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Augmented reality, a leapfrog opportunity for Africa that hinges on 3G

November 2, 2011  »  Mobile & VideoNo Comment

Augmented reality, although considered a hot trend for years, is starting to live up to its potential as smartphone technology advances and as prices decrease. For those new to the concept, augmented reality is essentially the visual overlay of information on top of real life. At its core, AR is a technology that enhances applications and services. A common example is a smartphone, that when focused down a street or at person, shows related information on top of the image on the screen – all culled from the Internet. Even in developed nations, the technology is still in its early stages. It will most likely be 5-10 years until more mobile Internet users begin interacting with their surroundings via AR. African nations actually have a chance to join the party on time, so to speak.

Currently, interest in AR within Africa is limited by 3G availability and the ability to own a current smartphone. Only South Africa produces enough search volume to rank on Google Insights for Search for the term ‘augmented reality’. What’s more, the search interest over time has remained flat since enough data was available two years ago. That ignorance is about to change. Earlier this year Qualcomm released an AR developer kit. Layar, an Android AR app with 100+ layers that each provide AR functionality, is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

It is promising for South Africa to be on par with global AR trends, but less can be said for the rest of Africa. 3G service is still in its infancy in most nations. A recent Gallup survey with data from 2010 found that fewer than 10% of the population in 10 African nations has accessed the Internet in the past year and owns a mobile phone. In all likelihood, AR will not be commonly used outside South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, parts of North Africa for the next 10 years or so. Technophiles and aid organizations will have reasonable access to this technology much sooner, but again, AR is confined to 3G or 3G+ areas.

In a BusinessDay article from August 2011, Jay Srage, the president of Middle East and Africa at Qualcomm, is quoted as saying the two types of augmented reality applications – GPS-based and vision-based – require a smartphone. 2G phones lack the network connectivity speed, processing power and display capabilities to support Augmented Reality applications. Even 3G feature phones do not have the processing speed to support Augmented Reality effectively.

As Fred Roed of Ideate points out, the tablet will be a major driver in AR adoption. People are seeking to interact with data more than ever. Of course, the limitation is also with data – its cost, its production, and its ability to appear on the hardware (via the software). A practical AR device need be lightweight, have a GPS sensor, touchscreen, multiple cameras, and dual-processors. Even then, the physical steps needed to experience AR stand in the way. Interaction needs to become passive rather than active (think seeing the world via special glasses instead of looking “through” a tiny screen).

Perhaps the most useful applications for AR are crisis mapping and commerce. Appfrica wrote a great post on AR for NGOs a couple of years back. The author explores how the latest technologies can be applied to team efforts in the field. Ideas range from adding an AR layer to GIS products for crowdsourced data to knowing the medical history of an entire village based on residence. The ultimate scenario will be when facial recognition technology can pull someone’s detailed life history (with permission, of course).

In the meantime, a handful of apps offer superimposed restaurant reviews, menu items, or prices layered over a streetview. In addition to Layar, Google Goggles, TripWolf (travel guide), and Aurasma (visual browser) offer AR functionality.

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