Layar Augments Reality, and Nokia Augments Layar
The Layar Reality Browser, an innovative augmented reality app, has had its own reality augmented by a user experience (UX) consultation from Nokia.
The consultation took place during the porting of the app, developed by Amsterdam, Netherlands-based Layar B.V., to Nokia smartphones based on Symbian platform. After applying mobile heuristics to the app, the UX consulting team both summarised what worked well in the app and highlighted issues that still needed work.
Layar B.V. is the developer of the Layar Reality Browser, an innovative augmented reality app. And when the Amsterdam, Netherlands-based company ported the Layar Reality Browser to Nokia smartphones based on Symbian platform, the project itself was augmented. Layar’s app received a user experience (UX) consultation from Nokia . After applying mobile heuristics to the app, the UX consulting team both summarised what worked well in the app and highlighted issues that still needed work.
As its name implies, the Layar Reality Browser brings layers of reality to Nokia smartphones. It does so by projecting location-specific digital information and media onto the real world — or, at least, the real world as seen through the lens of a Nokia device’s camera. In this way, mobile users can learn facts about nearby attractions, discover how a location appeared in the past, find local restaurants, see which movies are playing in local theatres, and more.
The Layar Reality Browser is unusual in that it simultaneously uses nearly every hardware feature of a Nokia smartphone, including its camera, GPS, compass, accelerometer, and internet connection.
Originally, Layar had developed the app for other, non-Nokia smartphone platforms and had enjoyed some early and serious successes from the effort. It also attracted notable attention, including a recent venture investment, led by Intel Capital, of 10 million euros.
But Layar, noticing the growing success of Nokia’s Ovi Store, was also eager to port its app to Nokia smartphones. To aid the process, Nokia provided Layar with a detailed UX consultation.
While Layar had some UX expertise on its five-person Symbian development team, this was the first time the company had received in-depth reports on the app’s UX. ’With the other platforms, we did some internal usability testing, but it mainly consisted of inviting some people — some who were familiar with Layar, and some who were not — to run test cases‘, says Martin Ahe, Layar’s distribution alliances manager. ’We asked them to do some tests, and we recorded their reactions, what they liked, and what they did not like.’
Still lacking, however, was an in-depth evaluation using mobile usability heuristics. These measures include consistency, ease of input, system-status visibility, ergonomics, and ease of use. Fortunately, this was a benefit the UX consultation from Nokia could provide. By applying mobile heuristics to the Layar app, the consulting team discovered both what worked well in the app and issues that needed attention.
While Layar team members had not worked before with mobile heuristics, they found many of these new ideas easy to understand and use. ‘Some of the mobile heuristics, such as consistency and error management, are the same as those for the web’, says Inge Kuijper, an interaction designer at Layar. ‘So in a way, we were already using those.’
When identifying functions in the Layar app that could be improved, the report from the UX consultation suggested how the improvements might be implemented. Also, the report ranked each UX issue in four categories of increasing severity: cosmetic, minor, major, and catastrophe. ‘This was quite interesting’, Ahe says. ‘Because we are used to working with our app and the way it looks, it was helpful to get some insight into how an outsider perceives it.’
Sometimes, a small change to an app’s user interface can make a big difference in the app’s overall usability. That was the case with one suggestion for Layar settings. The UX report noted that two of the settings — the distance unit and the grid option in the augmented-reality view — could be simplified. Instead of using a pull-down menu, as was originally done, the options could use a toggle style, since each setting has only two options. In the case of the distance setting, they are kilometres and miles; for the grid setting, the choices are shown and not shown. ‘We felt these suggestions were very useful’, Ahe says.
Most of the suggested improvements were also easy to implement. Even when some issues cropped up because of what Ahe calls ‘limitations of the Symbian platform’, the UX consulting team could help. ‘Every time there was any kind of problem’, he explains, ‘they either suggested a solution or, if they didn’t know the solution, they found someone who did know.’
Another benefit of working with Nokia: The Layar developers can rest assured that their UI will look familiar to users of other Symbian apps — and be easy to use. ‘Of course, we tried to do that from the start’, says Kuijper. ‘But it’s really helpful when another person looks and gives you a second opinion.’
The Layar Reality Browser will soon make its debut in Ovi Store. The app will be free and will run on selected Nokia touchscreen smartphones based on Symbian.