Through the looking-glass for String and Augmented Reality

This is a guest column by Monty Munford, who blogs here and tweets here.

At the Century Club on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue they don’t take kindly to members or their guests using their laptops or mobiles in the rooftop restaurant, but they seem to make an exception for Augmented Reality demonstrations.

While in previous visits I have spoken softly into my phone or surreptiously used my laptop under my table, the waiters and management turned a Nelson eye while String Augmented Reality’s Yush Kaila and Simon Windsor showed off their extraordinary AR products.

Rather like a 3D insight into a Lewis Carroll fairytale and using an iPad as a looking-glass, what appeared to be a sheet of A4 paper was transformed when the iPad was lined up with the picture on the paper. Dragons, monsters, aliens and cars jump out in front of the viewer, exciting enough to make even the most vigilant waiter at the Century Club enquire as to what was going on.

This AR content can also be accessed by an iPhone and means that not only do A4 sheets come to life, but also the somewhat larger billboards (48-sheets) at airports, stations and other public places. While using a cumbersome iPad or the more agile iPhone to do so can make users look as if they’re practising stilted dance moves, it’s surprising how quickly lack of self-consciousness creeps in.

String was recently launched after two years of development and joins an increasingly populated AR fray of companies such as Layar, the well-funded Dutch company that is generally regarded as the market-leader in the sector. However, comparing String with Layar is like the old adage of, er, asking how long is a piece of string.

Layar is browser-based and provides an open, single platform for third-party content. It relies on location data.

Conversely, String’s approach to AR is ‘vision-based’ and launches from print markers. This technology means brands and developers can create their own branded apps and experiences, freeing themselves from a walled garden and without the need for a mobile web connection to view the content within the app.

String is currently working with partners such as Boeing, Fujitsu, Audi, Ford of Canada and Paramount, the latter being part of the Transformers 3 campaign, as well as offering developers a £79 licence to create content for themselves.

While the movie Minority Report is used too often as an example of how AR may transform our consumer experiences, it’s hard not to think of it when seeing String’s products in action.

There have been other times before when AR was expected to hit critical mass, but 2011 may prove to be the year that it finally took us through the looking-glass into Alice’s Wonderland.

But don’t take it from an overawed and star-struck Luddite such as me, ask the staff at the Century Club… they know the future when they see it.