Finally, an app that makes Google Glass seem like a good idea

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In the early days of smartphones, apps that layered data over the real world—”augmented reality” apps—were all the rage. Point your phone’s camera at the street and the screen would show nearby restaurants and bars. Aim at a building to learn about its history. Or view a magazine through an augmented reality (AR) app and watch the ads comes to life (and who doesn’t want more from their ads.) It seemed like a nice idea. But it never really took off. The technology didn’t work very well. Content was limited in its scope. Users got bored once the novelty wore off. And it didn’t exactly change our relationship with ads.

Mike Lynch, a British entrepreneur who set up a $1 billion investment firm after selling software group Autonomy to HP for $10.3 billion, thinks the time may now be ripe for AR to make a comeback. He is backing Taggar, an app produced with Neurence, a company in which his firm invested an undisclosed amount. Taggar differs from the AR apps that have come before in two important ways: It works by streaming video to a remote server rather than relying on the phone’s computing power itself. And it adds on a social layer to what was previously a pretty static application.

That means anybody with the app can “tag” real world objects, and attach video or words or an image. In a demonstration in London, Taggar’s Charlotte Golunski used the app to look at paintings that came to life, as in a Harry Potter movie, and packaging that displayed extra data and video. As long as she did that through her iPhone, Taggar remained underwhelming.

But when Golunski donned her Google Glass, suddenly the app made more sense. It was more like a search engine for real-world objects, but one that doesn’t require any physical input from the user. As Glass’s functionality expands from a display in the corner of your eye to one that covers your field of vision, such automatic recognition would become more powerful yet.  The fact that users are able to tag things that are then displayed to others who chance upon them is what makes it social, and is also what makes it powerful.

Lynch admits that the technology is still in its early stages, comparing Taggar to the first iPhone, which today seems like a clunky, featureless device. It was only with the introduction of the app store that it became more than a fancy handset. Similarly, apps like Taggar will depend on wearable technology becoming easier to use and more intuitive in the coming years. For now it remains cumbersome using it on a phone, no matter the social aspects or fancy demonstrations. But it is at last an illustration of what the world might look like as wearables such as Google Glass eventually become mainstream.

(For what it’s worth, Quartz earlier this year published a wish list of not-yet-available apps that would make Google Glass truly useful, including instantaneous translation and price comparison services.)