This is a guest post contributed by Top 10 Mobile Phones, a UK mobile phone comparison website

The UK and Japan both have huge mobile phone markets which belie the relatively small physical size of both isolated island nations. The UK currently has around 70 million mobile phones in use, which means that there are more than enough for each and every member of the 61 million citizens. Japan has closer to 110 million mobiles in their market, but with a population of nearly 130 million the UK has it beat in terms of market saturation.

Japan`s Key Companies and Money Matters
Japan`s telecommunications industry is worth over £1.5 billion every year and mobile phones makes up a large chunk of that. Japan is also home to some of the most innovative mobile phones and the latest mobile phone networking technology. They were the first country to give consumers access to the internet on their mobiles a decade ago and they continue to innovate on the technology side of things. A majority of mobile phones sold in Japan use the latest 3G technology to offer fast mobile internet and close to 50 million new phones are sold every year. This is because like the UK there is an upgrade culture which sees most people replacing their mobile phone handset every 12 to 18 months. Japan has several major companies producing mobile phones including Toshiba, Mitsubishi, NEC and Panasonic. In 2006 many of these providers suffered from over saturated foreign markets. As a result many withdrew their offerings from countries like China in order to focus their efforts on the domestic Japanese market. This is why many phones which are produced in Japan never get sold overseas. The largest mobile phone network in Japan is NTT DoCoMo and a third of its parent company is owned by the Japanese government, partially explaining its incumbent dominance of the market.

UK`s Key Companies and Money Matters
The UK does not have any of the major manufacturing companies like Japan, but it does have a public with a hunger for the latest gadgetry and some of the most powerful mobile phone networks in the world. Vodafone is an exemplar of this model and is currently the largest mobile telecommunications company in the world, estimated to be worth in excess of £75 billion. Britain has also been the birthplace for other telecommunications giants like Telefonica who operate under the O2 brand in the UK and who were developed by British Telecom in the 1990s. Unlike Japan there are five major mobile phone providers and with the recent merger of T-Mobile and Orange the market has become both more consolidated and as some argue more competitive, meaning better value for the consumer.

Mobile Phone Technologies
In both the UK and Japan mobile phones are evolving on what seems like a daily basis. Japan has been the hub for mobile developments in recent years, with mobile phones becoming more and more versatile within everyday life. The use of mobile phones not just to communicate but to pay for goods and services like a virtual wallet has been recently trialled in Japan.

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This is a quick first-impressions review of Layar 2.0, an augmented reality app released for the iPhone 3GS by sprxmobile [iTunes – free].

For starters, this app is very cool, and definately has the “Wow – we’re living in the future!” factor. It far surpasses the AR apps released by Presselite (Bionic Eye Tokyo, Tokyo Metro) mainly due to the fact that it has a myriad of data sources – the primary ‘layar’ plugging into Google Local Search, thus enabling it to draw from a wealth of existing reviews / photos / location and contact details.

Other layars already available include Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia, Panoramio – plus many more localised layers (the Layars displayed will be local to the country that you have your iPhone set to in International settings, or you can manually set the location in the app’s own settings panel).

Here in Japan you’ll currently be offered find ATM guides, station guides, Hot Pepper, a hair salon search and more.

The user interface is a refreshing break from that adopted by Sekai Camera and the afore mentioned Presselite apps. The manner is which their airtags float around is ‘cool’, but not very practical. It’s far easier to navigate the 3D grid laid out before you in Layar.

This is of course an extremely young market, so expect to see rapid developments over the next few months. It’s great to have some more companies entering the arena with different approaches to UI etc, and it’ll be interesting to see if any one of them comes to dominate the market.

Ok, let’s see some screenshots.

The main menu: choose a layar
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The primary layer is ‘Layar Local Search’ which utilises Google Local Search. Just enter your search term. As with Google, you can enter your search terms in Japanese or English. You also have the option to define the the spread of your search.

