Augmented Reality Browser Makes Your Mobile A Portal Into the Digital World

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Junaio feature

Why is there a giant insect crawling...oh, wait, that's just augmented reality. Cool.

I don’t know if you noticed, but a parallel Earth has merged with our own, overlapping our reality no matter where we go. I’m talking about the digital realm – the confluence of internet, data, and social networks that we spend so much time with every day. As you walk around, the digital realm comes with you and augmented reality (AR) is your portal to merging that information with the world you see. With AR you can pick up your mobile phone, turn on the camera, and look as icons and virtual objects overlap with the real environment you see on your screen. Mobile AR lets you see reviews for restaurants as you glance up the street, or see new dimensions to the ads and posters around you.]

Metaio, based in Munich, is taking AR to the next level. Their free mobile app Junaio seems like just another AR interface. Fire it up, look at the world, see digital information layered on top of it. But Junaio has been downloaded 1.7 million times! Why? Junaio’s attracted 5000 third party developers creating their own personalized layers or “channels” for the app. Channels give Junaio users amazingly detailed AR tools through which they can view their world. Now Metaio is leveraging that AR marketplace in a great new way, with an AR browser. Junaio 3.0 lets you simply look through your mobile, and press scan – instantly all the channels relevant to what you’re looking at will appear. A barcode – channels about the product will come up, maybe pointing you to the nearest store where you can find it, or the best recipe that uses it. The same thing can happen with a QR code, or a famous piece of art. GPS and compass integration means you can point your mobile anywhere and the relevant channels for the area will instantly appear for you to select from. AR browsing takes thousands of independently created AR channels and turns them into one mighty mobile application. Check out Junaio 3.0 in the video below. Metaio has hit upon an incredible idea, one powerful enough to succeed no matter which company ultimately does it best.

Here’s a look at Junaio 3.0, notice how a single button press calls up a variety of different channel options in a wide assortment of AR use cases:

I had a chance to talk with Trak Lord, Metaio’s San Francisco PR and Social Marketing Director, and, perhaps more importantly, a former Junaio developer. In just three years, Metaio has attracted the attention of 5000 developers creating many thousands of channels, hundreds of which have become popular and active. Lord estimates that about 75% of channels are created by third parties (the remaining coming from Metaio). Its completely free to become a developer, and there is a tool, Ad Inject, that allows you to incorporate unobtrusive ads to make money off your channels. Many developers are like Lord was when he was developing: end-users who wanted to create cool channels for themselves and their communities. (Lord made a custom Junaio channel for San Francisco that shows you where all the good comic book stores are.) With 1.7 million users, and thousands of developers, Junaio has so much content that it recently became “harder to intuitively find a channel.”

Metaio couldn’t let that stand, and so they updated Junaio 3.0 to act as a browser. Think of the internet, if you tried to find websites you wanted just by looking through URLs, you’d be completely overwhelmed. That’s why you have a browser like Firefox and search engines like Google. And that’s why AR needs a browser like Junaio. Of course, Junaio is only looking through the channels on its own market, but it still has the right idea. If AR is to become the ubiquitous mobile tool we want it to be, you need a way to easily select which virtual objects you want to see super-imposed over reality. It’s a brilliant step.

To give you an idea of the AR channels Junaio 3.0 lets you select from, here’s their demo reel. The following video shows you several real-world channels created by various developers:

To Lord, “life should be just as browsable as the internet.” You can see that goal in Junaio. An internal web browser lets you click on a point of interest (POI) icon and jump to a website without ever leaving the Junaio app. So you can read a restaurant review quickly, and then go back to scanning up and down the street without missing a beat. Junaio also lets developers embed all kinds of great media in the POIs they create on their channels. Videos, images, panoramic shots…imagine walking through a neighborhood looking at houses for sale – you could click on a home and take a 360° tour without ever stepping foot inside. Metaio really wants you to be able to explore the digital while you explore the physical (and vice versa) and their Junaio AR browser capability, integrated with all their great AR channel features, makes that possible.

