In the sci-fi novel Rainbows End, author Vernon Vinge envisions humans simultaneously engaging the real and virtual worlds thanks to Internet-enabled contact lenses. Vinge's prediction inspired the trio of co-founders of Dutch software start-up Layar. "We thought, What could be the first step toward that future?" says CEO Raimo van der Klein. The result was Layar's Reality Browser, launched 15 months ago, making it an early leader in the budding market for mobile augmented-reality (AR) applications. AR technology overlays digital information from the Web onto the physical world, as it is viewed through the camera lens of a smart phone. Point your lens at a historic building and information about it will pop up on the screen, including perhaps a decades-old photo of it. AR utilizes a smart phone's GPS data, accelerometer, compass and gyroscope. "The technology was not new," van der Klein says, but Layar assembles an "ecosystem" in which users can quickly find a wide range of apps, or layers. Van der Klein and co-founders Claire Boonstra and Maarten Lens-FitzGerald first worked together organizing a monthly networking gathering for Amsterdam wireless fans called Mobile Monday. Layar now boasts 900,000 users, offers 1,100 layers and works with 5,000 developers. Currently, its browser is preloaded in Android handsets and Samsung's Bada and is downloadable for iPhones; it should be available in a third of newly released smart phones this year. Layar faces a few competitors like Austria's Mobilizy, but, says van der Klein, "as a place of discovery, there is no competition." Just make sure the building you're walking into is real.
by Thomas K. Grose