Interview: Layar, augmented reality and wireless healthcare

By Brian Dolan
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Layar's augmented reality app AED locatorIf your smartphone has a compass built-in, a camera and GPS, then it may soon offer "augmented reality" applications, which overlay information onto the phone's screen while the camera is being pointed at a particular object or location. A Wikipedia article may pop up if the phone is pointed at the Washington Monument. A link to a person's Facebook page may appear when the phone's camera is pointed at a friend. These are the more talked about applications coming out of this mobile-powered, emerging industry known as "AR".

Augmented Reality was recently pegged as the next big trend to hype in the tech industry. The publication that made the claim, ReadWriteWeb, is likely right, but their article closed with a sobering quote from the chairman of the AR Consortium, Robert Rice, which helps to put the emerging industry in perspective:

"Don't be misguided by the gimmicky marketing applications now. Look ahead, and pay attention to what the visionaries are talking about right now," Rice said. "AR has long-term implications for smart cities, green tech, education, entertainment, and global industry. This is serious business, but it has to be done right."

We wondered if healthcare should be added to that list, so Mobihealthnews recently caught up with one start-up, called Layar, which has led the pack of AR developers with its platform for Google's Android-powered mobile phones. Layar's co-founder and director of distribution and marketing, Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, sees a lot of opportunity for healthcare service providers to leverage his company's platform beyond the applications that exist today.

Mobihealthnews: Could you describe what Layar is and what the platform enables?

Lens-Fitzgerald: The unique thing about Layar is that it combines digital information with the real world around you. As you look through your phone's camera, wherever the phone is pointed at, Layar overlays information on the screen that shows information about that location. Layar is a worldwide open platform that allows anyone who wants to make a "Layar" to do that. For example, if McDonald's wants to create a Layar and display all of its restaurants' locations, it can do that and include what menus they have at each or what opening times they have. This Layar can then be viewed in our Layar Browser, which is just like a Web browser on a mobile. It does not show Web pages, however, but specific Layars. It's a tool that lets you discover your surroundings.

Is this available on any mobile or specific phones and operating systems only?

This is only available on [Google] Android phones and we are currently working hard on the iPhone version. This year we are just starting out, but next year as everyone upgrades their phones a lot of people will be using it. Right now we are just getting some core users.

What kind of phone functionality is required for this service? GPS or related technologies? A certain type of camera?

It requires GPS or [assisted] A-GPS, like you have in the U.S. and it can also combine WiFi functionality in there, but yes, location-based services, a camera, and a compass. The compass functionality was something introduced with the Android phones last year.

When did Layar go live?

Layar launched in the Netherlands on June 16 of this year. The worldwide launch was just this week. We have a two month rhythm because everything is moving quicker, specifically for mobiles and even more quickly in the augmented reality field. So, we have a two month cycle and we try to keep to that as best as possible. We just did our worldwide launch last week so now we are working on our next cycle.

What's the time frame for the iPhone launch?

We are ready but Apple isn't. Meaning that the software on their iPhones is not capable yet of using the camera the way we would like. So we -- and others in the U.S. specifically interested in [augmented reality] is gearing up for the iPhone release. That will probably be in September that iPhone will make it functionally possible on the iPhone. The second step after that is they have to accept our application. That's kind of weird, hands-tied thing, but we are ready and we are talking to them and we are going to do everything we can to be there as quickly as possible.

What Layars or applications are currently available right now?

Last week we had our worldwide event, where we announced our worldwide launch with almost 100 Layars. We had last Monday about 100 developers working on Layars but now we are inviting another 500 developers to work on the platform. Purdue University, for example, has a couple of Layars in development. They have a garden tour, which allows visitors [to their university's gardens] to discover which trees and other plants are there. Flickr and Wikipedia also have Layars as do Brightkite and Yelp. There are also very regional Layars like Seattle's bus stop Layars, which goes live tomorrow. So we are growing by the minute not only in the U.S. but also globally.

Are there any healthcare or related Layars currently available?

