July 20, 2009
Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald was kind enough to give me some of his time to answer questions about their ground-breaking mobile augmented reality application Layar (currently available for Android devices) and where his company SPRXmobile is heading strategically. Given the sheer volume of media attention Layar has received lately, I’m extremely grateful that Maarten made himself available. I hope you enjoy the read. This will be the first of a series of interviews with people in the mobile AR industry that I’m publishing.
Future interviews will cover some of Layar’s competitors in the AR space as well as non-AR mobile location based service offerings. I’d love to hear your feedback and if you are working in the LBS space, say hello here, or alternatively you can reach me on twitter via @siddey.
GC: Thanks for taking some time to share some behind the scenes insights about Layar and the Layar AR browser for mobile devices for Geographically Challenged. Firstly, can you tell me a little about your role at SPRX mobile?
Maarten: I founded Layar, the Augmented Reality Browser, together with Claire Boonstra and Raimo van der Klein, where I am responsible for Distribution and Marketing.
GC: We’ve seen a huge amount of press coverage both on and offline relating to mobile augmented reality in recent months, most of which covers the Layar browser and Wikitude from your main competitor, Mobilizy. Why do you think a rapidly growing number of people are optimistic about the potential of AR now that it is available to them on mobile devices?
Maarten: AR has always been an amazing yet imaginary concept in Science Fiction and a powerful yet complicated research subject. Steven Feiner, one of the first people who had a working setup describes the early days: “walking around the campus with a backpack of gear and a head mounted display”.
High end mobile devices have arrived, such as the iPhone, HTC Magic, Samsung Galaxy etc etc. The network is up to speed, 3G is as quick as your ADSL line in some instances. Subscriptions are flat fee and are reasonably priced. And finally good technical platforms are available like Android, cloud services, standards and services like REST, maps etc. This all adds up to the now real possibility of Augmented Reality for all. We might even see a more powerful development of capabilities than when the Internet started. We are developing on the shoulders of giants. And one core direction is Contextual Services such as Augmented Reality on your mobile.
Contextual services are services that are fed by sensor input on your phones: Location, Direction, Video, Identity etc. This enables service providers to provide you what you want RIGHT NOW. This is key for mobile. You pull out your phone because you have a specific need or question you want answered at THAT moment. The sensors help get the right information.
Augmented Reality is a great interface for this. It is the way to combine the digital world and the real world. That is exactly what you need because that’s where you are as a person and the information comes from the digital domain. It is the logical interface.
With the internet we learned how to become efficient knowledge workers, finding background information on wikipedia, constantly communicating via email, and buying Christmas presents online. Yet we were stuck to the “box” of the screen, be it in the office or at home. With Mobile AR we are getting out of that box and bringing all of the digital power into the real world, everywhere. That’s where Layar is, browse the world!
GC: SPRXmobile are seeking partnerships with 3rd party content developers and brands, however, in comparison Mobilizy appear to be taking a more open, consumer-based approach to developing content for wikitude through channels such as the wikitude.me geo-tagging website. I notice that your website does not currently outline the explicit benefits for those that publish POIs via your platform, so where do you expect the majority of revenue will come from and on what terms will you incentivise 3rd parties to join you?
Maarten: We opened up our API because we saw right away that others had better ideas for content than we had. When the platform is more popular there will be lots of business opportunities. Think revenue share on premium content, key word sales etc etc. Also we develop special Layars ourselves. We would love to develop the “Mario Brothers” layer and develop for some unique functionality. Imagine someone on the street running and jumping around while you hear those familiar game sounds….
There are several benefits for our developers. First of all, it is free for you to develop for yourself or any third party such as a major brand you know and/or already work for. No commission. There will be a small admin fee comparable to domain name registration fees.
Secondly, we take care of the application and the platform. We make sure it is the best experience possible on various platforms. As said we are working on the iPhone version. You do not need to make your own app or software.
Thirdly, we take care of distribution. We will make sure that the amount of users that have access to your content will grow continuously and will provide tools to find you.
Fourth, it’s easy. No mobile phone app development knowledge is needed. Developers just need to have the data in order and provide it to us in standard internet format, a web service.
Fifth and finally: Support. We have a community of developers and provide tools like a wiki and regular conference calls. Plus we have developer events, starting with the first one August 17th. Are you coming?
GC: Can you shed some light on the basic terms surrounding the ownership of the intellectual property for any 3rd party content published through the recently announced Layar API?
Maarten: All content in your Layer is yours, Layar does not own this.
GC: In recent weeks we have seen many notable forces in AR gather together to petition Apple to open up the iPhone public camera API to developers. Subsequently Apple opened some of the camera APIs to developers last week with the release of OS 3.1 beta 2, which I expect was a welcome response for companies such as SPRXmobile. Why was there was such a unanimous cry for Apple to open this up?
Maarten: The iPhone is the phone that changed the market. An iPhone user uses up 6x more network than a regular phone user. Active users will find that Layar is great for them with all that it is offering. The iPhone is also the media darling which we like.
GC: Will we see any special features built for the iPhone or any limitations for that matter (compared to your current Android version)?
Maarten: For now it is the second mobile platform where we will be available. There will be more to come. When a device specific feature is available we will consider using it. If there is a feature missing we will work around or with it.
GC: Thank you for taking some time to answer my questions. Finally I just wanted to gauge how well you have seen Layar adopted thanks to your successful media campaigning. Can you give us an indication of the number of users you have reached so far and where you would ideally like this to be once you launch internationally in areas such as the US and UK?
Maarten: We don’t disclose usage figures or prognoses. Our YouTube video has had over 300.000 views, which is nice. We expect more.
GC: Maarten, thanks very much for your time.
Maarten: Thank you for your interest and questions. It helps us too.
Next up I’ll be speaking with Mobilizy about Wikitude.
July 7, 2009
Update: With the release of OS 3.1 beta 2, Apple appears to have now opened up the camera API. Good news!
A host of the most promising names of mobile augmented reality software development have banded together to create an online petition to Apple via AR blog Games Alfresco titled, “Open Letter to Apple: Let us augment reality with the iphone!” It asks that that they open up a critical API within the iphone OS that would allow applications to access the real-time video stream from the applications viewfinder. This is an obvious requirement for a true augmented reality application, as it enables the application to overlay digital information on the screen as you’re seeing it, without a delay which would critically impair the experience and usability.
We’ve seen the OS 3.1 update come out but no word yet whether this will eventually include the critical missing function. If Apple were to miss this train, they would never catch up with google’s Android OS, which has had support for this since inception.
Seriously Apple; what were you thinking?