Curious to know what the Roman Colosseum looked like when it was first built? Soon you'll be able to stand in front of today's remnants, point your mobile-phone camera at the edifice, and see an interactive 3D reconstruction on your phone's screen. Same for the demolished Berlin Wall: Take a shot of the Brandenburg Gate and presto, you're whisked back to 1989 with an ugly concrete barricade blocking your view.
These technological marvels are the handiwork of a Dutch company called Layar, whose specialty is an emerging medium known as augmented reality. Combining real images with archival material, simulations, text overlays, or other media, augmented reality—as its name implies—takes what's really there and adds to it. When implemented on a mobile device, the technology uses location data to interactively adjust the images shown on the screen.
Amsterdam-based Layar is one of the 31 companies named Sept. 1 by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum as Tech Pioneers offering new technologies or business models that could have a positive impact on people's lives. Analysts say augmented reality could become a killer app for smartphones because it perfectly exploits their greatest asset: location-specific mobility. Pointing your phone camera at a restaurant could bring up an overlay of its menu or online reviews. Pointing at a store could summon coupons and weekly specials.
Media and advertising companies are already lining up to try the emerging technology, which they see as a promising new way to deliver content and marketing. Among Layar's early adopters are National Geographic, the Rolling Stones, Quizno's restaurants, and Italy's Culture Ministry, backer of the Colosseum app due this fall.
"Layers" of Information
Layar was started in 2009 by three young Dutch entrepreneurs: Claire Boonstra, Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, and Raimo van der Klein. Its Layar Reality Browser has already been installed 2.5 million times and the service now has 800,000 active users. Layar's technology is expected to be pre-installed on tens of millions of phones from handset manufacturers and mobile operators by yearend.
The technology starts with so-called "layers," which are images or interactive 3D objects developed by independent parties—including publishers, ad agencies, and artists—using Layar's platform. More than 1,000 such layers have already been created, with 3,000 more on the way. Most are free and sponsored. To use the technology, a consumer needs a GPS-equipped iPhone or Android smartphone with a camera and the Layar Reality Browser. Layar senses the user's location and field of view (using GPS and the compass or gyroscope built into the phone) and retrieves appropriate information and objects from its platform. The augmentation is then overlaid on the camera's screen.
In addition to the Colosseum and Berlin Wall layers, for instance, there's one available for Lower Manhattan that lets users stand near Ground Zero and see the World Trade Center's twin towers reappear. There is also an application, created by a firefighter, that allows Ground Zero visitors to see virtual images and information about all the New York City firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Museums are getting into the act, too, says Layar co-founder Boonstra. Amsterdam's Stedelijk art museum has launched an application that lets campers virtually "rent" pieces of the museum's collection and place them in images next to their tents, she says.
The Rolling Stones have put out a layer for fans who want to put up a singing poster of the band, virtually, on the wall of their school or home. The layer lets fans design the poster, choose a track from Exile on Main Street to go with it, and then stick it wherever they want—all without the mess of doing it for real. Quizno's, a fast-food chain specializing in toasted sandwiches, is using Layar in a more down-to-earth fashion, with a layer that helps potential customers find outlets, shows them 3D sandwich images to get them hungry, and then proffers location-specific coupons to seal the deal.
Floaticons with Messages
Layar technology can even help save lives. Boonstra says there is now a layer that lets firefighters see virtual blueprints of buildings and what's inside before they rush in. For emergency crews involved in water rescues, a layer can show them how deep a body of water is so they know how much oxygen to carry or whether they need a decompression tank.
In April, Layar launched a payment system, allowing publishers on the Layar platform to price augmented reality experiences. And in July the company took the first step toward introducing digital goods by offering animated 3D objects called Floaticons that can be added with all types of messages. To ensure that only relevant messages remain visible over time, Layar gives each Floaticon a limited life span, indicated as "health." The health of a Floaticon can be prolonged by feeding it a virtual cookie.
Layar has got a lot of buzz, but it's also got a big rival in Google (GOOG), which has launched its own location-based, mobile augmented reality service called Google Goggles. Still, the smaller firm has its partisans. J.P. Rangaswami, chief scientist at London-based telco BT Group (BT), calls it "the most exciting participant in a fundamentally important category."
Rangaswami served on the jury that selected the 2011 Tech Pioneers but has no other connection to the company. He uses Layar often "to get better information about where I go," and has already tried 70 of the 1,000 available layers. "I am a passionate amateur," he says.