Real Estate iPhone App 'Layar' vs. the Classifieds

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It's amazing how this technology works: Spread out before me on a single, neat page is a whole list of available nearby homes and condos, and even rental apartments. Is it on Layar, one of the latest so-called "augmented reality" mobile phone apps? Are you kidding? I'm using the L.A. Times classified section on-line.

Layar is not a real estate app but an app that brings together augmented reality apps from various vendors, such as Trulia.com, HotPads.com, and ForRent.com.

The way it works is you point your phone's camera at a particular block, for example, and select what it is you are trying to find. (A place to eat? Who happens to be Tweeting near you? And my favorite -- places that have government contracts nearby?)

The Layar app uses the visual info, combined with your phone's compass and GPS to show onscreen where to find all this stuff.

Pretty neat. When it works.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite. Hell, I can Tweet with the best of them. But sometimes, for some things, the "old-fashioned" way still is the best. (Funny how one can now refer to the online version of a newspaper's classifieds as "old-fashioned!")

Following the advice of an Associated Press story (whose findings, I might add, pretty much matched my own short experiment), I downloaded Layar to my iPhone 3GS. (See, I told you I am no Luddite!)

Among the real estate apps available to select on Layar are ones by Trulia.com, HotPads.com and ForRent.com, according to the AP. (I say "according to the AP," because I was unable to locate all of them when I tried searching for and then selecting apps connected to real estate.)

When I went around my Los Angeles neighborhood, though -- where foreclosures and an ever-shifting population base make for plenty of churn in the housing sales and rental markets -- what did my "augmented reality" mobile phone app reveal?

Nothing.

I mean, not even in my own building where several condos have been for sale for many months.

I know what you're thinking! The schmuck just doesn't know how to use the damn thing!

Nope. This schmuck, thank you, was able to use Layar to find all sorts of other cool stuff that had nothing to do with real estate--including about a dozen people Tweeting away their lives in real time.

No. There was something about the real estate apps in particular that just did not seem to work the way they are supposed to.

Maybe Larry Fisher is right. He's research director for NextGen, a tech-trend tracking firm, who is quoted in that AP story as saying that the augmented reality technology is just not ready for commercial prime-time, even though it has been used by the military for years. "It can be useful, but ... it's really limited at this point," he said. "It's going to take a couple of years to develop."

Of course, if you happen to be looking for a house or apartment---like right now!---waiting "a couple of years" for the high-tech stuff is out of the question.

Which brings me back to the L.A.Times real-estate classifieds. I didn't know that I could lease, for only $1,600 a month in nearby Westwood (UCLA territory), a one-bedroom apartment with a large patio, wet bar and fireplace. But now I do.

Postscript: Never wanting to be defeated, I decided to give it the old college try. While I was still unable to get results from Trulia's augmented reality function in and around my neighborhood, I was finally able to get ForRent.com on Layar. And I did manage to have it "reveal" to me many little dots that meant nearby units for rent. The nearby units were often miles away though.

It was like a bad video game. Almost too much visual information on a small iPhone screen and, as I moved about, I found my AT&T 3G connection cutting out often enough that it rendered the app fairly useless.

I'll stick with the newspaper on this one ... for now, anyway.

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think -- The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has written about real estate-related issues for several years.
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