Is augmented reality the answer to current navigation woes?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| July 20, 2011

It seems like every week – and sometimes more often than that – someone outs another technology that increases the reach and functionality of our pocket-sized computers. Five years ago, I was amazed that I could install applications and games on my BlackBerry. Now there are hundreds of thousands of applications available and countless services that have completely altered the way we all use our phones.

One of the most common uses and biggest jumps in functionality for phones came with the ability to use them as navigation tools. Being fitted with a GPS and access to wireless data networks, it only made sense for carriers and OEMs to include navigation abilities on smartphones. This technology was around before smartphones and can be added to nearly any current phone; in short, navigation technology is here to stay in the mobile world.

But not all of the technology has been so well-received. Far too often, new technology gets written off as a gimmick or falls to the wayside thanks to newer, more flashy tech. A perfect example of this is augmented reality (AR). AR is truly a novel idea. For those unaware, it is a way to use your phone's camera to display where things are around you, relative to the direction your point your phone. Think of it as a compass, a camera and location-based search all bundled into one.

The problem is, AR was introduced before it was truly ready for prime time. A lot of people, as Evan stated, thought AR was a waste of time or nothing more than a toy. In actuality, it can be very useful in discovering and visualizing what's around you. Ironically enough, this is one of the pitfalls with current navigation technology.

It has happened to us all. You're heading to a new restaurant for the first time, or maybe you're vacating to somewhere you have never visited before. With the aid of a smartphone, it's fairly easy to discover places to eat and events to see, and it's just as simple to get directions to the destination of choice. But once you get close to the destination, the voice prompt of the GPS abruptly says, “You have arrived at your destination.” You look around and can't seem to find the exact whereabouts of the restaurant or event. This is where AR could play a major role.

Navigation is where augmented reality was born to thrive, and Wikitude (creators of one of the first AR mobile apps) has taken advantage of that. Simon Sage of IntoMobile wrote that Wikitude Drive, which has been available in Europe for some time, is now available in the Android Market for US, Canada, and Mexico dwellers for $9.99. Just as you would think, Wikitude Drive is a turn-by-turn navigation application for your Android smartphone that will utilize your phone's camera to overlay real time directions over what you see on the road in front of you.

In their demonstration video (which can be found by clicking the image source below), Herdina notes several advantages of Wikitude Drive over current navigation methods. For instance, you never have to look away from the road (the idea is that even when looking at your phone, you still see the road) and instead of using an abstract, digital map, you follow a line that has been overlayed over what you already see. Also, if you need to see a digital map, you can simply tap the screen and switch between AR and 3D map view. Not only that, after you finish driving, you can switch to Pedestrian mode and continue to navigate to your destination.

I can easily see some advantages of using navigation aided by augmented reality, as I generally have trouble finding some places using Google Navigation. I do, however, have my concerns with Wikitude Drive. Couldn't having too much on your display at once be more distracting? I already get Google Navigation for free. Is this really worth my $10, or is it just another novelty item? I'd have no problem testing it out if I could navigate somewhere and still have time to return. Maybe Wikitude should offer a trial.

What say you, folks? Does Wikitude Drive interest you at all? Or is your current method of navigation sufficient enough? Also, do you think they should include a free, limited trial since Market's return period is a mere 15 minutes?

Image via Wikitude Blog