Your Reality, Augmented

Location-aware mobile technologies

August 19, 2010

Last time, I discussed QR codes and how they can link you to content that provides further information about an object. But what if you didn’t have to put barcodes all over everything you wanted people to scan? What if all it took to get that content was to walk up to an item or location holding your phone? What if you could see additional data through your phone’s video camera about what you’re looking at in real life, or see your location on a map in relation to restaurants, buildings, or even a specific bookshelf? It sounds futuristic, but it’s actually something available right now to many smartphone users.

Location-aware applications for mobile devices use GPS to find the owner’s current location and then can display that in relation to specific objects, people, stores, and more on a map. These applications can help do things like find nearby restaurants and see reviews or view the property values in a neighborhood. Location-based games like Foursquare offer users special badges for “checking in” at locations, where they can write a review and read the reviews of previous visitors.

Libraries are just beginning to take advantage of the GPS functionality found in most mobile devices. WolfWalk is a location-aware mobile site and iPhone application that lets users explore historic photos of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Users can see their location on a map in relation to buildings with geotagged historic images of the location. This allows students to see how the specific place where they’re standing has changed over time, connecting them to the history of their campus. Oregon State University in Corvallis offers a similar location-aware historic walking tour of campus called BeaverTracks.

Layers of meaning

Augmented reality takes this a step further by superimposing content (data, 3D images, photographs, etc.) over what you’re looking at. Unlike virtual reality, which displays a virtual environment, you see the real world with augmented reality—but with computer-generated content layered on top. A simple example of augmented reality could be seen during the Summer Olympics in 2008, where the television displayed a line for where swimmers would have to be to match the current world record. Many augmented reality applications require special headgear to use, but newer apps are designed to work with smartphones enabled with GPS, a video camera, compass, and accelerometer. RFID tags can also be used to tie data, photos, or other content to a specific item.

Many augmented reality applications for mobile devices are designed to find people and places nearby. The Yelp application for the iPhone 3GS and higher allows you to see the ratings people gave to places right in front of you by looking through your smartphone’s video camera. There are many augmented reality platforms, such as Layar, with which programmers can build location-based applications. San José (Calif.) Public Library, which recently received a grant to develop an augmented reality application, plans to create a half-dozen walking tours of the city; links to historic photos, oral history clips, and other digitized content would be displayed at relevant locations.

I can envision so many exciting applications of location-aware technologies in libraries, both inside and outside of the building. A team at the University of Oulu in Finland developed SmartLibrary, a wayfinding tool that helps users find the shelf holding the book they want. SmartLibrary uses RFID and a Wi-Fi–based location tracking system to display a person’s location in relation to the item she or he seeks. As the capabilities of the devices in our pockets and the tech-savvy of library staff grow, the future possibilities for mobile technologies become endless.

Meredith Farkas is head of instructional initiatives at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, and part-time faculty at San José State University School of Library and Information Science. She blogs at Information Wants to Be Free and created Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. Contact her at librarysuccess[at]