AR Without Goggles: Android and iPhone Augmented Reality Apps for Travelers

Travel Editor Russ Johnson went out into a cow pasture near his house and used augmented reality apps to find out what alternate realities floated around him. He found tweeters, Instagram photos, Groupon Coupons, puppies to adopt and some suspicious characters, along with lots of good information for travelers.

Oh mercy! If real reality isn’t enough, try Augmented Reality. There are iPhone and Android Apps that will prove that wherever you are, there are Tweeters lurking unseen, Foursquare spots taunting you to check in, Instagram photos floating like poltergeists, Groupon coupons fluttering in the breeze, restaurant menus, puppies to adopt, muggers and drunks…even around a placid cow pasture two blocks from my house. This much information can really ruin your day. Or, if you are a traveler, it could enhance your experience dramatically.

Demonstration of an Augmented Reality App
We have all seen the hype about Google Goggles, but let’s face it, it/they ain’t/aren’t here quite yet. Free augmented reality apps such as Layar, Junaio and Wikitude, the subjects of some hype a couple of years ago, have matured and are now useful for travelers, They use your phone’s camera, GPS, network coordinates and motion sensors to locate who and what is nearby both physically and in cyberspace.

I walked into the cow pasture and found:

  • About a dozen people in the neighborhood who had recently tweeted.
  • Menus and Yelp reviews from most nearby restaurants.
  • A half-dozen recent Instagram photos taken by total strangers.
  • Wikipedia entries for several historical monuments, nearby towns and wineries.
  • A used Mercedes-Benz for sale.
  • A recent burglary, two suspicious characters spotted and two public intoxication arrests in the vicinity.

All floating on the screen of my Android phone.

These AR apps are basically browsers, providing a live video interface for third-party location-based programs that harvest information from Wikipedia, hotel, restaurant review and real estate sites, public records, and dozens of other sources, some quite esoteric. Just where is the Goodyear Blimp today, anyhow? On San Francisco’s Market Street you can take a historical earthquake walk and see pre-1906 pictures superimposed over what your camera sees.

Once I have dealt with the logistics of travel, I have always found Wikipedia, in its app form, the ultimate guide, offering more detailed information than most guidebooks. Traditional travel guides are often written by a single overworked author. With these AR apps, instantly learning what is in the neighborhood, in either graphic or list form, is far easier than depending on the accuracy of your thumbs, Siri or some other search goddess. As with a browser, you can bookmark the various layers or channels of information you will likely use on a trip so that when you hit the ground in your destination you can fire up the GPS and the app, and shazaam, local information is there.

All three apps are available for iPhone or Android. For me, they are pretty much a toss-up. They share many of the same data sources. I like the simplicity of Junaio and Wikitude.  Layar, which has been around for some time, offers more choices and esoteric “layers” of information, some highly localized to museums and art exhibits.  Junaio and Layar have built-in barcode and QR code readers, and more. Scan a magazine cover that has been processed with their publishing tools and up will pop a Harry Potter-like video, animation or other digital content. Each company is pushing publishers and advertisers to adopt its platform, but that has been a hard slog and there is yet  little content out there. Still, these apps are useful companions to travelers.

Warning, they do gnaw at bandwidth so watch your roaming charges, and GPS is a notorious power sucker.


– Also available for Blackberry, Symbian and Windows phones.

Photo credits: Russ Johnson


  • By the way, today Lonely Planet  announced a partnership with Layar. Aim your smartphone at the cover of one of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks to European cities and buttons will appear over its images linking to videos, photos, weather feeds and recommendations.