Layar: See Beyond Your Surroundings

I use my Android phone for so many tasks I couldn’t count them on ten hands if I wanted, let alone two. Viewing timetables, cinema listings and property searches. Tweeting. Facebook. YouTube. Locating ATMs and checking out local attractions to name but a few. Thousands of apps fufill our need for information everyday but, sadly, many of them are rather two-dimensional. Nothing that makes you hold your phone at arms length and go ‘Wow!’ anyway.

Layar, an Augmented Reality (AR) app developed specifically for the Android operating system takes a quick glance at the rule book and chucks it out the window. Using GPS and the phone’s camera, a small bit of social networking and tonnes of third-party programs, your local area becomes so much more fun. In the words of the creators, it “shows you things you can’t see”.

So What Is Augmented Reality?

I figure a good way to kick off this review would be with a quick explanation as to what AR is and how the guys over at Layar have made use of the technology. So first off the bat: Augmented Reality is a way of browsing through information using your phone and what’s right in front of you. By knowing your GPS position and making use of your phone’s camera, AR can display real-time, interactive information on your phone’s screen over live footage from the camera.

Layar uses this to display information such as local facilities,social networking in 3D format and allows your phone’s screen to become a cool interface for real-time navigation. It’s pretty much what RoboCop sees on his head-up display. Or so I would imagine.

Functionality of Layar

The first thing I did once Layar installed on my phone was to run outside and open it up. What I had opened as it turned out was a Pandora’s box of great features, functionality and information. By just turning in a circle while viewing my phone’s screen, heaps of locally relevant information moved around right in front of my eyes.

Some of the features when in AR Mode

Some of the features when in AR Mode

Nearby bus stops, shops, boutiques, restaurants, sights, attractions and dozens of local houses for sale/rent. I was impressed to say the least. And they were just the bog standard features. I could have stayed there all day just turning in circles, pressing little icons for more information on a specific point and then turning some more to explore the world around me all from one spot. But then I noticed my neighbour looking at me and decided against that plan.

Back inside my abode I scrutinized the app some more and found that ‘Layar’ wasn’t just an odd name for the app but were actually functions (called layers) which enabled you to decide what kind of information was displayed on your screen. Many companies have their own layers to promote the location of their stores. The app uses their meta data to enable the user to click on the icons which pop up when in AR mode to view more information. So for example, if one clicks on a local hotel they’ll get a description, customer reviews and prices as well as a link to their booking site. And for the more ‘traditional’ app users amongst us, all points found by a layer can be viewed in list format for easy browsing should it take your fancy.

Using Twitter with the annoying 'Grid' feature

Using Twitter with the annoying 'Grid' feature

As I said before, the app takes full advantage of a smartphone’s built-in GPS. Your location is found in mere seconds (I found it to be quicker than Google Maps), as are local attractions and information. You can also view a selected point on a map and get directions.

One feature which I found a little annoying is the grid you can see in the screenshot above which can be toggled on and off. I preferred ‘off’ simply because I found it gets in the way and flips around like Tony Hawks on acid. The grid does add a cool robotic navigation feel to the app though, it must be said.

Another concern is that, while the number of layers is increasing (1,500+) I get the feeling that smaller cities and towns are being ignored. If you live in a densely populated area or a capital city I wouldn’t worry about a lack of available layers but outside of these zones there doesn’t seem to be much on offer if anything at all. One the one hand it’s understandable that Layar would want to concentrate on population hot-spots but on the other it is disappointing that Android users in small towns and cities can’t make good use of AR.

Layar works best in European, US and Canadian cities. Before you download it, make sure your Android OS is updated to the most recent version as numerous updates have been released to fix teething problems with AR apps. It should work perfectly with most Android phones released since early 2009. Earlier models may suffer from some issues such as sluggishness or force closing.

Performance

In terms of performance I have to give Layar ten out of ten. Any bugs which that app may have had in the past have been thoroughly squashed. I tested it for hours on end and not once did it even stutter. There are a few known bugs listed in the ‘Support’ section of the website but most of them have now been mended.

Usage it very smooth and very responsive to commands. There’s nothing more annoying than an app that acknowledges your request but decides a little nap is in order before carrying it out. I honestly find it very hard to pick holes in Layar in this regard because, well, it works!

Design

Overall the app looks very good indeed. No harsh lines or brutal attempts at being cool. The app speaks for itself in that department anyway. Icons are kept minimalistic but look nice too. However they could do with a few more colors – purple and red are overused and this can get confusing when a tweet’s icon looks very similar to the nearby bus stop.

Icons get smaller when far away

Icons get smaller when far away

A nice touch is that icons and pictures displayed in AR mode get smaller the further they are away from you. So if a neighbour posts a picture to flickr it will be quite large on your screen. But if someone a mile away does the same it will be considerably smaller.

The interface itself it easy to use, and with the compass on the home screen you always feel ready to get up and go. I found this to be a nice addition because for some very odd caveman-esque reason, I enjoy knowing in which direction I’m facing. Menus are well laid out as you can see below and are very easy to use.

Layar's Great Menus

Layar's Great Menus

Third-party layers also look good in general and flow well with the app. While I spent hours locating and viewing local CCTV cameras, checking out who was tweeting around me and messing about with the weather forecast layer, I kept thinking to myself that the app was very well put together and easy on the eye.

Price

The great news is that this app is completely free and isn’t spoiled by ugly advertisements or affiliate links. It’s just a 100% functional app all for the attractive price of $0.

‘So how will Layar make money?’ I hear you ask. Good question. Basically their main revenue streams are companies who pay to have their layers published in the app’s Layar store and people who buy premium layers for specific purposes. Examples of which include ‘Watch Chelsea’ which enables you to literally follow the English football club wherever they are in the world and TripSay which uses the AR along with meta data to advise you while on holiday in a foreign city. Most paid layers are around the $2 mark.

Final Thoughts


My last few words on Layar are positive ones. This app is breathtakingly innovative and above all else useful. It doesn’t just impress you and make you want to show it off to your friends. It makes you want to use it every day. To get out and explore what’s around you instead of just mindlessly scrolling through information with no substance.

What’s more this isn’t somebody’s little project that’s going to sit gathering dust. It has a motivated company behind it and a growing user base. GPS and AR games have been organised around the world using this app including a recent one in my home city of Dublin which impressed me to no end, demonstrating a growing trend.

It’s by no means perfect and there is still room for further development with many of the layers and the app itself. That said, when you find yourself dizzy from turning in a circle too many times whilst out discovering your city, you really won’t care.

Check it out here.


Summary

Layar is an Augmented Reality app for Android which enables you to see beyond your surrounding. Using your phone's camera and GPS you can look around you and see what people are doing, what there is to do and much much more.

8
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