Best augmented-reality apps

Augmented reality has long sounded like a wild futuristic concept, but the technology has actually been around for years. It becomes more robust and seamless with each passing decade, providing an astonishing means of superimposing computer-generated images atop a user’s view of reality, thus creating a composite view rooted in both real and virtual worlds. Although AR apps run the gamut, from interactive map overlays and virtual showrooms to massive multiplayer skirmishes, each piece of software hones in on smartphone GPS and camera functionality to create a more immersive experience.

The available selection of augmented reality apps is diverse, encompassing both premium and freemium offerings from a variety of big and no-name developers, but sometimes, choosing which apps are worth your smartphone or tablet’s precious memory is tougher than using the apps themselves. Here are our top picks for the best augmented reality apps available, whether you’re searching for iOS or Android apps.

The best AR apps

Pokémon GO (free)

It wouldn’t be a list of the best AR apps without mentioning Niantic’s Pokémon Go, a game that has quickly captured everyone’s attention and given them a reason to go out into the world, walk around, and catch Pokémon. The game uses GPS to mark your location, and move your in-game avatar, while your smartphone camera is used to show Pokémon in the real world. For the most part, it works, provided the game hasn’t crashed or frozen. There aren’t a lot of instructions when you first start, or information regarding game mechanics like the colored rings around wild Pokémon, but thanks to the nature of the internet, figuring out what to do isn’t that tough.

Players of Ingress, another creation from Niantic, will see many similarities between the developer’s two games, right down to the locations marked as PokéStops and Gyms. The implementation of the original 150 Pocket Monsters is definitely the biggest thing Pokémon Go has, well, going for it compared to its predecessor. Niantic is set to continue updating the game to improve its performance, however, and add new features like trading, so hopefully Pokémon Go will stick around for a good, long while.

Ink Hunter (free)

Ink Hunter is the app you should use when deciding on a tattoo and where to put it. The app lets you try out pre-made tattoos, as well as your own designs, and they can be oriented in whatever position you like and placed on any part of the body. Tattoos placed on the body using the camera look as close to real life as you’re going to get — without actually going under the needle that is — and that’s all thanks to the in-app editor and the way Ink Hunter renders tattoos. The app previously only supported black-and-white tattoos, but its latest update added support for color tattoos as well, meaning you can get a better understanding of what the design will look like before you make it permanent.

Currently, Ink Hunter is only available on iOS, but there are plans for Android and Windows Phone versions. So, if you’re planning to get a tattoo sometime soon, but don’t have an Apple device, maybe consider holding off on that tattoo for a bit, or borrow a friend’s iPhone or iPad.

WallaMe (free)

WallaMe lets you leave hidden messages in various locations around the world that can only be read by other people using the WallaMe app. When using the app, you can take a picture of a nearby wall, street, or sign, then use the in-app drawing and painting tools to create your own special messages. You can also attach pictures to the areas you’ve chosen, if only to prove you were actually there. The augmented reality really comes into play when you’re in a location that has a hidden message, but it can only be found by using WallaMe and your device’s camera. Messages can be made private, too, so that only friends using the app can see them, or they can be made public for everyone to discover.

WallaMe’s biggest strength also works against it, in a way. Those that aren’t aware of the app’s existence, or those that don’t regularly use it, may never see the clever messages created by others. That being said, fans of the app may want to keep it that way, in order to maintain the feel of exclusivity.

Google Translate isn’t strictly an AR app, but it does have one AR feature that’s incredibly useful for translating text. That particular feature is part of the app’s camera mode. Simply snap a photo of the text you don’t understand, and the app will translate the text in your photo in real time. When connected to Wi-Fi, the app supports a vast number of languages — 13 of which were added in a recent update — but users can also download a number of language packs if they want to continue using the instant translation feature while offline or without a cellular connection. Next time you take a trip to a country with a language you don’t fluently speak, Google Translate could be your best friend and the very thing that will keep you from getting lost in a strange land.

