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Cell Phone Tour Guides
Photo/William Brinson, Prop styling/Peter Tran

Wherever you wander, odds are you’re carrying a cell phone. Armed with the right apps, it can make your travel a richly rewarding experience, driven by a combination of cutting-edge technology and insider info.

Layar is a glimpse into the future, using augmented reality technology to overlay information on a live image taken with your cell phone camera. The app knows where you are, thanks to the phone’s GPS, and it knows where you’re pointing, thanks to the built-in motion sensors and compass. That means, if you’re standing in Times Square and pointing your camera phone north, it can superimpose on-screen icons for every theater, hotel, historic spot and Starbucks in the vicinity. Alternatively, you can view the same information as a list or in a map view.

What makes Layar extremely flexible is the option to decide what you’d like displayed by choosing a “layer” of information. There are thousands of available layers, some free and some for sale, covering the U.S. and world destinations. For example, the Yelp layer shows restaurant and other business locations, with directions and links to reviews, while the Spotted by Locals layer provides tips on cool places to visit in 30 European countries. The Layar app is a free download for Android, iPhone and Symbian devices.

Another worthwhile pocket companion is HearPlanet, which functions as an audio tour guide. More than half a million voice files are available and they cover hundreds of thousands of destinations worldwide. This number is inflated by the use of Wikipedia entries (some read aloud by a computerized voice simulator) as information resources, but there are plenty of interesting, informative and well-produced segments as well, some free, some inexpensive. You can let HearPlanet figure out where you are via GPS and recommend audio about local attractions or search for information about locations on your upcoming itinerary.

Either way, you have a hands-free guide feeding you information that augments your travel experience. The full HearPlanet app is available for Android ($2.99) and Apple ($3.99) devices. There’s also a free “lite” version for each, providing limited information.

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