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A search for ‘station’ (it brought up train stations, a gas station and a couple of other results, such as ‘Gohongi House’)

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Map view (Google map inside the app – clicking the blue jump icon will take you to the iPhone’s native Google Map app)

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Ok, let’s search for restaurants:

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Restaurants: Map view

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This is where it gets sexy: click on the small blue jump arrow bottom right, and you’re given 3 choices:

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Click on ‘Call this spot’ and your phone will dial the restaurant number. Click on ‘More info’ and this is the kind of thing you’ll get:

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Customer reviews, directions / contact details, photos, it’s all there.

Click on ‘take me there’ and the route will be plotted for you on the Google map.

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Of course, much of this functionality is native to the iPhone’s Google Apps map – but the seamless integration with the AR makes it far more attractive.

Twitter

So what about the Twitter Layars? I tried two out, with similar results.

So here we have Tweeps Around in AR mode. The light blue blob indicates the current active tweet, and below you have the tweet itself with the avatar.

Layar: Augmented Reality Twitter Japan

The cool thing is, is that as you turn around, the highlighted tweet changes – so you feel that you’re kind of scanning the air for tweets! At this point you are officially living on a Star Trek set.

You can switch to map view too of course – here we see that in Tweetmondo.

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List view

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Flickr

It soon picked up a couple of photos I took near the station the other day.

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Flickr layer options

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Flickr list view

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Wikipedia

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Summary

Layar is a fantastic AR app, and provides a nice cross-over between the closed database approach of Presselite and the user-generated content of Sekai Camera. I believe the layer approach is a winner, opening the door for massive expansion.

As with all AR apps, it falls down when it comes to accuracy. One nice feature however is that it tells you how accurate it is at any one time, so you know how much to trust it. Another thing I like, is that unlike Sekai Camera it is displayed in Portrait mode, making it easier to use as a one-handed navigation device when walking.

The recent debut of two such strong players is great news for AR development, and I expect that within a year we will no longer actually need to look at anything except our iPhones as we go about our daily lives.

sekai camera shibuya station

There’s been much made of Tonchidot‘s Sekai Camera, one of the first Augmented Reality iPhone apps to allow users to add their own content to the virtual-world database powering it.

And rightly so. Whilst Augmented Reality has been around for a long time (starting out in the military), this is the first time that it’s been made available to consumers without requiring specialist hardware. All you need is Japan’s best selling mobile handset, the iPhone.

We recently tried Sekai Camera out on our 3GS, and were pretty impressed by what we saw.

The iPhone’s GPS is used to locate nearby airtags, with the built-in compass figuring out what to direction your facing to only display relevant tags. The tags constantly wobble around in mid-air as you move (3G users who don’t have the compass can manually scroll through north/south/east/west, but should upgrade to the 3GS for ease of use and overall sex appeal).

First off then, we powered up Sekai Camera opposite Shibuya Station. As you can see there’s a fair number of tags. The white ones seem to be pre-defined – these include banks, stations, building names etc. The coloured tags are text air tags that have been added by users themselves. They don’t tend to say anything very profound, and may remind you of your first few Twitter tweets, when you had to tell everyone that you were just having a cup of coffee / brushing your teeth.

Tap on an air tag, and it fills the screen. Wait a moment, and any text displayed on it will appear in another window along with the details of the user who uploaded it (not shown below).

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If you’re anywhere crowded (like Shibuya) there can be far too many tags to see any in detail. To deal with this there’s a built-in spiralator: tap and hold your finger on a tag for a few seconds and they’ll all arrange themselves in a neat rotating spiral allowing you to read them one by one.

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Adding your own airtags is easy. Once you’ve registered (username / password, done in-app) just choose your tag type from the menu on the right hand side: Text, photo, or sound.

Then, enter your text / take your photo / record your audio, click on ‘post’ – and it’s up. It should then show up on your screen (and that of anyone else using the app in the area) within a few seconds. Here is Paul‘s head floating in a pub in Shibuya.

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The next thing to do is take a photo of the person you’ve just made an airtag of and get them to point at their own head. Believe me, it’s trickier than you’d thing as these tags tend to wobble quite a bit (thanks for your patience Jonny!)

