Google Play and the App Store are awash in augmented-reality apps, and as with apps in general, many of them are terrible. At least Pokémon Go got people, y’know, going, encouraging players to leave the house and get out in public moving their bodies and having some good clean fun; most AR apps are gimmicky and quickly grow tiresome, serving no real purpose and making middling use of the potential of modern technology.
There is an AR app that creates a virtual tape measure that is notoriously inaccurate and can’t be used for any sort of precise measurement. There are several apps that virtually suspend words in the air, creating ephemeral messages that you could have just texted or added as captions over an image. There’s even one that lets you cheat at Sudoku, solving the puzzle for you when you aim your smartphone or tablet at an incomplete grid. (Or at least solving it some of the time — apparently it often fails to complete the puzzles properly.)
Despite the glut of semi-functional, questionably valid AR apps out there, many developers have made great use of this nascent technology, releasing AR apps that are useful, effective, and enjoyable. Not all of them are perfect, yet — but many give a sense of what’s possible in this realm.
Just a Line turns the whole world into your sketch pad, allowing you to “draw” simple line images, jot notes, play tic-tac-toe or hangman, or doodle away for fun in virtual space. Best of all, the app allows for real-time collaboration between two devices, so you can swap notes or sketches or play games with a friend sharing the same AR experience simultaneously.
This amateur astronomer’s app turns your phone or tablet into a guide to the night sky, revealing the location of stars, planets, constellations, and even tracking the real-time position of the International Space Station. It’s a great educational tool and is simply fun to use, especially if you ever make it to areas without light pollution.
You know what’s better then going to IKEA, buying furniture, bringing it home, assembling it, putting it in place, and only then realizing the piece you chose really doesn’t fit the space? Virtually placing the furniture to see whether or not it looks good first, then going through those other steps after you’ve already seen that furniture in your home.
This app creates a virtual course for you to run and allows you to set speed or distance challenges, to try to beat other runners’ records, and track your own improvements over time. You can also set up virtual obstacle courses, challenging yourself to sprint to different checkpoints and improving agility and balance.
While Google Translate offers multiple non-AR functions, its AR feature is arguably the most useful. By aiming your device’s camera at text written in any of the more than three dozen languages the app currently supports (it translates more than 100 languages when you type in the text), it will instantly translate the words.
Ever wondered how a microwave works? Or what’s going on inside an analog clock? Or in the Earth’s core, for that matter? Once you have the JigSpace app, you can use your device to view virtual images of these and dozens of other objects hovering before you and watch as they are deconstructed and explained, giving you an understanding from the inside out.
This app allows you to create floor plans that you can “see” in real life by directing your phone or tablet around the room. You can create a virtually renovated kitchen, picturing your brand-new space complete with fixtures in place and those new cabinets before you ever order a single tile; you can redecorate a bedroom or basement; or you can measure and then select furniture for an entire office suite, virtually filling a space so you know what to expect when actually appointing it.
The name says it all: This app marks the location of your vehicle and then makes it easy to find the car, projecting arrows showing the direction to turn and info about your distance from the vehicle as you make your way back toward it. Many platforms already offer vehicle-location marking options, but this one makes it laughably easy to make your way back to a parking spot, no following a map required.
This app invites you to “discover history’s treasures” right before your very eyes (well, your very screen). You can use it to scrutinize historical artifacts, such as ancient weaponry from Rome, an Egyptian death mask, or a Grecian urn, or you can view famous works of art in three (virtual) dimensions. It’s a must-have for the student and/or the armchair historian.
The whole world can be your zombie hunting ground with this AR app. Whether you’re wandering in the woods, waiting on a subway platform, or hanging out in your own home, you can look through your phone to see zombies popping up everywhere around you, and then you can blast them to hell without feeling guilty, because they’re zombies. And virtual zombies at that.