A review of Foursquare, Layar and the Foursquare Layer
March 13th, 2010 by Ivo
Location Based Services are hot
Ever since phones have been equipped with GPS devices it's been possible to provide applications with information about the user's location. I used to have a Nokia N95. It had a GPS but other than Google Maps, I never did anything useful with it. When I switched to the iPhone a couple of months ago, I started to use more and more apps that are location aware. The main reason why it works for me on the iPhone is that the iPhone just always seems to know where I am, whereas the N95 only knew where I was when I asked for it. How is this different? If I'm inside a building where GPS signal is blocked, the iPhone still knows where I am, because it remembered the last time it had a GPS signal. The N95 on the other hand would only start to read its GPS device when I started an app, which worst case meant I didn't have a location at all and best case meant I had to wait up to a minute before it had a fix. Usability win for the iPhone.
How is the location generally used? The basic premise is that applications now know where you are, so the most common application is to display maps and your location on them. But what is also fun is that games you play can now compare your score against the score of people in your neighborhood, search engines can show more relevant results based on where you are, shop applications know what shop you are near, travel applications know where you are located so you don't need to enter your start address; the possibilities are endless.
Foursquare is hot
One of the services that draws a lot of attention at the moment is Foursquare. It's basically a game that lets you 'check in' to venues. So you enter a bar, open the foursquare app, it recognizes the bar you are in and finally you press 'check in'. See the official screenshot from the app store:
What's the point? There are several.
- First, there's the game element. You get points for checking into venues, and you can earn badges for special achievements. The person that checks in the most becomes the 'mayor' of a place.
- Second, there's the social aspect. When you check in, you immediately see who else is there, so it provides information on which friends are in the same venue as you. The other way around works too, you can see where your friends are by looking at your friends list.
- Third is the ability to leave behind tips. As it happens I checked into a restaurant at Gatwick Airport yesterday and got the tip 'before you order a steak, have a look at the knife you're supposed to use'. I had a laugh when I looked at the tiny blunt knife on the table in front of me. Tips such as 'order the Mexican style chicken, it's not on the menu but the chef knows how to make it' are as useful as 'Skip the chili, they have no clue what they are doing'.
- Finally, Foursquare is working with partners to provide incentives to visitors. It's the Web 2.0 version of bonus point cards. In the future you'll be able to show your Foursquare status to a shop owner to receive special rewards for frequenting the venue.
There is some debate on the downsides of location based applications such as foursquare. Please Rob Me is a spoof of Foursquare that demonstrates how burglars could use the location information to find out which houses are empty. This however is a matter of responsible internet use. I for instance generally only share my location with friends (I don't accept foursquare invites from people I don't know), and if a robber wants to know if a home is empty, there are much easier ways to find that out.
More info: http://www.foursquare.com
Augmented Reality is hot
Not 'hot' in the sense that everybody is using it, but at least large quantities of people are talking about 'Augmented Reality'. For those who are not yet familiar with the term, augmented reality is when you watch the world through the camera of your phone, while your phone adds real-time information about the objects it sees. See the screenshot on the Layar homepage for an explanation.
What's the point? Again, there are several.
- First, it 'feels like Star Trek'. You point a device at something, and it tells you useful information. This is plain geek fun.
- Second, it sometimes makes it easier to find things than staring at a map and trying to figure out where to go. Just point your phone away from you and the screen will indicate where you are and what points of interest are in the direction you look at. It's compass 2.0.
- Third, it's easier to find tourist (and other) information. Instead of firing up a browser or starting a wikipedia app and searching for the statue you're looking at, you just point your phone towards the statue and it will show you what the statue is. This is especially useful if you don't know its name meaning you have no other way to look at it.
Augmented reality is currently based on location (GPS), direction (compass) and sometimes time. This means that if you point your camera at a statue, it will not actually 'see' the statue but it knows you are near the statue and looking in its direction. If there is an object blocking the statue, it would still show the statue. In the future, it will most likely be enhanced with actual object recognition. StickyBits is a prelude to that; it allows you to recognize objects and attach information based on a barcode you stick onto it. Expect similar services using RFID tags in the near future and actual visual recognition in the distant future.
In terms of Gartner's Hype Cycle, I believe Augmented Reality is just moving from the 'technology trigger' phase towards the 'peak of inflated expectations', which means that it will take a while before it becomes truly useful, but it will draw a lot of attention before that happens.