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In tag-rich areas there are some filters which may come in handy. Under ‘Filter’ you can choose a date range (anything from tags posted in the last 24 hours, to forever), and distance from your present location (50m – 300m).

You can also choose whether or not to show your own tags, other air tags, landmarks and shouts (a shout is an airtag that someone posts by clicking on ‘shout’ – this booms out through the virtual world and fills the screen of nearby users – as a shout might fill their ears).

There’s also a ‘pocket function’ – this stores all of your bookmarked tags, and will display them on a map.

Ok, that sounds like it coulld be fun – but is it actually useful?

Erm, in a word, no.

At least not yet – but expect that to change in the near future when the next update is released.

So why’s it not all that useful yet? Well, for a start, as mentioned above, it’s like the early days of Twitter when everyone was desperate to tell others that they were feeding the cat. There’s a lot of noise out there, and whilst the distance / time filters do help, they still don’t control whose tags you see and whose you don’t. Imagine a Twitter where you basically have to follow everyone near you.

Secondly, the limitations of the iPhone (notably the compass) mean that you don’t always get accurate accurate placing of air tags. This will of course improve with future hardware updates.

But having said that, this app is AMAZING! It’s such early days for this technology, and to have a smooth user experience at this stage is, in my book, quite staggering. We will undoubtedly see significant upgrades and additional filters / functionality added in the near future (this post will be updated with news on that in a few days).

In the meantime, I’m going to be busy filling Tokyo’s virtual AR world with quality photo tags of bowls of ramen and text tags saying “I’m her now”.

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Having been consistently disappointed by voice recognition apps in the past, it was with some scepticism that I installed Koetan Tokyo from Traffic Gate, Ltd.

[iTunes, Free]

Using it is very simple. You can ignore all the Japanese.

Image 1

– Tap the big black button in the middle.
– Say the name of your starting station. Pause a moment. Say the name of your destination station.
– Add the word “まで” (ma-de = ‘to’).
– Press the button in the middle again.

The app will now connect and search for your route (this only takes a few seconds. Of course you must have a data connection).

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Image 2
The results screen shows several results, one of which is bound to match yours. Not once has it failed to place my  route at the top of the list. As you can see, it’s in English and Japanese, so this is a great way to see how station names are written in Japanese too.

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Image 3
Having selected your route, the detailed results page appears. Yes, it’s all in Japanese, but even if you don’t read Japanese you can see all the important info, including time taken, cost and the number of changes. The route is diplayed below.

Click on the car / map option (地図によるルート)to see the route on the apps built-in map (image 4).

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You can then click on マップ (top right) to view the map in the iPhone’s native Google Maps app (image 5).

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Like many of these kinds of navigation apps (such as the Tokyo Metro App), Koetan! does not provide you with real-time timetable information – it’ll just give you the route and time it’ll take, so if you need precise timings you’ll still need an app such as Ekitan (Japanese only).

Another limitation is the fact that it only covers Tokyo (no Saitama, no Chiba etc) – no doubt this limitation is one reason it’s so accurate in terms of voice recognition, as there’s not all that much for the software to choose from.

However, this app is a fantastic way to quickly get this basic info without having to type in the station names, which is often the thing that causes the most problems for non-Japanese speakers.

Tokyo Metro App name: Tokyo Metro

Part 1: the Basic App

This is a great navigation app for Tokyoites, with a decent resolution pinchable image of the Tokyo subway network and, unlike most timetable apps which require an internet connection to function, this one will work mid-tunnel too.

It includes a GPS-enabled station finder for those times when you haven’t a clue where you are, or you can just enter the name of an area of Tokyo and it’ll pick out your nearest stations for you. A recent update brought the ability to simply select your start and end point by tapping on the stations on the map.

The app has a range of interface languages to choose from – this is a welcome addition to the line-up of japan-based public transport apps available, most of which require at least some knowledge of Japanese (Ekitan remaining the cream of the crop at present).

