Could Microsoft Tag augment Windows Mobile reality?

Microsoft is promoting its Tag barcode system over at its PressPass this week. The PR is a big marketing pitch showcasing brands like Ford and Proctor & Gamble; it's a sensible approach for the technology. But I see another: Making augmented reality more real, and in so doing recover Microsoft's botched handset strategy. AR isn't new, but it's all the geek rage now that iPhone has a compass: BBC, CNET News, Robert Scoble and Telegraph UK, among many others.

A quick AR primer: Augmented reality is essentially the overlay of additional visual information onto something real. American football is great example, where during TV broadcasts yellow lines and other information overlay the field of play. What? You thought those lines were really there? You experienced augmented reality.

AR's future potential on mobile devices is huge, and it's one of the many applications that has me asserting once more that mobile phones will supplant PCs in the not so distant future. Pew Internet says 2020, but I predict 2015 (I really think sooner, but who would believe it?).

A handset with accelerometer, camera, compass and GPS can orientate its position relative to objects as well as geographic location. This orientation, and through the camera ability to identify specific objects, makes it possible for software or service providers to augment reality, perhaps with educational or marketing information.

Informational example: Jack Consumer takes his kids to Washington, DC. Perhaps he uses the phone's GPS to navigate from a Metro station to the National Mall. Along the way, the mapping program offers additional information about historic sites -- even videos or, gasp, special events going on in the area right then. All this overlays the GPS map on the screen. Jack points the phone's camera at the Washington Monument and sees overlay of information about when each portion of the structure was completed, its height and what the heck those flashing lights mean (Jack slept through American history class).

Marketing example: After a hot and humid day walking in the city, Jack's family wants to see Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo, which Disney recently released in the United States. Jack points the cell phone's camera at a movie poster in the Metro, and the image overlays with theatre locations and showtimes. He then taps the screen for the theatre in Union Station. Based on information contained on the movie poster and gathered from the handset, the mapping service brings up a Metro map. That's augmented reality. Jack conducts a sophisticated search without ever having to launch Bing or Google and type in keywords. But wait, Jack sees another option -- to buy tickets with the tap of the screen.

Making Augmented Reality Real

It's hard to understate augmented reality's potential on mobile devices and, in succeeding, for disrupting keyword search. Yes, keyword search. People will need to manually search less, if the information indirectly comes to them through the mobile software or service or directly by the consumer pointing the camera at something.

I predict that mobile augmented reality will displace mobile keyword search, which is lots worse for Google than Microsoft. I'm assuming it will succeed, just not necessarily as envisioned by all the augmented reality freaks -- eh, geeks -- pining over iPhone's compass: Edible Apple, Fast Company and O'Reilly, among many others.

For all the buzz about iPhone and augmented reality, Apple is a latecomer, following Google and Nokia, among others. Big support came with iPhone 3.1 software, which Apple released last week.

Google Sky Map, for Android phones, is augmented reality for the stars. The software uses a Google phone's accelerometer, compass and GPS to correctly display the right map of the night sky, overlayed with constellation names. Nokia's three year-old MARA (Mobile Augmented Reality Applications) project adds the camera to accelerometer, compass and GPS for overlaying information.

For mobile augmented reality to be most meaningful, it must be real time. Google Sky Map is a good example of real-time augmented reality. But like other augmented reality mapping services, the user is real-time but not necessarily the overlaid information. Augmented reality apps that show, say, friends or Twitter followers in physical relationship to you or local traffic laid out onto a mobile map are much more real time.

The real-time value shouldn't come from disparate apps only tied to the phone's positioning functions but to broader services, or even a software-services platform. There, Nokia's MARA approach, which also utilizes the phone's camera, makes loads of sense. AR can provide information about landmarks, etc. by what the camera sees. The Wikitude Browser for Android phones is product available now for doing just that.

But positioning and landmark/scene recognition are still early stages development and their third-party commerce potential is somewhat limited. For example, Jack Consumer sees where the nearest McDonalds is by way of Nearest Tube. Location is one thing, but where is the menu or today's specials? Additionally, GPS accuracy isn't good close to buildings and essentially useless inside them. The camera can make up where other phone positioning features fall short.

Tag, You're It!

By using the phone's camera, tagging is one way to broaden mobile augmented reality's commercial and even informational appeal. Things tagged with 2D or 3D barcodes could provide much more information, which could be updated real time on the backend service without necessarily changing the tag. Additionally, positioning information from the phone could allow, say, Sony Pictures to distribute the same barcode tagged movie poster nationwide while providing local movie times. Parental control information from the wireless carrier also could ensure that Sandy Teen views the PG-13 and not the R movie trailer on her phone.

Search is a multi-billion business because of keywords. Barcodes/tags could open up the commercial and informational replacement on handsets. Think tagwords or, ah, codewords. I don't suggest that tagging is the only way for mobile augmented reality to go. I'm saying it's a way to, ah, augment augmented reality -- to extend its reach and also to provide a commercial backbone; as search is today for the Web browser.

Like search keywords, competitors could go after tagwords, too. My daughter likes to shop at Forever 21. Price tags with barcodes could bring up competitive prices at other stores when viewed through the cell phone camera. It's comical to think about -- young women leaning over dresses, jeans and tops with their cell phones.

There is yet no mobile barcode economy. Google doesn't control tagwords. Microsoft Tag has potential to become the barcode development and services platform. The Bing and Windows Live teams should be all over Tag. Microsoft isn't exactly early barcode adopter, but there is yet time as there is no widely adopted standard. There are competitors, like Nokia Mobile Codes. Google isn't sitting idly by, either. For example, the aforementioned Sky Map Web page has a ZXing barcode. Just point your Android phone camera to download the application.

Microsoft is building the services infrastructure to do much more, if company executives have the wherewithal. Tags could be the commercial backbone for mobile information, with no manual search necessary. They could build economy into mobile augmented reality.

I say to Microsoft: Don't wait for third parties. Tag it! Tag everything. Microsoft Tag already is available for most mobile platforms, not just Windows Mobile. I would start with Windows Live Maps, augmenting reality in the browser as well as the device. Even do some augmented augmented reality, by overlaying mapped rooftops with Microsoft Tags. The user clicks or touches the Tag to get more information. Sure, you could overlay name of the store, but a mobile barcode could access so much more information tied to a database service.

Building out infrastructure will take years, and Google is sure to push its own technology if Microsoft does. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates built the company by selling stuff cheaper than competitors and by controlling key file formats and technology standards. The mobile barcode is a technology standard Microsoft shouldn't want any other company to control, particularly Google.

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