Tagging your world

  • 6 December 2013
  • From the section Technology
  • comments

He's the man who built one of Britain's most successful software businesses, reaped a huge fortune when it was sold to Hewlett Packard - and then went to war with the American company over what Autonomy was really worth.

Now Mike Lynch has put some of his money into what could prove a really innovative software venture - but one which may signal more conflict with HP.

Taggar, which Lynch describes as a social augmented reality network, is a way of linking real objects with digital media. You hold up a phone with the Taggar app open and a poster springs into life playing a video, or a business card takes you to the owner's website. The idea is that gradually all kinds of objects - public buildings, museums, bus shelters, a pack of cornflakes - will be tagged, so that the world around you becomes a multimedia experience.

While there is a new social element (you can choose to favour your friends' tags over those of others and you can compete to make your tags the most popular) this does not look very different to many other augmented reality applications. So far, the clumsiness of having to get out your phone and point it at things has made this technology little more than an amusing party trick.

But in a demonstration at his London office, Lynch shows me some intriguing glimpses of how Taggar could take off when it is integrated into wearable technology. His team has been working with Google Glass and some similar products - so using Taggar you can look at a cookery book and see a video recipe, or glance at a thermometer, which then opens the BBC weather page on the screen in the glasses.

The idea is that Taggar and wearable technology are part of a new way of interacting with the world which takes us beyond the limitations of the smartphone. "I find it hard to believe that in ten years we're going to be walking around pulling out some device to type on some keyboard," says Lynch. "We're going to have a model where the physical world and the virtual world are seamlessly integrated. We think this is a very big area."

But here's the rub. The team that has built this technology is made up of the same people who built Aurasma, the augmented reality app made by Autonomy and acquired by HP along with the rest of the business. They left HP some time after the takeover to set up their own business, and then approached Lynch's investment vehicle Invoke Capital in search of funding.

Now Lynch insists that the Taggar team have developed a completely new cloud-based system from the ground up, without using any of the intellectual property that was sold to HP. But given the bitter legal dispute still underway between him and the US company, one cannot help thinking that he may soon be getting a call from another lawyer.

But when I put that to him he didn't seem worried. "HP is a company that needs to innovate," he tells me, "not call its lawyers all the time." If Lynch is right that this technology could one day herald a new way of interacting with the world, then it should prove extremely lucrative. But that means HP will be looking very closely at Taggar - and working out whether it has any claim on the technology behind it.

UPDATE 14:53 GMT

HP have been in touch, keen to dispel any impression that the Aurasma team has been left denuded by the departure of the people now working with Mike Lynch.

Annie Weinberger, General Manager of Aurasma, says the team working on the augmented reality app is continually innovating, and it is now the fastest growing part of the Autonomy business.

And, rather pointedly, she says, "We've moved out of the 'wow' geeky phase and into building a true business model." The message seems to be that Mike Lynch might have some showy ideas, but HP is proving that you can actually make money out of augmented reality.