Whilst lacking that certain iPhone sexiness, the metro map is easy to use, with relevant stations being highlighted following searches. There’s also a link through to Google Maps, allowing the user to move seamlessly from the train to above ground to continue their journey.

There’s certainly room for improvement though, something the developers themselves acknowledge with their mention on the iTunes product page of updates currently being worked on.

Improvements to the basic app that would be good to see in future updates

Currently, the list of train lines is static, and merely serves as a key to understanding which line is which on the main map. Ideally, tapping on a line name would bring up a scrollable linear map of all stations along it, complete with interchanges for other lines.

As noted above, with the app using a local database no network connection is needed to plan a route. However, this also serves to curtail it’s functionality, as even when you do have a network connection results are limited to showing where to change trains and how long the total journey will take – there are no real-time departure or arrival times so for that you will still need something like the above-mentioned Ekitan.

Additionally, searches net only one result when multiple journey options may be available.

Being designed for non-Japanese readers, the lack of additional Japanese script for station names is understandable – but deprives users of the fun of learning kanji whilst they travel.

Part 2: Augmented Reality

Tokyo Metro appThe release of a new version of Tokyo Metro with an augmented reality location engine got quite a bit of attention from the international iPhone community – but how does it stand up to actual use?

Well, it’s a mixed bag.

How to use it

First off, you need to install the AR databases. These are sold separately from the app itself – you will be prompted to buy them within the app itself when you go to Settings and turn on the available Points of Interest. At present these come in several database sets (each set costing about 115 yen to download) include American Style restaurants, Japanese Style restaurants, Cafes, donuts and ice cream outlets, convenience stores and other misc leisure places. It should be noted that the same databases are used for Presselite’s other Tokyo-centric AR app, Bionic Eye Tokyo, so if you already have them for that the app will automatically use them.

(N.b. if you receive an error message when trying to buy these AR databases, reinstall the latest version of the Tokyo Metro app).

Having bought and installed your AR databases, from the app’s main display tap on the Locate icon. It will default to showing you a standard list of stations in the local area. From here, if you click on ‘Map’ you will see (surprisingly) a Google Map with all the POI listed. To enable Augmented Reality, click on ‘POI’ (Points of Interest). This will fire up your iPhone camera, and all enabled points of interest in the local area will show up, floating in the air (as shown above).

The app uses not only GPS, but also the iPhone 3GS’ built-in compass, so as you turn around, so the floating tags will change (see below about compass accuracy).

One neat thing is that as you then tilt the phone down towards the ground, the floating tags are replaced with a list, as shown below.


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Click on any of these and the display will change to an arrow pointing towards the place.

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When it comes to options regarding what is displayed: as well as the basic enabling / disabling of POI databases, you can also set the localization distance (200m – 3km).

The Verdict

Well this is very cool. A few years ago I never would have thought I would have this kind of AR device in my pocket, and especially not in the form of what has essentially just been a minor software install for the phone I already carried (is the iPhone not the sexiest device on Earth?!)

But to be honest, cool does not equal functionality in this case. Why? Accuracy. I’m guessing that this is not due to the app, but due to the limitations of the iPhone itself in this case and the limits in accuracy of today’s GPS (how many times have you used Google maps on your iPhone and have it tell you you’re on the other side of the street?).

Because of this, if you’re using it in AR mode to find a place the chances are you may be going in slightly the wrong direction. You are also at risk of tripping over big rocks in the road / falling down storm drains and breaking your leg because you have your eyes fixed on the screen.

BUT – the Google Map integration is good (just like the native google maps app but with more POIs). Using it in Map view allows you to make up for any inaccuracies in the positioning device.

The AR function is however great for impressing friends at parties who have yet to see convenience stores and Starbucks floating in the air.

It’s an incredible reasonable price for what is essentially cutting edge consumer technology, so if I were you, I’d get it.

N.B. Presselite’s ‘Bionic Eye Tokyo’ has no functionality that the Tokyo Metro app doesn’t have.