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Use It Better: Four Augmented-Reality Apps That Don't Exist but Should




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In my Scientific American column this month, I wrote about the dawn of augmented-reality software: phone apps that overlay informational graphics on a live video view of the world. As you hold the phone in front of you, these apps can show you what crimes were committed near the spot where you’re standing, which subway lines are under your feet, what apartments are for sale in the building in front of you, and so on.

The app called Layar already lets you choose from 1500 different kinds of overlays (nearest cash machines or WiFi hot spots, restaurant reviews, descriptions of attractions, and so on).

But AR is only in its infancy. Someday, our phones will show us even more useful glimpses of the invisible world. Here you go: Five AR apps that don’t exist but should.

Introspector. Buying a house is always thrilling—and nerve-wracking, because you have no way of knowing what problems lurk. A house inspector can see only the visible, current problems. The historical problems, the future ones, and the intangibles remain unknown to you.

As you tour the house you’re considering, this app identifies the far less visible sources of expensive grief. Its overlaid icons let you know that the radiators whine during the winter; that the next-door neighbor’s chickens noisily begin their day at 5:30 am; that the basement floods twice a year; that the water heater is three months from death; and that the shower water goes blistering hot when someone flushes the toilet.

FluBugger. It’d be a lot easier to stay healthy if we could see the clouds of germs around us. FluBugger to the rescue! It represents the bugs around you as bright speckles—on doorknobs, people’s hands, computer keyboards, and so on. (Great fun when someone sneezes!) Tap a cloud to identify the virus strain.

Kitchen Spy. Either inside or outside the restaurant, hold your phone in front of you for a view into its kitchen. It’s just like having Superman’s X-ray vision—if Superman were interested in finding out the cleanliness standards of the people who are about to prepare your meal.

Porthole in the Floor. When you take a plane flight, you’re sitting in an enclosed metal tube, oblivious to the wonders of the passing landscape beneath you. (Having a window seat helps, but you’re still too high, and looking too sideways, to see much of the majesty you’re passing over.) This app gives you a virtual porthole through the floor of the plane, showing you a closeup of the landscape five miles below you, complete with annotations that identify points of interest, fascinating facts, and funny local tales.

Insufficient Dater. You aim your phone’s camera at a potential romantic partner, perhaps on the premise of taking a photo. There on your screen, superimposed around the candidate’s face, you see everything you might want to know about getting romantically entangled: Time since last breakup, hygiene standards, emotional stability score, and more. Finally, there’s a way to learn from the mistakes of your sadder but wiser predecessors!

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