Metaio also wants to “make the digital a natural experience” as Lord says. They’ve been working on 3D shape recognition and object tracking. Basically that means that you’ll be able to look at an object through your mobile camera and Metaio will know what that object is, and follow it on your screen. Lord says they have test cases where you can look at a printer and see an AR overlay on how to insert the cartridge correctly. Pretty amazing stuff. In the following video, Metaio demonstrates on a scale model of a city how their 3D object recognition and tracking will allow for ultra accurate AR in true real-world environments:

Here’s a local news segment out of San Francisco featuring Lord as they review some of the features of Junaio 3.0.
*Note: The 3D tracking discussed is still in the prototype phase.

There are many things that make Junaio an innovative AR product – they have tons of content (the channels) and they curate it well (both by having a browser, and by providing optional certification to developers to help them create those channels). But, of course, Metaio isn’t the only AR company. I’ve discussed Dutch firm Layar with you before, and they too have a wide variety of content overlays (they call them “layars”) developed by third parties. We’ve also seen Google Goggles, which lets you perform visual search simply by pointing your mobile camera at something. Junaio has advantages over both these other options (Layar is mostly GPS/compass based while Junaio handles a wider variety of inputs and Google Goggles isn’t really AR, just visual search), but that’s not really important.

Junaio snapshots

When you let third party developers free rein you get get a wide variety of applications. Junaio has many different channels handling many different sides of augmented reality.

The real impact here is that Metaio has struck upon a brilliant idea – an AR browser for all the different AR channels people produce. They may not have been the first to come up with that idea and I definitely doubt they’ll be the last. The idea is just that good. Again, imagine the internet without search engines. It just wouldn’t work – at least not as well. Allowing people to create their own augmented reality content opens up a world of possibilities. AR browsing harnesses those possibilities into an application people can actually use.

Browsing is now a must for anyone hoping to create their own mobile AR network. It’s that simple.

One could ask, of course, how important AR markets really are, and that’s a valid critique if you’re in the US. America simply hasn’t jumped on the mobile AR bandwagon in a significant way. I live in San Francisco, tech hub of the West, and I’ve never seen anyone looking through their mobile at the world to get AR content.

As we’ve discussed before, however, Europe and Asia are a different story. Lord confirms that those markets are loving AR content. QR codes on buildings, virtual butterflies you can collect for coupons – the application space is exploding and non-US markets are riding the shock wave to new technological frontiers. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised we’re not doing the same thing here.

So if you’ve never explored AR mobile, it’s probably time you check it out. Go get the Junaio app for iOS, or Android. It’s free, there’s tons to explore, and you can become a developer in minutes if you feel so inclined. As with many AR applications, the power/speed requirements are a little harsh. I’ve seen it run well on iPhone4, various Samsung devices, and iPad2, but older models…well, give it a few years and AR should run fine on everything. In the meantime, push your boundaries a bit and take a look at the digital realm around you. Metaio is just one of many companies ready to give you a portal to travel between worlds. How can you pass up an adventure like that?

[image and video credits: junaio/metaio]
[source: junaio, Trak Lord]

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Simon Safar September 10, 2011 on 3:24 am

    I can easily imagine people trying such apps for fun, but not yet for an usable UI. Like, in what way is it better to look “thorough” your phone instead of looking “at” it?

    (And this wasn’t just a rhetorical question. There are actual answers, but still not enough.)

    Most of the examples shown are already available without AR. Figuring out where to go out is much easier if you can estimate which places are nearest (much easier on a map). And after reading a barcode, it’s simpler to read the description if it “hovers” not over the thing itself but is fixed to your phone’s screen…

    That said, I still think this is the future. (Rainbows End style.) But in order for that to happen, overlaying shaky 2D overlays and trembling, blocky 3D buildings over the camera input with seconds of latency is not enough. We would need rock-solid tracking, even recognition, with lower latency, and we have neither the hardware nor the software (computer vision, etc) for that… but it’s coming. As for the graphics, some TRON-style display would be OK, but it is a must for the phone to know where exactly it is in the world and what it is looking at.

    Still, as long as we have only smartphones, there arent _that_ much possibilities for AR (well, interactive IKEA manuals that show you where to put _that_ screw over there would be still cool). At least not too much compared to the same thing with HUDs, contact lenses with displays, etc… with the main “how do I know when to pick up my phone and press the scan button” problem would be eliminated.

    I wonder how the world would look like in 2025 :)