The best augmented reality apps for Android

Use your Android phone or tablet to scan the external world and find places to hang out or relevant information from the web.

augmented reality apps
Credit: Derek Walter
Use your camera for more than just selfies and pictures of lattes

Augmented reality is one of those futuristic-sounding technologies that wows your friends at a cocktail party. Apps like Layar and Google Goggles are among many that seek to combine your surroundings and location to give you contextual information.

Magazines and retail stores are starting to recognize the ubiquity of smartphones and are plastering their products with QR codes and other scannable objects. The space is somewhat fragmented, with several proprietary codes and symbols out there for you to scan with their matching applications.

What follows are some of the best apps in this category to ramp up your smartphone’s scanning power.

Google goggles
Google Goggles

Google will certainly not leave itself out of any kind of search technology, and that includes searching the real world by taking photos of things.

Google Goggles can scan not only QR codes but also products and ads to find related content. You can even take pictures of books, album covers, or famous artwork to get more info.

With Goggles you need to just experiment and try out scanning everyday items (although you may get funny looks if you do this excessively). 

Google Goggles (Free)

layar
Layar

Layar was one of the first apps to jump into the augmented reality scene, offering its app on the iPhone before there was a burgeoning app market on Android.

With Layar you can just point your phone at anything and it find if there are restaurants, bars, or other points of interest worth discovering. You can also scan print articles or ads to get a mixture of offers to purchase the item or perhaps see a movie trailer from a print ad.

A Layar Google Glass app is also available if you are one of the few and proud owners and want to scan the items around you with minimal effort.

Layar (free)

star walk app
Star Walk

Star Walk was one of the first apps to create a form of digital stargazing with augmented reality. Launch the app, hold it over your head at the night sky and it creates a virtual window into the heavens.

The Star Walk database has over 200,000 celestial bodies and a substantial bank of information about planets, satellites, and constellations. One of the coolest features is the Time Machine, which will explore the map of the night sky from years past or into the future.

Star Walk ($2.93)

blippar
Blippar

Blippar is a popular choice for many magazines to offer a digital link to their content and advertisements.

For example, Sunset uses Blippar with the publication’s print ads. Scanning the page will generate a “Buy Now” button that takes you right to the product’s web site. Sometimes the link is to a non-mobile site, so it can be rather challenging to maneuver on the phone. The content varies by what the company has programmed into its Blippar connection, with some sites choosing to add in games or contests.

Blippar (Free)

ikea catalogue app
IKEA Catalog

The popular Swedish furniture maker is using its app to make its paper catalog more interactive. Use the IKEA Catalog app to scan the items from the catalogue and get extra images and content suggestions. You can save items to a shopping list and get 360-degree suggested room layout. The shopping list could be rather useful as IKEA stores are infamous for being a tomb of network connectivity.

IKEA Catalog (Free)

wikitude
Wikitude

Wikitude is much like Google Goggles, with a feature it calls “computer vision” for scanning everyday objects and advertisements. It offers up videos or online shops from companies that have built these extras for the app.

The company also has a product called Wikitude Places, which much like Layar will float an icon above the direction of a place that the app thinks you should check out. It finds restaurants, hotels, and places to shop. But Wikitude Places is a "Sony Select app" and only available for those with a Sony phone.

Wikitude (Free)

Field Trip app
Field Trip

FieldTrip is a pretty neat app for exploring surroundings when travelling. It runs in the background and then alerts you when interesting or out-of-the-way spots are nearby with a series of cards. It's made by Google's Niantic Labs (whose other product is the "play in the real world" game Ingress).

You can create your own virtual field trips by marking locales and saving where you went inside of the app. It can be somewhat of a battery drain if you allow it to aggressively offer local details, so it may be worth adjusting this feature to ensure you can actually use the app through the duration of a trip.

Field Trip (Free)

tourist eye app
TouristEye

TouristEye is useful if you want to diversify the source of your travel recommendations beyond the behemoths of Google and Yelp. It is now under the Lonely Planet banner, so it uses content from the company’s reviews and travel experts to suggest hip and cool things to do both in cities and the out-of-doors.

TouristEye (Free)

aurasma app
Aurasma

Aurasma differentiates itself from the crowd in enabling you to create your own augmented reality images. You can pull in your own photos and and add in other objects to make some clever creations.

Find other content built by Aurasma by looking for its image in books, magazines, or posters. Of course you'll do this while also looking for all the other app icons and QR codes that are competing for the attention of your augmented reality apps.

Aurasma (Free)