Tourist apps use your phone camera to see where you are
Want to "see" what the ski slope looks like before heading down the hill? Or walk the zebra crossing on London's Abbey Road with the Beatles?
The travel industry is starting to grab onto radical new "augmented reality" technology to give people a feel for vacation sites with a smartphone. The technology — which combines a camera, GPS and compass in a smartphone — lets the phone's camera "recognize" an object or place a user is pointing it at by overlaying the screen's image on location data.
Cities, guidebooks, tour companies and ski resorts that have created their own "channels" in an augmented reality browser can upload tourist-friendly information about restaurants, sights and shops. For example, when the browser recognizes that the phone is pointed to a particular street block, it will label points of interest using small icons. Users can tap on the icon to get more information, ranging from address and phone number to historical background or Wikipedia description.
A Beatles-themed augmented reality tour in London produces the icons of the legendary band members when the phone is pointed at Abbey Road.
"It just makes a lot of sense for travel," says industry consultant Gene Becker, founder of Lightning Laboratories. " 'What am I looking at?' is the most common question for tourists."
The nascent technology is further along in Europe, where many cities have augmented reality tour-guide apps for visitors. Among new developments:
Google Goggles. Although it's not a real-time, moving guide, Google Goggles is an image-recognition application that can be used for searches based on pictures taken by the phone. Taking a picture of a landmark or artwork would provide a Google search result about it.
Ski resorts. RealSki, by software developer RTP, has augmented reality views of more than 80 North American ski resorts, including Vail, Aspen and Whistler. Customers can point the phone anywhere on slopes to get maps of trails, lifts, restrooms and restaurants. Michael McDermott of RTP says it's talking to hotels interested in the app.
The Lonely Planet. The guidebook company has apps for eight U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Las Vegas and Chicago, available for Android phones. Users can point to popular parts of the cities to get information about sites and restaurants that are within the camera view.
BART, the San Francisco area's transit system, and Hertz rental cars also have developed apps.