Augmented Reality – What a great idea!

First a confession is in order – I’m not a big fan of cell phone cameras.  In the corporate world, they are sometimes banned or considered a nuisance.  In talking around the water cooler, cell phone cameras are terrific for documenting car accidents, especially when you aren’t at fault.  However an exciting use for cell phone cameras has emerged from Europe – augmented reality.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept of augmented reality, think of the Terminator movies.  When the robot looks at a person, scene or object, there is a set of facts or augmented information presented as a layer on top of the picture.  terminator_2_large_16For fighter pilots, the heads up display while looking forward out of the canopy is another good example of augmented reality.

The idea that you can point your cell phone camera at the scene in front of you and immediately through a “reality” browser see overlays of information about shops, restaurants and other facts is exciting and potentially game-changing for tourism, advertising, and mobile browsing in general.   Using the location-based services for cell phones, especially smartphones with built in GPS features, the software creates a “layer” of information on top of the picture.  In fact, the company, sprxmobile, driving this capability has a product called Layar that enables real time digital information on top of reality through the camera of a cell phone.  Their web site lists 87 available layers in many verticals including real estate, healthcare, transportation, tourism, entertainment, weather, schools and universities, and local search and directory services.  Today, the new software is limited to the Android operating system used in Google-oriented cell phones, but hopefully the idea will grab mainstream attention and move to other major smartphone operating systems.

Clearly, adding this reality layer service to browsers has broad applications beyond cell phones, however there are immediate applications for mobile users that come to mind.  Standing in front of a house for sale, pointing the camera at the home and seeing the price, number of bedrooms, etc. would be great.  Even better would be the ability to compare augmented information from a snapshot of a home up the street.  The application could capture the location based information from the cell phone with the picture and enhance the search experience.  Think about the impact of digital photography to grab GPS coordinates for adding information automatically or posting location information to Flickr, for example.

Augmented reality may be the “killer” application for smartphones beyond the obvious contact and calendar management.  The ability to add the value of layers of actionable information to where you are immediately located could revolutionize personal computing as well. The ease of adding this type of service to a browser demonstrates the power of both web services and mash-ups. My hope would be that it doesn’t simply add more advertising to our world, but ease traveling, shopping, navigating universities and large sporting venues and bring us actionable information in real time.  It is an exciting technology that needs to be nurtured and adopted for mainstream cell phones.

Know Your Customer: How Web Analytics can save your IT applications team money

We’ve all dealt with requirements that were written by well-meaning, but Mosaiclogotechnology-confused procurement departments, or business users who believe that people still use the Mosaic Browser (my first graphical browser!). Few authors of quasi-technical requirements put much thought to the actual cost of implementing a modern, rich, dynamic web application on decade-old technology.

A purposely over-the-top hypothetical quote :

The application must support Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0+, Netscape 4+ at a minimum graphical resolution of 800×600 pixels.

While you may at first chuckle at this obvious bit of anachronism, think back to the last system requirements you spec’ed out for a web application.

What browsers did you ask to support? Were you shocked when the development team told you you couldn’t have that cool AJAX drop-down because your browsers didn’t support it? Were you suprised when compromises had to be made to the look and feel, or flow of the application? How many users really use those old browsers, anyway? How many of your users do?

“They shoot browsers, don’t they?” — Jeremy Keith

Don’t know the answer? Don’t worry, it’s pretty common. A lot of businesses make requests for web-based applications without first doing internal due diligence to understand their target market. Sure, you can build a web application that settles for the lowest common denominator — but why sacrifice when you might not have to?

Understanding your users’ browsing platform should be one of the first steps to building requirements for projects that involve a significant IT spend on web application development, whether it be enhancements to existing applications, or greenfield development.

Here’s 4 reasons why skipping this important step of due diligence will cost you more money, or users, or attention:

  1. You’ll Be Too Conservative. Fearing that you’ll lose the 0.5% of users who may be on Internet Explorer 5.0, you’ll insist (against your CTO’s recommendation) that all users are important, and if it means sacrificing a few bells and whistles, so be it.
  2. You’ll Be Too Boring. You’ve heard about rich internet applications, Web 2.0, AJAX? If you’re trying to support these new technologies on browsers that are 5+ years old, forget it.
  3. You’ll Spend Too Much. The 80/20 rule will be in full effect when you realize late in the development cycle that no one tested with Netscape 7.2. “But it’s in the requirements document!” cries the project sponsor. Frantic testing will unveil the fact that half the functionality is broken or visually skewed. You fire the designer, and the project goes into a death march to the lowest common denominator.
  4. You’ll Be Unhappy with the Final Product. You’re building the web application to replace your mainframe claims processing system. Or your billing system. Or your financial forecasting package. And the final, boring mess will look exactly like what you had on your old green-screen system, except it’s different. Users are complaining that it’s not easy to use, and your CFO is now revisiting your ROI projections. Projects aren’t supposed to end like this… are they?

Fortunately, judicious use of web analytics and good old fashioned business analysis can provide you with concrete data to build a solid foundation of business cases and technical requirements. The chart below illustrates browser market share over the past 9 months:

Browser Stats April 2009

Source: StatCounter Global Stats, April 2009

You can see that the bulk of market share goes to a very small percentage of very modern and powerful browsers. How can this information help you? In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore how up-front legwork in web application development can lead to a happy outcome for all.

Chrome – a quick first look and review

Yesterday I got all excited about the Chrome release. It is available now for download at http://www.google.com/chrome

After playing around with the new Google Chrome Browser for the last hour, here are some initial thoughts:

  1. It’s very light weight. It installs in seconds and takes little system resources to run. It is also light on features. More on that later.
  2. It’s FAST and renders almost every page I’ve tried perfectly. 
  3. I like the new interface which is nice and clean, the tabs on top etc.
  4. The tools for developers are cool with the task manager providing great system details and even the view source supports code color coding. 
  5. The first page is fine but I find it somewhat annoying that you can not edit the content of the 9 default boxes. Automation is a fine concept but you are not always alone. If I happened to go and check on a gossip site during the day, do I want everyone present in the next meeting when I fire up my browser to know that? some editing functions will be useful.
  6. It is a beta release granted but even for a beta it is missing some browser staples that have been part of any browser for a long time. Accessibility, content ratings, parental controls, Zoom, Fontsize change all gone.
  7. Bookmark management is extremely basic
  8. Passwords. I could not believe but here it was in plain text. If you answer positively for storing you password, Chrome will allow you and anyone else that happens to be sitting at your desk not just to access sites but to view the plain text version of passwords to saved sites. This is bad.
  9. Surprisingly, no support exists for the Goolge Toolbar but I’m sure that will be remedied soon.
  10. Lack of support for plugins.

Overall, it is a good little browser that mostly good for casual reading and using the Google tools. It is not ready for the workplace nor can it be a single or even the primary browser for any power user.

It is an impressive first foray into the arena and I hope they beef it up for the actual release if it’s to be a contender