In the beginning, we launched in Holland and one of our original launch partners was Zekur.nl, which is a local healthcare provider. They have a specific health insurance offering, which is only available over the Internet and it is cheap because they only contract out their healthcare services to specific providers. So you can only go to "that" chiropractor and not the other one. In order to facilitate this and give their patients insights into which provider they can go to -- they built one of the first Layars with us to point people to where they can go. This company is also very young so they needed the marketing push this platform would give them. The various healthcare providers covered by their insurance are what you can find [if you toggle] their Layar. That's one of the first healthcare use cases.

Secondly, we have a general hospital Layar in Japan that enables users to point their phone in any direction and it shows them on their camera screen the closest hospitals or emergency rooms in that direction. This is like a healthcare directory service. Also, in Japan and in Holland there is a Layar that allows users to find the nearest AED, [which is an "automated external defibrillator" -- a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses the potentially life threatening cardiac arrhythmias of ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia in a patient, and is able to treat them through defibrillation.] These are machines in public places that people can use on people who have heart attacks.

OK, I can see that service as being potentially useful -- what's next? Beyond just finding things through your mobile camera -- how else can this platform better health or wellbeing? What other opportunities do you see?

Well, you know that I am a cancer survivor, right? So for me that is a good subject always and I know the Livestrong Foundation has a new campaign where you can make what's called a Dedication Page. I made a Dedication Page for my wife, who was great to me and I express that through my Dedication Page. It is a great way to really capture that and to make other people aware of what people do in that circumstance. Those pages also include location information, so that could make a great Layar, where you could go to a Livestrong Dedication Layar and see, literally, how much "cancer" is all around you. I mean that in a good way -- the Layar could make people aware of how much of an impact something like cancer has. Maybe as a part of that Layar you could make a donation or send flowers to someone, but really just to raise awareness and help people lend support, this Layar would be very effective. I didn't know how much there was out there before I got sick. It's good to put that information out there because for those who have it can know that they are not alone. I have emailed them, but I haven't heard back yet.

Another way is for an epidemic type thing, which it may or may not be true for the H1N1, but you could use Layar to pinpoint where cases of [the H1N1 swine flue have been diagnosed], those may be areas that you might want to avoid.

One of the biggest challenges, especially in healthcare, is knowing where to go once you are in the hospital. This is more of a future application -- we are not doing this yet -- but say, you have an appointment with your specialist: Those are very expensive appointments so you need to make sure people know how to get there. Layar could point you to which door you should take to get you to the place you need to be in. This is not possible now, but I see it as a common use case for the future.

How can an Android phone users get Layar today? Is it free?

Yes, it is free. Just like the iPhone has the App Store, Google has the Android Market. To get Layar you just have to go to Android Market and download it.

Once downloaded, users can then access the Layars and there's no need to download anything more?

Actually, every Layar is like a web page. Say, you open up that AED Layar. That will then do a search for AEDs around your location. That request is sent to our [Layar's] server, subsequently sent to the AED server, which is owned by the person who made that Layar and it is available to us. That is then portrayed and visualized in your browser.

How do developers work with Layar to create new services through the platform? What's the process?

That's very simple. Say you want to make a Layar, go to www.layar.com/api and there you will find two links: One is for our documentation, which is freely available. It explains how to make a Layar. The second link is an application or registration link for access to the access key, which helps you to publish your service.

If I create a Layar am I able to charge users access to it, is free only now or what is the revenue model?

No, not yet. That will happen probably but we haven't built that yet. Just like the App Store charges for apps, we could probably charge for Layars. We visualize that a tourist's guide or city guide could be a service users could pay for when they arrive in a new city, for example, but we are still working on that. Right now everybody does it for free.

What are some of the more popular Layars so far? I know it's still early days, but any frontrunner?

Yes, Google Search, Wikipedia and Flickr are all very popular. The general "what is going on around me" Layars. The more users and specific use cases and good story use cases we get, then the platform will grow and become it's own long tail probably.

How many users do you have currently?

Well, according to Android Market we are still in the 10,000 to 50,000 downloads and that's just for after a week. I do expect we will cross into the next bracket soon though. We have more than 100 and I think we are approaching over 200 developers worldwide. We have over 100 Layars currently and it's just growing and growing.

What we realize is that we are very much at the beginning of a very big movement. This is going to be a very big technological advancement that will change a lot of things. We are very humble about that though -- trying to be. There's really a lot of things changing as the digital world combines with the real world... We can't see everything but that's why we love having an open platform. We can't think of everything.