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Using cell phones to 'augment reality'

By RACHEL METZ - AP Technology Writer -

Sunday, October 04, 2009 SAN FRANCISCO -- You're walking down the street, looking for a good place to eat. You hold up your cell phone and use it like the viewfinder on a camera, so the screen shows what's in front of you.  But it also shows things you couldn't see before: Brightly colored markers indicating nearby restaurants and bars.   Turn a corner, and the markers reflect the new scene.  Click a marker for a restaurant, and you can see customer reviews and price information.  Decide you'd rather be sightseeing? The indicators are easily changed to give information about the buildings you're passing.

This computer-enhanced view of the world is not just available to cyborgs in science-fiction movies.  Increasingly it can be found on cell phones, for free or on the cheap, through programs that provide "augmented reality."   These applications take advantage of the phones' GPS and compass features and access to high-speed wireless networks to mash up super-local Web content with the world that surrounds you.   That means you can see available apartments on the block you're moseying down.  You can view photos other people have taken at the park you're passing, or find the nearest bus stop or hotel room -- all by just holding your phone up and peering at its screen.

The possibilities for melding the virtual and actual worlds have just started to become apparent.  The first phones with Google's Android operating system, which enables augmented reality, have come out in the past year.  The iPhone became augmented-reality- friendly with the compass that debuted in June on the iPhone 3GS.  Apple also recently joined Google in making it possible for software developers to overlay images on the phone's camera view.   As cell phones get even smarter and GPS and wireless networks improve, we may soon be spending more time in a virtually enhanced world, using information gathered from the Internet to inform everything from eating to playing video games.

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