Amikasa (free)

Amikasa helps you style your room and figure out your desired layout before you ever buy a piece of furniture. Using your iPhone or iPad’s camera, you can easily walk around your bedroom, kitchen, work office, or any other room you decide to furnish, and place 3D models of various items to see how they look, or to discover their ideal placement. This includes the ability to tweak the color, because maybe that cherry red chair suits the room better than the peach. The app uses name brand items, which you can buy while using Amikasa, and if you’re ever unsure of your own style, your augmented rooms can be shared with friends and family through the app. The most recent update also added more kitchen faucets, cabinets, burners, and wallpapers, giving you even more options to design your perfect room.

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AR games and entertainment

Ingress (free)

Ingress was Google’s first entry into the AR game market, and it’s easily one of the most creative AR applications we’ve ever seen. Basically, the game is an MMO that puts players into two factions — the Enlightened and the Resistance — and has them fight for control of virtual territories in a giant game of king of the hill. Players gain a material called Exotic Matter (XM) by simply walking around, and can use that XM to take over virtual portals. When three or more portals are taken over by either team, they gain control of the area between the portals. It’s a comprehensive strategy title at its core, heavily rooted in science fiction and bolstered by a continuous open narrative, while offering the most social experience of any AR app on our list. Ingress was initially developed by Niantic as an Android exclusive, but you can get it on iOS now, too.

SpecTrek ($2.50)

SpecTrek is an AR game that essentially brings Ghostbusters to life on your smartphone — but without all the vacuum cleaners and cheesy lines from Dan Aykroyd. The game populates your surrounding environment with virtual poltergeists and invites you to hunt down and capture them with your phone. Hold the phone flat to display an overhead map of the surrounding area, use your ghost radar to track them down, and then hold it vertically to bring up scanner mode, and capture them with your smartphone’s built-in camera. Additionally, the game offers statistics, awards, titles, records, and other in-game features, and though the coupled animation is nothing to write home about, there are far less enticing ways of killing boredom on a Sunday afternoon than gallivanting around and netting ghosts in the local park.

Zombies GO! ($2.50)

The Walking Dead is still a wildly popular TV show and graphic novel, and sometimes you may find yourself wondering how you would fare in the zombie apocalypse. Zombies GOdoesn’t give you specific answers for that particular thought, but it does let you fight zombies while walking around outside, waiting for the bus, or even while shopping for groceries. You may have noticed the “Zombies GO” name resembles that of Pokemon Go, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong to expect some similarities — mostly, it’s the concept of holding your phone up, seeing a creature, and choosing how to deal with it. If you do get tired of fighting the undead, though, you can turn on the game’s safe mode to keep from being attacked. It’s perfect for those times when you don’t want to fight, but want to get some amusement out of seeing zombies patiently waiting near a pool or drive through.

Quiver (free)

Given smartphones are more tailored for adults than adolescents, the staggering dearth of AR content for children isn’t exactly surprising. Thankfully, Quiver (formerly known as ColAR Mix) works to bring your child’s 2D color books to life with animated images that spring directly from the Crayola-lined pages upon your kitchen table. Although the app requires printed color pages, users can download one of several free coloring packs on the Quiver’s website, each of which encompasses everything from fire-breathing dragons and cuddly teddy bears, to towering dinosaurs and wild stallions. Once drawn, users merely need to ensure the entirety of the page is viewable within their smartphone camera’s peripheral, thus allowing the image to come to life with the drawn details and accompanying music. Users can watch the animations from any angle once started, pause the content, or even zoom in and out as if viewing a real-life object — and despite being geared toward children — there’s no denying it’s a bit of fun for all ages.

