Layar on the Mashup

Obsessed. I have become obsessed with an iPhone application called Layar. I first learned about Layar in February when I spoke at the Marketing Pioneers event in Amsterdam and three people independently felt compelled to share the locally developed application with me because they thought it was so interesting.

Layar is a free application that uses your GPS location to show what is nearby by displaying real-time information on top of the image on your mobile's camera (it works on other platforms as well as the on the iPhone).

The founders of Layar call it "augmented reality." I call it "cool." And I think there are interesting insights into how large databases can be deployed through GPS-enabled mobile applications, delivering new revenue streams to econtent companies.

Perhaps the best way to explain the application is to share how I use it. As I travel the world, I frequently find myself in an unfamiliar city looking for a meal. I usually get quite particular about what I'm looking for, saying to myself, "Tonight I think some Thai food will be good" (if I'm not too hungry) or "If I don't get some burritos in like 10 minutes, I'm gonna freak out" (when I am famished). My wife and daughter say I get mean when I'm hungry. All the more reason I need a solution.

So when I've got to have Mexican food immediately in an unfamiliar city, I open up the Eating and Drinking layar (if I am in the U.S. at the time; I open the equivalent layar when in other countries), point the camera at the street, and see various restaurant names and locations pop up as layars on top of the camera image. I can even see restaurant reviews in another layar. As I pan the camera around the city streets, other nearby restaurants pop into view, showing a marker on the building if it is visible in the camera. It's easy to find a Mexican joint (the food kind).

Layar is an awesome mashup, combining 1) your mobile camera with 2) your GPS location plus 3) huge data sets. The best way to think of Layar is as a cable television provider with your mobile as the television. The different content suppliers (there are hundreds) are like the different cable TV stations, and the "shows" on that station are displayed depending on where you are at the time based on your GPS coordinates.

Layar is both truly global and hyperlocal. The data sets come from all over the world. Yet you can find something valuable-restaurants and bars, retail shops, health clubs, educational institutions, real estate, and more-a few steps away from where you are at that moment.

Because Layar was created by a very small team of smart entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, the application is data agnostic. I hate to be pessimistic, but in my experience, had an application like this been built by one of the humongous companies in the telecom or software or information industries, it probably wouldn't be the same. The proprietary stuff would likely come into play and they'd probably make it a closed system that only works in one country.

Layar already has a good content catalog and is growing very quickly. One of the earliest content providers was Funda Real Estate, operator of the largest real estate portal in the Netherlands. Funda Real Estate aggregates about 200,000 property listings (nearly every property available in the Netherlands from all the major real estate agencies in the country). When you look through the camera on your mobile device, the Funda layar presents a marker on the location of each house that's for sale that you see on the camera screen. If you touch a dot, you get information about the house: the price, the number of rooms, how many square meters, and contact information for the agent selling the home. So if you're considering homes in a particular neighborhood, you might also be interested in checking out local restaurants and nearby clubs, and you can do that using other layars.

The combination of large databases, mobile technology, and GPS location identification is delivering new markets for content provided by companies such as Funda Real Estate. It's fascinating to me that while print content delivery is certainly declining in many markets, other opportunities are springing up. The winners in the mobile market will be those companies that understand how people are using mobile content in different ways than they are using content that is in print or on computers.