know which direction each is relative to your position as well as how far away they are.

The software relies on knowing the user’s position rather than recognising the scenary which would be far more complicated. So, as long as you can receive a GPS signal and have a compass, gryroscope and accelerometer in your device, then the app will know which way you’re facing, the orientation at which you’re holding your phone and where all the POIs are relative to your location.

It’s a similar story as on most of the leading AR tourism and travel apps, be it mTrip, Nearest Tube or more general ones such as Layar and Wikitude. The information they supply is slightly different and the content and services beyond go to varying depths but their AR MO is much the same.

The trouble is that, to be critical, they’re not supplying an awful lot of possibilities that weren’t already there without AR. In fact, plenty of users end up ignoring the AR elements of these applications and sticking to the top down map views provided or tie-ins with services like Google Maps for Navigation which can supply turn-by-turn directions instead of having to hold your phone out in front of you at all times.

What's more, using your mobile’s camera for AR like that is going to run down the battery much quicker not to mention the potential both for accidents and getting robbed of your expensive smartphone in a foreign country if you keep it held out in front of you at all times.

In the defence of both the developers of these mobile apps as well as the companies which the software represents, they’ve fallen largely into the category of gimmicks because, for the moment, the technology isn’t quite up to it on a mass market scale. Something which Tom Hall of the Lonely Planet recognises.

“There is a technology constraint around AR in that AR does not yet interpret what it sees. The device just “knows” that, at a particular position, an object of X should exist.”

In other words, these apps are relying purely on GPS positions and therefore what databases such as Google Maps say is supposed to be there, rather than what actually is. So, even though what you see through your lens is live, it’s almost as if the information the app pulls in isn’t. Presuming for a second that all of the information you need is accurate, a second problem lies in that GPS itself isn't. It's good to within 9m or so but that's not very useful to a person in the Roman Forum surrounded by tight area of ruins each of huge historical significance. If your mobile app isn't quite sure where you're standing, then it's not going to be very good at talking about what's in front of you.

If your phone does happen to know exactly where you are, the next problem is keeping a fix on that as well as which direction you're facing and, as it stands, the hardware in your phone isn't as good at keeping a track on that as it could be. There is surveyor level GPS equipment out there and better gyroscopes, accelerometers and compasses but all of that would currently push your smartphone's price up into the tens of thousands of pounds and probably require the user wearing a backpack. Not really an option.

As we heard earlier in AR Week from Professor Bruce Thomas of the Wearable Computer Labs “the problem of registering virtual images with the user’s view of the physical world is the main focus of AR research,” and that's very good news for travel and tourism which are going to heavily rely one these system getting better before the experience truly does become a superior one to guiding yourself via a top down map.

“I hope soon we can use AR technology to interpret what it is viewing,” says the Lonely Planet's Hall. “We could then do some interesting guides for example through museums or galleries and when the museum or gallery rotates its works into new position, the guide could still understand what it is looking at and give the correct object information back to the user.”

What the Lonely Planet Travel Editor is describing is actually not that complex and is just the kind of controlled environment AR that is much more doable at the moment, as AR guru Professor Blair MacIntyre explained to us when we spoke to him about he and his team's research in to augmented reality gaming.

AR out in the big, bad world is a tough one to line up because there's a huge amount of area out there to cover. However, it is possible to completely pre-model a fixed environment such as a specific exhibition hall within the British Museum. Instead of relying on GPS information, your phone could track you just using its internal sensors and by cross referencing the 3D model of the exhibition hall's environment which is sitting on your specially downloaded British Museum app. The software would know exactly where you were at all times and exactly which exhibits you're looking at.

Get that right, and we could have some beautifully arranged virtual animations and annotations surrounding each of the historical objects in the room. An ancient piece of broken pottery would have so much more relevance and attention if suddenly people could understand its context by seeing the culture who made it acting alongside it at the same time. Even if, in the short term, the modelling method is too far off then object recognition is even more easily done with Metaio's Lego box AR already proof of this possibility in a consumer realm.

While all that has yet to be put into action, the good news is that there are quite a few travel and tourism apps out there already that are definitely something that cannot be done better any other way. One good example is the translation app called Word Lens. It can only currently go from English to Spanish and vice versa but what makes it better than all the rest is that it doesn't require an internet connection to work. So, no roaming charges when you're on your hols. 

Another interesting take on AR tourism is when you consider the case of attractions that don't actually exist in the real world. Now, that's something that you need a special kind of AR browser to see otherwise you'd simply walk past them. One nice example of that is the US/Iraq War Memorial as created by artists Mark Skwarek and John Craig Freemand. It's built as a layer that you can download for the Layar AR browser and it's actually more of a political statement than anything but it still demonstrates an interesting concept.

The same thing has been done as a one off in a different way by graffiti artist Daim who demoed what the future of street art could look like. It's an interesting concept that kicks up a couple of ideas. The most intriguing of those for the realm of tourism is that it creates the idea of hidden tours of a city - exclusive word of mouth or perhaps locally advertised attractions; a gallery alfresco and all for free or perhaps just the cost of a layer or an app.

One particularly intriguing idea on the theme is from Kiwi intervention artist Julian Oliver who is working on a project he calls the Artvertiser. Sick and tired of having is visual cortex real estate bombarded with street billboards, the plan is to don a special pair of AR goggles which will actively replace static adverts with works of art by up and coming artists. In effect, it turns any city centre into a gallery.

There's obvious issues with the project in terms of the kit required, the number of different billboards for the software to recognise and that the pictures need to be rotated and refreshed fairly often to keep the experience interesting, but nonetheless it's an achievable idea particularly if ported to a mobile phone.

For Tom Hall, the Lonely Planet and those behind the travel and tourism industries though, AR on your mobile doesn't need to be quite as grandiose as that and, in fact, it doesn't even need to be about augmented reality at all. It's the phone that seems to count.

"Already mobile phones are being trialled in the place of Oyster cards for the London Tube network, airline carriers are able to send a barcode to a mobile phone that can then be scanned in at the “ticket” desk for complete paperless transport and, as these technologies progress, this will enhance the traveler's experience.

"AR and other technologies are giving the traveller far more information than they have ever had at their finger tips. Tourists have always had timely information - i.e. Oktoberfest in Munich end of September - however, with AR and real time information becoming ubiquitous, the traveler will know that when in Munich at the end of September they need to be in tent X at place Y in the next 30 mins to listen to band Z that has just shown up, and their mobile device automatically validates their entry."

So does this mean that the uptake of augmented reality by these players is just the first step away from traditional guide books and towards something more like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

"As far as I recall, the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a much bigger device than any Android handset I’ve seen," our man replies. "So we’ve got one up on them already. But the idea of a universal guide is a very exciting one, even if pricing and updates would be interesting to grapple with."

So whether augmented reality apps are better than top down solutions is undecided at the moment. There are some unique ideas using the technology that are out there and available at the moment but, currently, they're far out-weighed by that that's more on the gimmicky side of the equation.

What is clear is that whether or not AR surmounts its present limitations or not, developers are getting the hang of how to use it properly. So, whether it's through the apps or the technology, there is definitely a tipping point coming. When it that's arrived is up to you.

For more information on what Qualcomm is doing with Augmented Reality please click: http://www.qualcomm.co.uk/products/augmented-reality

And for more on AR Week head over to our AR Week homepage on Pocket-lint