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