Harpoen, a digital graffiti app, could be a billion dollar idea
August 6, 2012 by Terence LEE
Startups like Harpoen are the sort shunned by many Asian investors — they won’t make money for many years. That’s because they’re so forward-thinking that the market may not be ready for them yet. But the huge risks they bear could have immense payoffs, precisely because they are far ahead of the curve.
So what exactly is it about Harpoen that makes it so dangerously enticing? Well, essentially, it is an augmented reality (AR) mobile app that lets users leave digital graffiti on real world objects and locations, and allows other users to view them.
The company was founded in Indonesia by J.P Ellis and John Patrick, who are Americans based in Jakarta. The app was launched for the iPhone in March and has since amassed tens of thousands of user-created “harps” in the capital city and Bandung. These harps could serve as virtual noticeboards, historical notes, or even clues for a scavenger hunt.
Having tried the app, we found that the interface took a bit of getting used to, since the app doesn’t follow the standard iOS template (for instance, back button is at the bottom left instead of the top left). We encountered some bugs when leaving harps too. Nonetheless, the app was easy to use and the overall experience was pleasant.
But if you think the whole idea sounds gimmicky, you’re probably right. While marketers and geeks have been experimenting with AR for a while, it hasn’t quite hit mainstream. Implementation is still clunky at best.
That does not detract from AR’s potential, however. Perhaps market conditions aren’t right, and no one has hit upon the right formula yet. And I’m not alone in thinking it will be huge. Google has thrown its weight behind the idea with its prototypical Google Glasses, a wearable computer that projects images directly in front of your eyes. Oakley, a well-known eye-wear company, is also said to be developing a similar device.
Check out this cool video of what gaming might be like in the future with AR:
According to ABI Research, AR is in fact been around for more than a decade. But the recent mobile device revolution, brought about by Moore’s Law, which enabled smaller form factors to have geolocation and powerful computing capabilities, is bringing the technology to the mass market. It predicts AR will bring in US$350M in revenue by 2014. The technology solves real-world problems too: It makes information easily accessible and more relevant by linking it to real-world locations.
Yet mass market AR is fraught with implementation problems, and much of it is beyond the hands of companies like Harpoen. GPS remains spotty in thick urban environments and inaccessible in indoor locations. Google Glasses is still experimental at best, so there’s no telling if it, or devices like it, will become popular. Consumers, by and large, have not warmed up to the idea and may even become concerned about its intrusiveness and potential for abuse.
Anyhow, startups like Harpoen, which carry ideas that have global potential but require a long runway to execute, are better off seeking investments and market traction in the United States. And according to DailySocial, that’s precisely what they’re doing right now. To facilitate adoption in Indonesia, they’re also developing an Android version, since iPhones remain out of reach to many Indonesians.
It’s entirely possible that a company will come along and popularize AR the way Facebook did to social networking. Harpoen might be it, or perhaps Wallit or Stiktu. On the flipside, it could also become the next Friendster, Myspace, or Indonesian counterpart Koprol — hampered by either bad execution, luck, timing, or leadership.
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About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE