The Top AR Apps for Travel

Shawn Forno

Imagine a world where you can carry all the world’s music in your pocket, search the collective data of scholars around the planet in seconds, and watch cat videos just about anywhere. Sounds like science fiction, right? Of course not. You have a phone in your hand, and you probably take for granted that you can facially search your photos in seconds for that one pic of you in high school, or play Scrabble with your childhood dentist whenever you want (which is hopefully never).

Smartphones have changed the way we live our lives, but one of the oft overlooked ways that phones have changed life as we know it is in how smartphone technology has completely revolutionized the way we travel.

We can book accommodation from anywhere, buy, change, or even track our flights in real time. We call taxis, look at GPS enabled maps with our exact location, translate text and speech on the fly, and summon whatever data we need from the internet with just a few taps. Oh and pretty much all phones come equipped with pocket-sized professional grade cameras, video cameras, microphones, and editing studios.

Smartphones have transformed travel so that even someone like myself, who traveled the world just a decade ago, finds parts of the current travel experience unrecognizable. And it’s happening again, except this time the big change coming to your phone is augmented reality, or AR.

Augmented Reality and Travel

Last year I wrote about the spread and application of VR and AR tech in the travel space. VR is powerful and amazing, but it’s also kind of clunky. Headsets are heavy, and they don’t travel well. AR however, doesn’t require anything other than your phone, and thanks to the announcements of the ARKit for Apple’s newest iPhones (the iPhone 8 and iPhone X), AR is coming even faster to a phone near you. Make no mistake, this isn’t just some new app coming to your phone—AR is a game changer in how we process, store, and present information in “the real world.” 

Technological changes that have finally made consumer grade AR possible include  Apple’s “TrueDepth” cameras, Visual Inertial Odometry (the thing that understands your movement around a room), scene understanding and light estimation (super scary stuff), and more robust hardware and processing thanks to a new Apple proprietary chip. AR is here, and it’s going to be everywhere soon.

More Than Just Apple: AR Everywhere

In 2016, I reported on a WIRED story that showed major companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, and Samsung all had divisions dedicated to artificial reality. Facebook alone had over 400 people working on VR, a year ago. A single report from the Verge in March claimed that Apple alone has, “over 1,000 engineers working on AR.” And that was in March.

Major tech companies have finally built functional AR capabilities into our wonder devices. Now app developers are scrambling to capture some of that Pokemon Go magic as the first practical applications for AR start emerging on the iTunes and Android app stores. Here are just some of the exciting new AR apps for 2018 and beyond.

15 AR Travel Apps That Are Already Here

Google Translate: Real Time Translation to Go

If you’ve never used the Google Translate app while traveling, you’re missing out. Sure, translation technology is far from perfect, but thanks to updated software and camera integration, and snapping up Word Lens (a competitor in the space), Google Translate can actually do what the name promises most of the time—translate signs in foreign languages right there on your phone.

Currently the app functions by analyzing text, but AR overlays are already here. Simply hold your phone up, and AR displays translations of text into the language of your choice right before your very eyes. Google Translate’s AR is about to make text and signage around the world a lot easier to navigate.

Wi-fi, or a good connection, is necessary to use Google Translate, but according to the site, “users can also download a number of language packs if they want to continue using the instant translation feature while offline or without a cellular connection.” Heck yeah.

Apple Maps: AR “Flyover Mode”

If you’re anything like me, when you travel, sometimes you have to “go into the map” a la Joey Tribbiani. There’s nothing shameful about getting lost in a foreign country, but thanks to AR integration on an existing app (Apple Maps), you might never have to step into another paper map again. 

Available in these 300+ cities, the AR flyover mode allows you to zoom over a city, swooping and diving in all directions. You can literally soar up and over the skyline to see where you want to go. It’s kind of amazing. Just search for a city in Apple Maps. Select the first result, then tap “Flyover” on the bottom of the screen. If you don’t see “flyover” it’s not available in that city yet.

What’s even cooler is that you can take a flyover “tour” of Paris or Rome before you ever step foot on a plane for a better sense of your destination. The applications for travel and navigation are staggering, and AR is only going to get better. This is just a quick example of how AR isn’t something in the future—it’s already here, and it’s changing travel in ways that we can’t even grasp yet.

HoloMaps: 3D Maps in Your Pocket

If you don’t like Apple Maps (and I can’t blame you), check out Holomaps. This app uses a “3D virtual map while overlaying real-time data in a solo or shared experience.” It currently features over 200 cities and landmarks in full 3D modeling of any size so you can go full Godzilla in the privacy of your hotel room. No one will ever know.

WallaMe: Hide Messages in the Real World

I just hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain this past month, and one of the cool/annoying things I noticed along the trail was a habit of leaving messages for friends and strangers on markers along the road. Some see this tradition as a form of graffiti, others as a quirky side effect of the fast friendships that form on the Camino, especially between people who walk at different speeds.

Personally, I like the scribbled mottos, creeds, encouragement, and even personalized directions and notes for other travelers along the way. What’s even more fun is the way people often reply and respond to these messages, knowing that the original author will never see their addition. As the miles slide by, it’s fun to watch this analog message board take shape on the road. However, many other travelers see this as what it is—ugly graffiti. Luckily, there might be a way to keep this conversation alive without ruining the beauty and information of signs along the trail.

WallaMe is one of the first AR app to integrate “hidden messages.” How it works:

  • Take a photo of a place (a wall is a great example)
  • Write or draw your hidden message
  • Share it with friends and contacts or make it public for the whole world

When your friends or contacts with permission get to that exact spot and point their phones at the wall, ta-da, they’ll see you hidden message written in the magic world of AR in their phone screen. It seems a little fringe, but the application of hidden messages is exciting especially for travel. Just think of all the scavenger hunts right in plain sight!

InkHunter: Virtual Tattoos

Nothing sucks more than a bad travel tattoo. I won’t name any names here, but we’ve all seen them. Now, thanks to InkHunter Virtual Tattoos and AR, you’ll never have to get a tattoo you regret again. See what your “dope” tattoo will look like on any part of your body, before you get it inked forever. You can even design the tattoo and photograph it on your skin for your friends to see and weigh in on. I don’t know about you, but my travel tattoo game just got real.

HUDWay: AR Heads Up Map Displayer

Finally, you can drive like you’re in a friggin Sci-fi movie with the HUDWay heads up navigation display for your dashboard. It’s safer and easier than checking your phone while you drive, and the translucent AR heads up display just looks cool. Skip to about 4 minutes into the video below to see it in action.

There are already a dozen independent apps that integrate with the HUDWay glass dashboard hardware ($49), including tricked out speedometers (that warn you of upcoming speed traps!) offline navigation apps, and more. Get your ride one step closer to a TRON bike with this AR hardware.

Travel side note: I’m sure this will eventually trickle down into the rental car market, since it’s safe, and a cool upsell feature, so expect to see this at airport rental car lots near you soon.

ViewRanger: AR Trail Maps

Not all the AR advances are happening on the road. ViewRanger brings AR to the great outdoors by overlaying data and navigation onto thousands of trails in 23 countries. The GPS capabilities and camera access allow you to share your adventures and navigate offline using the detailed 3D maps. But that’s old news. The AR functionality of the Skyline feature brings the overlay of information to untouched landscapes.

Simply point your phone at that mountain range and see names, trails, and information like elevation. A real time functional map overlay of the entire world (one day), all in your pocket. What’s really interesting is how ViewRanger is already being used by more than 250 search and rescue teams in several countries to find and identify travelers.

Uncovr “Digital” Print Media

Print is dead, right? Not if you revive it with hidden AR bonus features like video and additional content. Digitizing print is just one more tool in the AR toolkit thanks to apps like Uncovr. Just point your phone at the cover of an AR enabled magazine, article, or even sticker, and see video content, GIFs, or just about anything.

Think of the applications of readily available, yet unobtrusive digital content in analog form. Imagine a travel guide book stuffed with, not just “offline” written content on the page, but, hours or videos and insider guides, music, tips, and more on every single page, locked within the AR lens of your phone. Imagine carrying something as small as a business card stuffed with videos of a destination locked into that slim piece of paper, ready to be shared with any traveler you come across.

