Augmented reality

The release of augmented reality applications such as Wikitude and Layar  has generated quite a lot of buzz, so I thought I’d try writing my own. It was also an opportunity to get familiar with the Android accelerometer, compass, and real-time camera APIs.

The application has in two modes. When the handset is held horizontally (landscape mode) is displays an augmented reality overlay, in this case a compass heading. When held normally (portrait mode) it displays a Google map, centred on your current location, that rotates to line up with the real world.

I was planning to use the application to display the radar rainfall data provided by the Bureau of Meteorology, centred on your current position. But unfortunately, the BoM doesn’t provide a central index of all their radar images along with location, range, and timestamp attributes. In theory I could scrape the site, but radars go down for maintenance and backup radars are switched on, so it wouldn’t be reliable. So I stuck with a simple compass heading overlay.

From a technical perspective, the application works fine. But from a usability perspective, there are some serious flaws.

  • The magnetic compass is not reliable indoors. Too many electric fields.
  • Holding up the phone in landscape mode is tiring, and it’s hard to find the information you need. The ergonomics are wrong.
  • Rotating Google maps aren’t much use because the labels rotate as well, making them almost impossible to read.

Conclusion: when it comes to displaying spatial data on a smart phone, overlays on a static map are more useful than augmented reality or rotating maps, especially if supplemented with a discreet compess needle. Augmented reality would be pretty good if displayed using glasses, and rotating maps might be usable if the labels rotated (a la OpenStreetMap), but as things stand augmented reality is just a fun toy, not really useful.

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