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Appiphilia: Augmented reality iPhone apps for finding subways and Twitter neighbors

When Apple announced the addition of a compass to the iPhone 3GS, shortsighted onlookers responded with a yawn. Yay, we can find magnetic north.

But iPhone app developers quickly saw an opportunity, and a new breed of "augmented reality" apps are about to be born.

Holding the phone in front of you, locations are plotted on a live view of the world in relation to where you're standing. The apps combine the phone's key features -- camera, GPS, compass and Internet connectivity -- to create a sort of heads-up display reminiscent of first-person shooter video games.

The first two poised to hit the App Store -- pending Apple's approval, of course -- are Nearest Tube, which plots subway stations in London, and TwittARound, which shows nearby Twitter users.

Nearest Tube overlays information about subway stations, including the stop's name, its distance from your current location and which lines it serves.

The first version of the app, which has already been submitted to Apple, will cost $1.79 per city and will ...

... only support two U.S. cities to start -- New York and San Francisco, said Chetan Damani, director of app developer Acrossair, on the phone from London. You can see a demo of Acrossair's New York  version in the video above. Apps for London, Tokyo and Berlin have also been submitted.

Acrossair's website indicates that they're testing versions in Chicago and Washington as well. Despite Google Maps having finally added support for the Los Angeles transit system last week, Damani is unsure whether they'll release a version for L.A. any time soon.

"We need to see if the subway system is big enough," Damani wrote in an e-mail. We expect Acrossair will be fairly disappointed with our comparatively small public transportation system.

But TwittARound will work right off the bat for L.A. techies. Like the subway app, you hold the phone in front of you and then get a view of tweets based on their location data -- as long as the user has decided to share that information. TwittARound isn't available on the App Store yet either, but there's a demo on YouTube for those who can't wait to get a sense of what it's like to step into augmented reality.

IPhone 3GS users are about to get some new toys that will no doubt make users of iPhone ancestors pretty jealous.

-- Mark Milian

 
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