Augmented reality has been around for ages but while there are some great ideas around, there are few products that put it to good use. You can try on a virtual pair of sunglasses at Ray-Ban's website or have a virtual dinosaur roam around your desktop at the Natural History Museum's site.

The Science Museum, however, has trumped these with a new app: James May's Science Stories. If you have an iPhone or Android device, the TV presenter from Top Gear and Man Lab will talk you through certain exhibits.

James on plinth

Currently, the £1.99 app covers nine objects from the Making of the Modern World exhibition including the Cray 1A computer, the sectioned Mini, the Model T Ford and the X-Ray machine, but more are in the pipeline.

When you arrive at each exhibit, you select it from the list and then point your smartphone or tablet's camera at the special marker. A miniature 3D James May will appear on top of the plinth and give you a brief run-down of the salient points in his usual banter.

The app also includes a map so you can locate the 'augmented' objects, plus a quiz to test how hard you were concentrating on May's dialog.

Select exhibit

We tested out the app using an iPhone 4 at the museum and were surprised how responsive it was. Once the camera had focused on the marker, a tiny James May started pacing around on top of plinth next to the exhibit.

James May Science Stories

His commentary can be paused using the on-screen controls, but it's best to use headphones since a smartphone or tablet's speaker won't really be loud enough when the museum is busy. If you're sharing your phone with your kids or friends, it might be wise to take a couple of pairs of headphones and use a splitter, or turn on the subtitles.

Currently, there's only one marker per exhibit, so you may have to wait your turn if several people already have their phone cameras trained on it. We found that we could move around a little once the app had locked on to the marker, but it has to remain in view.

Out of museum mode

Science Stories, like most augmented reality applications, has quite a limited scope but it's good that the developers have included a 'home' mode. You download and print your own marker which you place on a flat surface. Again, you select an object, point your phone at the market and you'll have a six-inch-tall James May standing on your kitchen table delivering the same commentary.

We hope that more objects will be added to the app before too long - we're told that five more commentaries have already been recorded.

Below you can watch a video of the app in action:

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how developer Digicave captures James May for the app. 50 Nikon digital SLR cameras were used to recreate the presenter in 3D on your smartphone or tablet.

Next page: verdict

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James May's Science Stories: Specs

  • Requires iOS 4 or later
  • Android 2.2 or later
  • Requires iOS 4 or later
  • Android 2.2 or later

OUR VERDICT

Science Stories is the best augmented reality app we've seen so far, and one that will hopefully be updated to add more exhibits.

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