Augmented reality startups, which superimpose graphics and information on live camera feeds, say they are having difficulty releasing applications on the iPhone and may turn to Google’s Android platform instead. More than a dozen companies and research institutes have signed a petition asking Apple to offer an iPhone application programming interface (API) for manipulating live video.

Ori Inbar, who published the petition and has founded two augmented reality gaming startups (Ogmento and Arballoon), says the companies need the API so they can overlay graphics or information on the iPhone’s live camera feed, not just on recorded video clips.

Inbar says he’s developing a game for the iPhone but can’t publish it because he’s using a private API, which isn’t allowed because developers are supposed to use Apple’s published APIs.

Smartphones are a major frontier for augmented reality technology, promising to bring it into everyday use for gaming or for learning about a user’s physical surroundings. Before the technology relied on cumbersome stationary cameras and computers.

A few startups like Mobilizy and SPRXMobile place geotagged Wikipedia information or real-estate listings over buildings and spaces shown in an iPhone camera feed while other augmented reality gaming companies show 3-D animations interacting with the real world. Both Mobilizy’s Wikitude and SPRXMobile’s Layar augmented reality browsers are for the Android platform, not the iPhone.

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“The battle to determine the winning device has already begun; a public API to access live video will give the iPhone a lucrative ticket to compete. We believe Apple has a window of opportunity of about 3 months before developers start looking elsewhere,” reads part of the petition.

Apple did not immediately reply for comment.

Be sure to check out my story from earlier today profiling a number of augmented reality startups.