Robotvision: A decent early stab at augmented reality

Ever since I first saw heads-up-displays in science fiction movies like The Terminator, I knew that I had to get my hands on one. How neat it would be to get instant information on anything about anything in my field of vision?

Well, just as the iTablet won't be the Knowledge Navigator, the new buzz-phrase of the year, augmented reality, won't give me Terminator eyes. Such is life.

I tested out a pretty decent augmented reality app called Robotvision [iTunes Link], and for US $0.99 what you get, if you have an iPhone 3GS running OS 3.1 or better, is quite cool. Will it solve your problems, cure the common cold, or tell you anything that more established apps won't? Not really. But tossing a buck on a neat novelty is not unheard of in the iPhone 3GS world.

This one does more than most. First you tell it how widely to search and then, if you're in a highly populated area, you can set up a category ranging from ATMs to Travel Destinations. For the most part, I didn't fool with this since being in the suburbs, I can't be too picky.

Run it and the camera shutter opens. Moving the iPhone around, I found Cousin's Pizza, only 8432.1 miles away. Hmmm. The setting was for 5 miles. Wait, I guess it needed to be calibrated by doing the calibration figure eight wave of the phone. It seems that a lot of GPS apps require this.

OK, much better. It found a bunch of places but they were all stacked on top of one another. No big deal, since when you touch one, you get a screen like the one in the picture. The closest place is displayed first and the right and left arrows take you back and forth through the stack. While an item is in the front pane, you can call them, see them on a map (by cleverly pointing the iPhone to the floor, which invokes Google Maps, but all the stick pins aren't really any clearer than the AR view... maybe less so). You can also hit the Bing button where there might be a review or more information.

The problem is that the direction it puts you in is not quite accurate. It might get you to a nearby corner, but not to the butcher shop itself. I don't think we can slight Robotvision on this, since the not quite pin-point accuracy of the iPhone 3GS GPS has already been talked to death.

What else can this bad-boy do? You can see who is sending tweets in the area you specified, read the tweets and see how far the tweeter is from you. Not enough? Wait, there's more. You can find people in your area who use Flickr, and view their gallery. This doesn't work too well. I set the default for 50 miles and found no one. Then I set it for 25 miles and found one person with a gallery of 10 pictures. I live 30 miles from NYC, so I can't blame it on the boonies. You still want Ginsu knives? Okay, hit the Wikipedia button and see if anything in your range is listed. If so you'll get a bit of text and the option to go to Wikipedia to read more.

I don't know if AR will change the world, or be as successful as either New Coke or the iPod. But I'd suggest tossing a buck at this one. You are guaranteed 20 minutes of awe and then maybe some time to reflect on what you have, once the novelty wears off.

Check out this video for a tour and let us know what you think about this or the idea of augmented reality in general.