Layar is hot
There are several augmented reality apps in the AppStore, but the one I like the most so far is Layar. Not just because I'm proud that it is of Dutch origin, but because it's the one that is the most usable at the moment. Layar revolves around the concept of 'layers' that you display on top of the camera view of your phone. There are layers showing nearby shops, points of interest, people sending out tweets, foursquare venues, rental price of appartments you look at, houses that are for sale; there are already hundreds of information layers that you can use in Layar.
As to practical usefulness, so far I've used Layar mostly as a gimmick, showing off its capabilities to friends who then also install the app and use it as a gimmick too. I haven't yet had a need or want to actually walk around a city and use Layar to provide me with necessary information. But read on for a practical review.
Layar is available for several mobile devices including the iPhone.
More information: http://www.layar.com
The reality test - Running around with Layar and the Foursquare Layar
The past 2 days I was on a business trip to London, and since my trips to London usually incur a lot of travel with the underground, taxis, buses and just walking around in central London, I decided to put Layar to good use and use it for a couple of days to see if it will 'stick'. Since I also use foursquare, my main goal was to use Layar's Foursquare Layer, developed by Squio.
In practice, this meant that when I walked up to a venue, I would point my iPhone at it with Layar running and the Foursquare layer activated and then check-in. Here are my findings:
- Phones need a tilted camera for this kind of application. It is very cumbersome to walk and hold the phone in front of you. This means that it blocks your own view and typically looks weird. On two occasions, I had people move out of my way when I was standing on a corner looking at Layar, because they thought I was filming or taking a picture. It would be better if you could hold the phone like you do when you are reading or looking at a map, and the camera would point directly away from you instead of towards the floor. Layar itself has a tilt button that you can use to adjust the display of the layers to how you are holding the phone, but this does not affect the camera view itself.
- Foursquare's GPS information is not very accurate. While other layers do a pretty good job of exactly pointing out a point of interest, the foursquare layer often gets things wrong. This is caused by the fact that the person who first added a venue is not necessarily located on the exact center spot of the location. I had both a pub and an underground station where Layar would not show me the venue that was in front of me. I had to turn around because the venue in the foursquare layar was located 10m behind me. In the regular foursquare app this is ok, as it is nearby enough, but for augmented reality it is problematic. For underground stations in London it's fairly logical that the GPS spots are outside instead of in the station. When I emerge from the underground and want to add the station as a venue, it takes a few meters before the phone restores both its GPS and network signal, so at the moment I check in, the GPS location is outside of the actual station (but still near enough for regular foursquare use). I have thought of a few great ways to make the GPS more accurate but I'm not working at Foursquare.
- iPhone's lack of multitasking inhibits the user experience. When I wanted to check-in when I spotted a venue in Layar, I had to first authenticate Layar with Foursquare, and then use a custom foursquare check-in page within the Foursquare Layar to perform the checkin. This custom screen lacks most of the features that are important to me, such as directly seeing tips and friends at the venue I check in to. (I had an additional problem where the first day the OAuth authentication between layar and foursquare consistently timed out, so I couldn't check-in using Layar at all at first). If the iPhone supported multitasking, then applications such as Layar could fire up the actual Foursquare app to do the check-in, while keeping the layar open in the background.
- Maybe this is just a bug, but in map view (where you don't use the camera but a regular street map) in Layar the compass wasn't working, so the map didn't point me in the actual direction of a venue.
- There are some usability issues with Layar and the Foursquare Layer, where the 'what would apple do' paradigm could help improve the user experience. One is that I always had to do multiple actions: Start layar, select foursquare from my favourites, click through a settings screen even though I didn't want to ever change those settings and then point the camera. Ideally, it remembers the last layer I used and skips settings dialogues and immediately starts with the core functionality.
- The biggest fun is the gimmick value. When I showed someone what I was doing I almost always got a "wow I didn't know that was possible" response.
So will I be using layar consistently to check into foursquare from now on? No, as, fun as it is, it's not more productive or more practical than using the regular foursquare app. I will use it however as a demonstration of what both augmented reality and foursquare can do. What I will be doing with Layar is find out information about the things around me, most notably when I'm on vacation and want to get information on tourist attractions. In this scenario, augmented reality is more practical and more useful than manually looking things up.