Check out the Christopher Niemann AR enabled cover illustration for the New Yorker from May of last year to get excited about this technology.

Wikitude World Browser

Built back all the way in 2008, the Wikitude World Browser is the granddaddy of AR integrated apps. Point your camera at… lots of stuff, from print media to buildings for info on just about anything you can imagine. Remember, it’s powered by Wikipedia—the most unstoppable force on the planet.

Star Chart: AR Star App

Ever wondered what that constellation above you is? Not sure where to go to see the latest meteor shower? Wonder no more. The Star Chart app provides you with info on over 120,000 stars, constellations, meteors showers, comets, and planets of the Solar system. That’s not new. What is exciting is the AR mode.

Now, when you raise your camera to the sky Star Chart can tell you everything about those twinkling dots in the sky. Get pumped. This is cooler than it sounds.

Vortex Planetarium: AR Astronomy

Vortex Planetarium is another beautiful and easy star chart app that tells you what’s up there. Loaded with thousands of stars, constellations, planets, “caldwell objects” (whatever that means), and much more—your smartphone lens is practically a telescope just without the fragile, expensive heavy lens. Set the transparency of the display so it doesn’t blot out the real thing. 

Even cooler, you can get alerts about upcoming celestial events, moon phases, meteor showers and more.

Plane Finder: AR Flight Tracker

This top rated travel app in Google play lets you see all the air traffic around the world in real time. Seriously. Track your connecting flight from anywhere, and take advantage of the AR camera by literally looking up in the sky for info on that plane that just flew overhead. While not super applicable as a functional travel app, the ability to see a plane’s destination laid out on your phone as it whizzes overhead at 35,000 feet is nothing short of a techno-marvel.

Plus, it’ll probably make you want to travel once you see how many people are taking awesome trips right in front of your face.

 

LifePrint: AR Photos

LifePrint is an app that creates augmented reality video playback on analog print photos. It’s basically like Harry Potter. Simply shoot a video, choose a thumbnail, print the picture, then view it through the camera and your app. Your video will appear on the screen. It’s crazy.

LifePrint uses a travel-sized printer that allows you to print augmented reality capable 2x3 photos on the go. It’s a major upgrade to the Polaroid.

Prynt Case: AR Photos and Camera Case

Prynt Case, another AR based smartphone printer/video overlay app actually integrates the photo printer into your camera case. Yeah. It turns your phone into a polaroid camera for videos. It crushed its Kickstarter goals all the way back in 2016 (feels like forever ago), but hasn’t made a ton of headway since. We’ll see if the new ARKit from Apple kickstarts the AR photo case maker back into the limelight.

Lonely Planet AR City Guides

The rise of AR means the inevitable rise of travel guides. I’ve already seen a few annoying ones, that I won’t mentioned here (don’t want to give them any free press). However, I was surprised to learn that Lonely Planet not only already has an AR enabled collection of guides, but they’ve had them since 2010.

Lonely Planet put together advice for “25 key cities around the world” complete with GPS-enabled maps and augmented reality camera views with all that sweet sweet historical context years ago, obviously hoping to cram info into your smartphone. Unfortunately technology didn’t cooperate. Until now.

The rise and adoption of AR in the newest generation of iPhones should signal a revival of AR travel content, with blue chip content creators like Lonely Planet at the forefront. We’ll see if they expand on those “key cities” with rich AR content next year.

CurioPets: Nope

CurioPets basically a Tamagotchi for your phone. If you don’t know what a Tamagotchi is, congratulations—you’re a good person. Don’t download this app. Don’t.

TL;DR

AR isn’t coming, it’s here. Your phone is already magic, so adding another layer to REALITY is only in keeping with what this piece of future tech can do. Embrace the power of AR or be left behind. Seriously. I have a feeling this is going to move really, really fast. Pay attention to this space over the next year.

  • AR Maps make so much sense; they’ll be everywhere by the end of 2018
  • AR constellation apps are adorable
  • Travel guides with AR functionality are the future: lightweight, updatable, and data rich
  • AR enabled photos bring the best of analog travel into the 21st century, Harry Potter style