Google and Apple meet on several battlefields in the mobile computing war, but there is one big front where the rivals have yet to show their weapons: mobile augmented reality.
Mobile augmented reality (AR), which comprises the overlay of information on real-world views seen through a mobile phone's camera viewfinder, is the window to the Internet of Things, where real-world objects have data associated with them.
For example, one AR application could allow users to point their phone's camera at a building, click on an information label associated with the building and see information about the building's history.
ABI Research analyst Mark Beccue has been studying mobile AR, which to date has largely been a niche market covered by startups such as Layar and Wikitude, which have built AR browsers for smartphones such as Apple's iPhone and Google's Android platform.
Beccue said the 2010 revenue total associated with AR amounted to only $21 million, but added that the total could explode to $3 billion by 2016.
Who will facilitate the growth, which he sees infiltrating mobile marketing, online search, tourism, retail, social networking and many more verticals? Google and Apple, of course.
Google and Apple will become major rivals and facilitators in this space because they each possess computer vision technologies that rely on smartphone cameras that send image information to the companies' computing clouds, then back to the users' phones to complete an action.
Google offers Google Goggles, a visual search application that lets users take pictures of objects such as landmark bridges, book covers, wine bottles and other two-dimensional objects.
Apple acquired Polar Rose, which makes facial recognition software and other products that enable the "automatic creation of events based on visual cues in images."
Apple hasn't said what it is doing with these assets, but Beccue believes the computer maker could adapt the assets as a social networking capability on the iPhone. For example, Beccue said a user might hold his or her phone camera up to a person and see that person's social networking feeds from Facebook, Twitter and other social apps.
Of course, there are all sorts of privacy concerns with this, so Beccue said such a service would have to be completely opt-in. If an iPhone user didn't choose to turn on the facial recognition enablement for the app, his or her social feeds would not be accessible from other users' iPhone cameras.
Google, which has deliberately (Google Buzz) and inadvertently (Google Street View) challenged privacy boundaries, has interestingly declined to make facial recognition a part of Goggles due to the privacy concerns.
"Google is being driven by search, which is being driven by a new kind of search, [which] would be [the Internet of] Things," Beccue said. "They started with books and CD covers, but we're talking about anything. There are a lot of different pieces they need, but they have very sophisticated algorithms."
For example, Google could marry Google Goggles with its Google Shopper application.
This would allow a shopper to point his or her phone camera at an article of clothing in a retail store and learn perhaps not only all of the sizes available, but all of the colors and even information about which stores might carry the clothing article at a discount.
The key to real AR market growth, Beccue told eWEEK, is to embed AR into a wide range of apps running on a variety of devices. That's when we'll see the tipping point en route to that $3 billion estimation ABI expects in the next five years.