This screenshot from Navitime for Japan Travel shows the augmented reality function pointing the way to free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, tucked behind the buildings on the right.
Telecom carrier NTT and navigation service developer Navitime Japan are trying to make free Wi-Fi in Japan easier to find with an app featuring augmented reality (AR) guidance.
Navitime for Japan Travel, available for free for iOS and Android devices, allows users to find the nearest free Wi-Fi providers through an offline search using location data. It also displays the locations of other facilities such as restaurants and tourist attractions.
AR refers to technologies in which a live view of the environment is layered with graphics, text or other data. Typically they involve layering mapping information over live footage from a smartphone camera.
With Navitime for Japan Travel, users hold up the screen to their surroundings, hit "look in AR mode" and footage from the device's camera will be overlaid with the distance to a destination and an arrow pointing the way.
But the app can be unreliable as an AR guide. Not only can you suddenly find yourself getting farther away from a destination when trying to approach it, your device can easily lose its location signal.
Where AR can work well is in dense urban settings where a tall building can house dozens of shops and none of them has a sign in English. When close enough to the destination, Navitime for Japan Travel can help users distinguish the right building and business where there's free Wi-Fi.
There are tens of thousands of free Wi-Fi spots that travelers can find through the app, most of which are Hikari Station LANs run by NTT East, which require registration. NTT East is a regional subsidiary of NTT.
The app was developed to help visitors who have trouble getting online for free in Japan. Free Wi-Fi can be hard to find even in a metropolis like Tokyo.
"In general, we acknowledge that there is a lot of discussion of there being much fewer free Wi-Fi spots in Japan compared to other countries, but as a telecommunications operator, we are not in the position to comment on this situation or its causes," said Yuri Murase, a representative of NTT East's New Business Development Headquarters.
"As for the Hikari Station public wireless LAN access point service provided by our company, as of January 2014 there are around 40,000 shops and facilities that have it. By continuing to expand the number of access points, we will contribute to improving the convenience of international tourists visiting Japan."
The app also covers the locations of some 10,000 Freespot free Wi-Fi services provided by Buffalo, the storage and peripherals maker, and 1,000 Starbucks coffee shops with free Wi-Fi.