How HK can realize the huge possibilities of AR technology

March 30, 2017 09:52
AR can be applied to a wide range of uses across professions, from architecture and education through astronomy to commerce and healthcare. Photo: Imsimity

The augmented reality market will be worth US$160 billion worldwide in 2020. Hong Kong needs to equip itself fast or risk missing the bandwagon, says Professor Michael R. Lyu of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The past year was a defining year for the development of augmented reality (AR) technology with the worldwide craze of Pokémon GO creating quite possibly the biggest gaming phenomenon of the smartphone age.

The International Consumer Electronics Show (International CES) 2016 in Las Vegas, an annual launch pad for innovation and technology, was also dominated by AR.

While the hype around Pokémon GO has fizzled out, the appeal and rich possibilities of AR have yet to be fully appreciated.

Though the AR technology has been around for a few years (think how a weather reporter gestures toward a virtual map behind them in a television studio), Pokémon GO has taken it mainstream.

With the pervasiveness and power of smartphones and other handheld mobile devices, the widespread use of the technology is set to be unstoppable.

Beyond simple entertainment, AR can be applied to a wide range of uses across professions, from architecture and education through astronomy to commerce and healthcare, in ways that can raise our standard of life.

AR allows us to interact with virtual objects in the way we interact with physical objects. Simulated elements are layered over the real world to substantively expand our experience.

For instance, a medicine professor can visualize the steps of an invasive procedure for their students with an AR tool that can see underneath skin.

Likewise, with AR software, a surgeon can study a tumor with accurate 3-D reconstructions of it from different angles.

Put in another way, the technology can offer precise X-ray views, but without any radiation exposure, in real time.

Away from labs and classrooms, everyday scenarios can also be qualitatively spiced up. Equipped with AR, a property agent can place different furniture combinations with their customers at a flat viewing.

And for architects to immerse potential users into the spaces they build, AR can turn 2-D renderings in sales brochures into 3-D experiences so that people can, for instance, virtually walk around a new apartment or a town planning project.

AR can be fun and highly educational at the same time – AR apps for smartphones that annotate the night sky, labeling the stars, moons and planets when a phone is pointed at the heavens with GPS positioning turned on, have proven hugely popular.

By 2020, the AR market would be worth US$160 billion worldwide. However, Hong Kong is yet to be in a position to exploit the possibilities of advanced AR products.

This is not because creativity is in short supply in Hong Kong – an unfair claim heard often; the city in fact produces plenty of ideas – but locally there lies a gap between ideas and the realization of them into products.

In the United States, the gap is bridged by big companies like FaceBook, Google and Microsoft. Even in Asia, HTC, Sony and Samsung have rolled out impressive AR and Virtual Reality (VR) products.

But in Hong Kong, there are no big companies like Tencent and Baidu. The academia should therefore play that important role of enablers, and it needs to catch up fast.

In terms of research, universities in Hong Kong are doing reasonably well, compared with the region. But to bring in revenue, ideas have to be prototyped and productized.

In this regard, the Hong Kong government should support universities in the creation of platforms that will turn ideas into products.

These platforms should be commonly shared (so that individual companies will not have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak) and they will help innovators realize their ideas, including SMEs who cannot afford to build their own platforms.

To explain what a platform means in this context, we can return to the example of Pokémon GO, which is a spinoff from Google Ingress.

Pokémon GO is based on Google Maps, not a platform that is available to all developers. In other words, local companies could hardly ever produce a game of that nature on their own.

A good example of a government-supported program in local academia to push the boundaries of AR is the “Augmented Reality Computing Arena for Digital Entertainment (ARCADE)”, which is being developed by the Faculty of Engineering at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

ARCADE is a tool that can execute AR entertainment applications and generate business opportunities enabled by the AR technology for digital entertainment purveyors.

ARCADE was initially supported by Hong Kong ITF funding 10 years ago. More government assistance in the creation of platforms such as ARCADE will be for the good of the development of AR in Hong Kong.

This is crucial if the city is not to miss the global AR bandwagon. The longer we hesitate, the further we will lag behind.

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Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Department, Faculty of Engineering at The Chinese University of Hong Kong