Keeping it real
Augmented reality puts a virtual world on top of the real one – just point your phone at a landmark to see it. Annemarie Hoeve investigates
“What you see is what you get,” the saying goes. But thanks to something called augmented reality, you can actually get a lot more than you see – a virtual world with physical locations that sits, invisibly, on top of bricks and mortar. It might sound like science fiction, but so too did doors that automatically open and touch-screen computers.
Augmented reality adds virtual data or images to the real world through a mobile phone application that “superimposes information about your surroundings on the camera image of your phone, adding 3-D virtual experiences to reality,” explains Raimo van der Klein, CEO of Layar. The Dutch start-up has gained global exposure by developing the technology to make this ‘layering’ possible. “There are already over 300 ‘content layers’ that can be accessed with our Reality Browser,” Van der Klein adds.
A Reality Browser? Still sound a little far-fetched? It couldn’t be more tenable. Imagine you are interested in architecture and you come across a historic building and want to know more about it. If you point your mobile phone’s camera lens at it, the in-built GPS knows where you are, the compass calculates which direction you are facing and so can recognise the building in question. Automatically, information about the architecture pops up; details of a specific cornice, the architect or even an image of what it looked like in the past. Likewise, you can also get a glimpse of the future. Point your phone at a construction site and see what a building will look like once it’s finished.
This opens up a whole world of possibilities, especially for the traveller strapped for time, which, let’s face it, is most of us. As the pace of our lifestyle speeds up, we still want that ‘authentic’ travel experience but have less time to spend in search of it.
Amsterdam-based ‘urban expert’ Carl Kerchmar explains: “Menus, prices, recommendations – these are all things that can be accessed from the street. People can leave (virtual) messages at the door of a cafe, saying ‘eat this’, or ‘try that’.” In short, augmented reality can cut corners, taking the legwork out of travel. “Say you’re in Rome and you want to find that perfect ‘mom-and-pop’ restaurant. Previously that might have taken you months. Now you can get that knowledge at the push of a button. Now that’s speedy,” Kerchmar says.
Supplying exactly that type of inside knowledge is the firm Spotted by Locals, also based in the Dutch capital. The website was founded by avid travellers Sanne and Bart van Poll, after a brainwave following a trip to Brussels. They realised there was very little information available by those really in the know – the local residents. “We had been there many times before and were looking for a different way to experience the city. We found a local with a blog and basically followed his life. We went to his favourite bar, restaurant, shops and had a great time,” says Bart.
Now, the couple has a network of 125 hand-picked ‘Spotters’ in 23 European cities who share their top tips about their hometowns. So far, these ‘professional locals’ have selected 3,000 hot spots. That number is growing all the time, as is the number of cities covered by the website. “Now when I go to a city I don’t even go to the tourist hot spots anymore. It’s a lot more fun to meet locals and see what they like. You can learn so much more about a place than by just looking at sights such as the Eiffel Tower,” explains Bart.
The Spotters themselves are equally enthusiastic, like Tomislav Perko from Zagreb. “The most memorable moments for me are always the places that are not so exposed,” he says. Fellow Spotter Teresa Juan Lopèz from Madrid agrees: “I always try to get in touch with people who’ll show me the real city, and not just the same buildings and streets that you can find in a guide book.”
Spotted by Locals has recently added a Layar augmented reality feature, so visitors can point their phone at a street and all the relevant Spotters’ tips appear on the screen. In this way local knowhow and the latest technology come together to give travellers up-to-date, on the spot, insider information.
However, this is is just the beginning, as more and more websites are creating their own augmented reality content. In Liverpool, there is a special augmented reality Beatles discovery tour. Your phone shows you the way as you go and the tour includes 3-D features you can only see on your mobile. Point your phone at the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing, made famous by the Beatles’ album cover, and you can see Ringo, John, Paul and George superimposed on the street. From here it is a small step to other 3-D features, such as virtual artworks, which are now starting to make an appearance. There is nothing to stop these creations from becoming attractions in their own right.
“In a few years, augmented reality will be as common as email today, not only in mobile phones but also in our glasses and contact lenses, or it will be projected from street lamps,” predicts Kerchmar. “The digital skyline will become just as important as the urban landscape,” he adds.
While benefits abound – no more wrestling with giant paper maps or traipsing around with your nose buried in a bulky guide book – what about serendipity? Surely part of the fun of travel is to wander around, get a little lost and stumble upon things yourself, purely by accident? By always knowing where we are going, are we not cutting out the best experiences in our quest for a fast travel fix?
“That’s why you have an on and off button. You can still get lost, but can first choose the right area to get lost in – it’s like a controlled random experience,” says Kerchmar. So in a way augmented reality is not that different to plain old reality. You can still take things as quickly or slowly as you want. But you have to admit, in the time you gain from not getting lost, you can savour an extra course at that idyllic local restaurant you’ve always been looking for, but have until now been unable to find.
Native Teresa Juan Lopèz’ must-dos
“Walk around Madrid’s city centre in the morning (Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor and Barrio de las Letras), and have some wine and tapas in La Latina district for lunch. Spend a few hours relaxing in Retiro Park, my favourite spot, then walk to the Reina Sofia Museum (our best contemporary art museum) and finish the day with a flamenco show (in Corral de la Moreria or in an alternative theatre like Teatro de Cámara). Finally, enjoy a beer with a delicious late dinner of bocadillo de calamares (fried squid sandwich).”
For more, check out www.spottedbylocals.com/madrid
24 hours in Zagreb
Local Tomislav Perko’s quick tips “Go hiking north of Zagreb around Medvednica Mountain. Or go to Maksimir Park for lots of nature, lakes, and animals – a paradise if you feel like walking in the wilderness, even though it’s right in the city centre. Have lunch at Fortuna, and try a local dish like štrukli (a type of pastry) or purica s mlincima (roast turkey with pasta). On a sunny day, head for Lake Jarun. That is where everyone will be.”
For more tips, see www.spottedbylocals.com/zagreb