APAC lags in augmented reality adoption

Augmented reality in mobile devices is challenged by the lack of location precision, says analyst, adding that such apps are still limited to North America and Western Europe.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Imagine pointing your phone camera at a building and seeing reviews of restaurants nearby popping up on your cell phone screen. This is one example of an augmented reality (AR) program, in which digital data or images are overlaid on the real world, adding graphics, sounds, haptic feedback and even smell to the natural world as it exists.

An ABI Research report in September 2009 predicted that mobile devices will "transform" the AR ecosystem, bringing in a revenue of more than US$350 million in 2014, a jump from US$6 million in 2008.

The mass market for AR is opening up due to the availability of video cameras, processors, GPS data, compasses, and accelerometers on smartphones, said the research firm.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Windsor Holden, principal analyst at Juniper Research, said the bulk of AR users as well as the primary potential user base are currently limited to Western Europe and North America. This is due to the fact that AR on mobile phones is limited to those handsets with the enabling technologies.

Smartphones made up only 9 percent of devices in Asia-Pacific in 2009, according to a previous Frost & Sullivan report, which also noted that this number is expected to "skyrocket" to 54 percent in 2015.

Holden believes the key challenge to AR is the lack of precision in location-based technology. "[An AR app] may tell someone that an object is 20 meters to the north when it might be 20 meters to the south," he said.

However, he believes this will be less of an issue going forward. According to Holden, companies such as phone maker Nokia has been researching the use of sensor fusion, which combines sensory data from a variety of sources to give a more accurate result than if the sources were employed individually.

For now, the business case for companies to use AR to promote their brands is still low, which Holden attributes to the lack of AR-capable handsets.

However, when the base increases in the future, it "may well be a different matter", although its adoption by organizations will still depend on the demographic of the business' customers. "If your products are aimed at young adults who are likely to use and respond to AR, then it could become a key means of marketing and promoting your offering," he said.

While AR is not as popular in the region yet, ZDNet Asia highlighted two notable initiatives rolled out in Asia-Pacific, to give readers a taste of what the technology feels like.

Malaysia's national carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has launched its own AR app on Apple's App Store. According to the video on MAS' mobile Web site, the application will display MAS flight information at the airport near the user and present air ticket offers on flights departing from that airport. The app uses the phone's GPS to pinpoint the user's location.

In Singapore, local telco Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) in July launched three mobile AR applications on the Apple App Store. Property Buddy gives information on property prices as the user points the phone's camera in the direction of nearby residences, while Go! Shopping provides indoor maps of shopping malls and can plan routes for the user to get from one shop to another. Price Pal is a price comparison tool, which uses the iPhone's barcode scanning function.

SingTel's foray into AR is not limited to mobile apps. Last week, the telco published AR-readable advertisements on four pages in local tabloid Today to promote the upcoming 2010 Formula 1 Grand Prix. By positioning the page in front of a Webcam or phone camera--either powered by Google Android or Apple iOS--users can see personal details of the models featured on the advertisement.

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