Ghost Snap (free)

If you’re ever at home or in an abandoned building and want to play a horror game on your phone, Ghost Snap has you covered. Inspired by found footage movies like The Blair Witch Project and [Rec], and games like OutlastGhost Snap tasks you with snapping images of ghosts while listening for disturbing sounds and encountering even more disturbing creatures. There’s no way to win this particular game, however, and it’s simply a matter of surviving for as long as you can. The game’s own page on the Google Play store makes this clear: “You cannot run away, there will be no escape.” It’s best played with headphones on (though we understand if you’re against that) and, of course, at night. After all, no found footage movie ever had its biggest scares happen in the middle of the day.

More AR apps

Wikitude World Browser is widely regarded as the king of all augmented reality browsers, and in a way, serves as a third eye of sorts. While using your smartphone’s camera in a given area, the virtual browser — along with more than 3,500 associated content providers — offers you just about any geographically-relevant information you may find valuable in your travels. Useful information is often presented in the form of Wikipedia articles detailing the hallmarks of a specific landmark, or directions to the nearest ATM location or five-star Italian restaurant. Moreover, the app allows users to find hotels and similar accommodations through Yelp, TripAdvisor, and the like, while offering mobile deals and coupons for local stores in the vicinity. The built-in AR games, including the rollicking Alien Attack and bug-beating Swat the Fly, and the app’s ability to mark and share your favorite spots via Facebook are merely an added bonus.

Yelp Monocle (free)

Yelp has always been ahead of the curve. The prominent, social reviewing service provided the iPhone with its first augmented reality app in 2009, the Yelp Monocle, well before similar services began cropping up across the board. The convenient app uses your smartphone’s GPS and compass to display AR markers for nearby restaurants, bars, and other businesses in real time, each bundled with the service’s user-generated ratings and reviews. If signed up with a Yelp account, the app additionally provides directions to nearby friends and the businesses they’ve recently checked into, placing the same AR markers as previously mentioned for friends, family, colleagues, and anyone else utilizing the robust service. Monocle, although somewhat a hidden feature within Yelp, is hands down the best utility for finding and following directions to the most well-regarded, or atrocious, businesses in your local vicinity.

We’ve all done it before — you finish up your grocery shopping and head out into the parking lot to make your way home, but unfortunately have no idea where you parked. Fortunately, Augmented Car Finder is an app specifically designed to help guide you to your hiding vehicle. Once the car’s location is set, the app creates a visible marker showing the car, the distance you are from it, and the direction you should walk to find it. We’ve found that it’s most useful for places like stadiums, convention centers, outdoor concert venues, and other crowded areas or those lined with massive parking lots. Users can also utilize the app to find their seats in large theaters and concert halls. The freemium version of the software should suffice for most users, but the premium version does remove the ads and include additional tools for marking your favorite parking spot or specifying the arrow color. Augmented Car Finder may be an iOS exclusive, but Android users can always purchase the similarly-equipped Car Finder AR ($2.75).

Augmented (free)

Visualizing furniture in it’s potential environment is one thing, but being able visualize nearly any 3D model in augmented reality is something completely different. Although somewhat complex, Augment is an app specially designed to boost sales, bring print to life, and visually see the possibilities at hand. Once users sign up with a free Augment Manager account, the app allows users to upload their own 3D images and trackers from applications such as Cinema 4D, Sketchup, Maya, and the like, and place the 3D models in a virtual environment using the camera on their iOS device. A steep learning curve accompanies some of the more advanced features, but said features also make the software more capable. It handle’s print content in a similar fashion to Layer, offering additional multimedia features with a simple camera scan, but the sheer ability to upload your own 3D content helps it edge out the competition when it comes to deciding where to put that recently-purchased display kiosk or building model.

Gorillaz (free)

The cartoon band Gorillaz has a new album coming out later this year, making this the perfect time to check out the recently released app that takes you into the very home in which Noodle, 2D, Murdoc, and Russel reside. You’re free to wander around and check out the band member’s various rooms and possessions, which can lead to the discovery of song playlists, lyrics, and more. You can even take pictures of what you find to share on social media. Gorillaz fans will enjoy this little experience, which sheds light on the strange, surreal history and lifestyles of the band.

