Sun shining on Ajnaware

Graham Dawson talks about the future of iPhone app development and augmented reality.
Written by Colin Ho, Contributor

There's a chance that one day you'll walk outside and notice people raising their iPhones to the skies. No, it's not some elaborate form of app-store-facilitated Sun worship but the start of an augmented reality movement that software developers like Graham Dawson are excited about.

Earlier this year, Dawson crafted an application called Sun Seeker. The application uses your iPhone camera and overlays your surroundings with information about solar path, intervals, angles and location of the sun (among many other things).

Armed with a background in astronomy, physics and engineering, Dawson has been crafting iPhone applications and software that harnesses information about the skies and seas for his company Ajnaware.

"I started developing over a year and a half ago. But, it was after Apple decided to allow certain enhancements to the operating system that make augmented reality possible that I suddenly realised that there was an opportunity."

In fact, it was quite a stroke of luck for Dawson, as it married his interests, personal background and technical know-how into an iPhone application that has been downloaded over 4000 times — mainly in Japan.

"I have a background in astronomy and it occurred to me there was a need out there [...] it was rather serendipitous really," stated Dawson.

For pilots, photographers and gardeners alike, Sun Seeker has a variety of applications like avoiding glare, planning photo shoots and finding the best place to plant your Jacarandas. However, it's not the only application that uses augmented reality (AR) technology to take our normal, everyday surroundings and overlay it with information — hence, "augmenting" our "reality".

Augmented reality is becoming increasingly common: USPS is providing its customers with AR technology to calculate parcel sizes using their webcams, there's an iPhone app that provides directions towards the nearest subway using giant GPS-assisted arrows, and Sydney's recent Sculpture by the Sea received AR treatment. The key is that AR combines image recognition and overlay with other elements, like GPS and accelerometers to convey information in new and interesting ways.

Whilst Dawson is excited about the possibilities of the technology, he believes it is still in its infancy and there are technical kinks that need ironing.

"The devices aren't accurate enough to get the best out of augmented reality at the moment," Dawson said. "For example, the GPS location can sometimes give you a bit of doubt about whether something is behind or in front of you. So there are a few limitations along those lines that make it a slightly imperfect experience but it's heading in the right direction."

"I think there's a lot of interest in it, but there's also a lot of scepticism to do with the applications; they're not quite sure other than the novelty value about how to use them so it'll take some time to emerge."

The key to these applications becoming more practical, Dawson believes, are the small developers that will take AR technology, experiment with it and push it to a new level.

"There will have to be people bringing out experimental applications and developers should allow people to try them out to provide feedback about where it's useful. Sooner or later there will be patterns that happen to emerge but I really think it's very early days and too early to identify where it is going to."

The development costs and skill requirements are also quite low, and as Dawson found out, he was able to bring his specialist knowledge (in this case spherical trigonometry and astronomy) and develop an AR application on platforms such as the iPhone.

"It wouldn't necessarily cost you any more than developing any other applications as long as you have a little bit of the specialist knowledge required to present the information and use the feedback from the devices sensors," he explained. "But Apple does take care of some of the complexity of that already [...] so it's really a fairly low entry level I would say. I'd say out of all of the development platforms I have used, Apple's is one of the most attractive."

However, he notes there is a downside. "Apple can be a little inconsistent in the rules and regulations they apply, so there can be a bit of a risk in trying new things."

Despite this, it makes sense for Dawson to develop for the iPhone, due to the strong level of support Apple provides for its development kits. Since AR is a relatively new trend, the large corporate sector has been slow on the uptake.

"I must admit there aren't many large corporations that are using it to a large degree aside from those using it experimentally," said Dawson.

That's not to say there aren't companies using AR in some form or another. Dawson recalls a discussion with a colleague about an electricity company which used AR technology and information databases.

"Engineers could go out and hold their cameras up and see what lines had which voltages and which substations they belonged to; that could be very, very valuable."

With these kinds of applications, the future may be promising for AR. Dawson remains cautiously optimistic, saying that the popularity of handheld devices like smartphones will be a major driver in AR technology.

"Basically that's the only device that people currently have that has all of these capabilities built in that make augmented reality possible. Therefore by default it's the only way they can have access to it. Probably over time somebody might develop dedicated devices for presenting certain aspects of AR but it's all converging into the smartphone at the moment, that's obviously the path of least resistance for it to expand into."

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