Use your iDevice to peer into bodies and the heavens, find your way, and translate foreign tongues
Mostly, your device is used as a means to pipe information into your brain. But as technology becomes more powerful, your smartphone has the means to effectively remix the reality that is around you, by way of adding to what it sees through the camera.
This has led to a huge variety of apps, ranging from serious products that can make your life a whole lot easier through to rather more throwaway affairs that double down on fun. In this round-up, we outline ten of our favourites, including translation apps, products for finding your way around, and a way to turn your iPhone into a lightsaber so you can use The Force within the safety of your home.
Free • v5.0.0 • 31.0 MB • By Google, Inc.
Although it has the capacity to amuse with its translations when they go wrong, Google Translate more often wows. Type in a phrase and it’ll more often than not help someone get the gist of what you’re trying to say. This is pretty impressive stuff. But on incorporating technology from former favourite app WordLens, Google Translate went a whole lot further.
With a subset of languages (29 at the time of writing), you can prod a camera icon rather than typing in text you want to translate. Hold your iPhone up, so it can see whatever you want converted — a sign or menu, for example — and you’ll get a conversion, live.
Accuracy is of course dependant on the clarity of the text in front of your iPhone, and results can sometimes be a bit patchy. Even so, we’ve had great success with the app, even when trying to figure out ingredients listed on tiny labels in Spanish supermarkets.
Free • v1.8.4 • 20.8 MB • By blippar.com
There’s real ambition in Blippar, which goes beyond Google Translate’s attempts to recognise text by trying to figure out everything that your iPhone can see. Point your camera at the objects around you, and the app will attempt to ascertain what they are, providing descriptive terms and links to further information.
When we tried it, the app took about a dozen items to identify a Miniature Schnauzer (Cat? Skunk? Yorkshire Terrier?), but it did well with appliances and food. If nothing else, it’s a taste of the future, when devices will likely be able to identify everything around them, and advertise to you accordingly. And that’s Blippar’s other angle: point it at specific products and you get amusing augmented reality experiences, such as the label on a popular brand of ketchup opening up to become a tiny browsable recipe book.
$3.99/£2.99 • v9.2.1 • 29.5 MB • By pinkfroot limited
One for plane geeks, Plane Finder is all about tracking, almost in real time, planes zooming about the place. By default, these are shown on a standard map, which is perfectly nice, but we’re interested in augmented reality in this feature. Fortunately, then, you can hold your iPhone in front of your face and see little cards bobbing about, detailing passing flights. A radar helps you orient yourself to the most nearby craft, if none happen to be in the immediate vicinity and you don’t fancy randomly waving your iPhone around to try and find some.
Star Walk 2
$2.99/£2.29 • v2.1,3 • 147 MB • By Vito Technology Inc.
To extend your digital eyes towards the heavens, there’s Star Walk 2. This is one of the iPhone’s leading astronomy apps, providing the means to search the night sky, discovering the whereabouts of planets, stars and other celestial bodies. You can navigate by dragging the screen about or lift your device to find out which stars are in your field of vision. However, there’s also an augmented reality view, which essentially overlays the Star Walk 2 sky map on to what you can see. During the day, this is oddly amusing; at night, it can be strangely hypnotic, seeing the stars through your iPhone and their names and constellation shapes overlaid.
Free • v10.19.0 • 70.8 MB • By Yelp
With our feet firmly back on the ground, Yelp is all about finding local businesses. You can use it to quickly search for places to eat, drink, relax and play. Much like Plane Finder, this can all be provided as a map, or as a straightforward list. However, if you’re ambling about a new city, you can tap More and fire up Yelp’s Monocle view. You’ll see handy floating cards that can lead you towards places to visit, and each includes a rating. Should you want to venture beyond food and drink, AroundMe has broadly similar built-in technology for a more diverse range of points of interest.
Free • v2.1 • 63.0 MB • By DAQRI
The first of a pair of apps that moves augmented reality beyond the iPhone alone, Anatomy 4D also requires a printer. You print out a page on the human body or just the heart and then fire up the app. Eerily, a 3D form of what you’re learning about will hover over the paper when it’s placed on a desk. This can then be zoomed and explored from various angles, and you can highlight or remove specific components. So for the human form, you can strip everything back to a skeleton, or with the heart you can concentrate on valves and ventricles. Again, it feels like a peek into the future — a kind of proto-sci-fi take on education that you can experience right now with your iPhone.
Free+IAP • v3.11 • 114 MB • By Puteko Limited
In terms of technology and method, Quiver has a lot in common with Anatomy 4D. You print something out, place it on a desk, and watch as it comes to life before your eyes. Quiver, though, is all about colouring. You print out a black and white sheet, get to work with pencils, pens and crayons, and then point your iPhone at the completed sheet. Whatever’s on it then springs to life, a bird ambling about, trying to catch a worm, or a plane flying above your handiwork. The animations are short and canned, but it nonetheless feels quite magical seeing living drawings, not least because they take on the colours you use. The free version includes a few demos, and you buy additional pictures with IAP. Alternatively, a premium version of the app exists, priced $7.99/£5.99.
Free • v1.1.0 • 60.2 MB • By Masquerade Technologies, Inc
A while back, there was quite a cottage industry with apps that would do interesting things to a selfie, such as making you look older or turning you into a hideous zombie. MSQRD is essentially the same thing, only it does this live, enabling you to shoot your reaction as a video that can be shared.
It’s dead simple to use, too. Just line up your head with the outline, pick a mask, and then make all sorts of silly expressions to change what you see on the screen. The app has a tendency to chop and change the masks on offer, which is a pity, but it’s amusing and also showcases the power of modern technology (along with how said technology, naturally, is best put to use on something very silly indeed).
Free • v1.8.1 • 104 MB • By Disney
The Star Wars app is of course essentially a massive advert for one of the most popular movie series around, but we’re including it here because it includes a couple of interesting augmented reality ideas. The first involves ‘scanning’ Star Wars movie posters. (Top tip: get one on your computer’s screen via a search engine and that will work just fine.) You’ll then be able to plonk a Stormtrooper in front of it, or have BB-8 lurking before you.
Perhaps of more interest is the Force Trainer. This pits you against the combat remote famously seen in the original Star Wars. The remote bobs about in front of you, and you tilt your iPhone to deflect its shots. The game is simple but effective, even if fending off lasers feels a bit odd in an office rather than on a spaceship.
Free • v0.3.2 • 4.9 MB • By Reality Jockey Ltd.
Rather than remix what you see, Hear reworks the sound around you. It uses your iPhone’s microphone to listen, and applies effects to ambient audio, which is then played back through headphones. Depending on the effect used, the result can be relaxing or disquieting. For example, Happy makes it sound like you’re about to be attacked by mad munchkins, and Talk auto-tunes voices to music. However, Super Hearing boosts the sound around you, and Office drowns ambient noise in a sea of blissful reverb.
Reportedly of benefit to people with anxiety disorders, it’s also genuinely useful as a means to largely block out whatever’s going on nearby, without feeling forced to pump music into your skull. For a freebie, it’s quite astonishing.