Other AR apps

Layar (free)

Print only goes so far in a world bursting with digital, interactive multimedia. Clad in a baby blue interface and bundled with a commendable help function, the Layar app is designed to bring print content into the digital realm, allowing users to quickly scan and pull data from a variety of commonplace content using their smartphone or tablet. Once a print source has been scanned, the app can retrieve direct shopping links to particular products in a matter of seconds, or bring up videos encapsulating the latest cover shoot for a particular magazine. Furthermore, the app includes tools for sharing retrieved content via the typical social media avenues and touts features akin to the aforementioned Wikitude World Browser, providing a simple means for browsing and setting directions to nearby restaurants, ATMs, historical sites, and other notable places of interest. The ability to scan QR codes, magazines, and other print content may be more of a novelty than anything else, but it does make purchasing that designer tie that much easier.

Sun Seeker ($10)

As the name might suggest, Sun Seeker is an app obsessively designed with one thing in mind: the enormous star position in the center of our solar system. The app provides both a flat view compass and a 3D, AR view, each detailing the sun’s solar path, maximum elevation, its hourly intervals, and its rise and set times, among other noteworthy data. Furthermore, the app presents the sun’s winter and summer solstice paths, and allows users to quickly view the sun’s current position in the sky, complete with marked hour points. Though users can choose from nearly any location on earth, the app also taps into your mobile device’s GPS and magnetometer, providing useful information for gardeners, photographer, architects, real estate buyers, and anyone else looking to discover optimal lighting conditions and relative solar angles for a given location. Plus, users can even view the solar path for a chosen date. Needless to say, the Aztecs would be a wee bit envious.

It’s tough to argue with a mobile app touting nearly half a million recommendations in the Play Store. Google Sky Map will magically instill you with Carl Sagan-like powers and give you the ability to identify everything in the night sky. Once installed, just point your phone upward when it’s reasonably dark and clear outside, and Google will point out all the different stars, constellations, and planets that are visible to your phone’s camera. As you’d expect from Google, the app is super smooth and does all its identifications in real time, and even allows users to search for specific stars and planets not presently visible on your screen. Once found, the on-screen interface and directional compass will then directly guide you to said star or planet — even if hidden behind a veil of cloud cover or obscured by the horizon.

SpotCrime (free)

Sometimes obliviousness is a terrific thing, but that’s rarely the case when it comes to safety. With SpotCrime, users can gather a wealth of real-time crime information and alerts for nearly any location in the United States, United Kingdom, and selected parts of Canada. SpotCrime pinpoints your location via your smartphone’s GPS, pulling crime data from police departments, sheriff agencies, news media, and other sources. Crimes range from robberies and shootings to arrests and assaults, and the app pinpoints each occurrence with its respective icon on a map. Moreover, users can set up automated alerts and search for crimes surrounding a specific address or view them as a list accompanied with links to additional information. The app may not prevent crimes, but it will provide you with a comprehensive overview of the more dangerous avenues and times to be out and about in your neighborhood or park block. As the official SpotCrime description says, “don’t let anyone take your mojo.”

ROAR (free)

ROAR is an app that consumers, businesses, and retailers can all benefit from, but we’re going to speak to the people that are going to use it in their personal lives. For them, ROAR is an AR shopping adviser that lets you take pictures of thousands of foods and drinks, and almost instantly learn their prices and ingredients, see reviews from other people, and maybe even discover relevant coupons and promotions. Products found in ROAR’s database can be compared by price or retailer, and items can be bought from within the app itself. Even more impressive is the ability to scan a movie poster in order to quickly buy tickets to an upcoming showing, potentially saving you the trouble of having to navigate a full website. ROAR is an ever-growing app, and while it was recently updated in February (iOS) and March (Android), even more features to make it easier and more fun to use — including new sounds and music, 3D objects, and animation — are coming soon.

This article was originally published in 2014 and was last updated on 4-17-2017 by Kyree Leary to add Amikasa, Zombies GO, Ghost Snap, Gorillaz, and ROAR.

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