Can Smartphone Applications Take the Worry Out of Touring?

…or the fun?  And the discovery?

Imagine standing in a foreign street and holding a smartphone out at arm’s length, and having the names and uses of each building in front of you pop up on the screen — along with info about the nearest metro station, store business hours, and more.  Sound impressive?  This type of application is actually pretty common these days.  It uses a technology called augmented reality (AR), which is a live view of your real-world environment, captured on a screen and narrated by computer-generated input (usually text, but also graphics, sound and GPS data).  It can be invaluable if you’re touring where you can’t make heads or tails of the language, or if you have a hopeless sense of direction.  In other words, it can help you avoid getting lost, misunderstood, taken advantage of, and other very stressful situations.

So what’s involved in an AR device?  The hardware usually consists of a processor, a display, and sensors (all three of which are rolled into one unit and shaped to fit your hand) and the output device (usually a headset, which may not be necessary depending on how easy your display is to use).  Standalone units were common at first, but more and more, smartphones and tablets have the camera, sensor, and output needed to support AR.  Right now, the application (including all the required software) averages about $400, and can be worth every penny.  Consider the following it can help you with:

  • ŸIdentifying the full route of a bus you see down the street;
  • ŸPotential hazards in your path (such as poorly marked construction);
  • ŸRoad conditions and traffic updates (if you are driving); and last but not least,
  • ŸTranslating foreign text on signs and menus.

So why isn’t everyone walking around with one on tour?  Well, there are some definite drawbacks to using AR.  Some that I can think of include:

  • Dangerous levels of immersion.  You can get so absorbed in the interface that you become oblivious to your surroundings.  AR will tell you a lot, but not about the bad habits of drivers or the motivations of the people around you.
  • ŸYou can become dependent on AR.  It can erode your observational skills, your intuition, and your problem-solving skills.  Consider the possible effect on your confidence, and your ability to guide others someday (like your kids!).
  • ŸThe application can take some of the discovery and personal experience out of your trip.  If part of your touring enjoyment comes from figuring out whether you’ve just stumbled upon a great tattoo parlor or just a music store, or whether an odd building is a museum or an antiques shop, then think about saving AR for occasional use, when you’re really stuck — or just opting to travel the “traditional way,” with a map in your hand instead.


Can’t imagine where this escalator-in-a-forest leads to?  Me neither, but to be honest, I’d rather just keep walking to find out.