By Zhang Chunxia
Scanning a specially-designed QR code with a smartphone, you will find a history textbook “come to life” by viewing 3D historical relics while also tracking information about where they originated and what they looked like when they were first unearthed. Wearing a pair of AR glasses, you may feel as if the room in which you stand has become a forest, complete with birds flying over your head. With the help of AR technology, a scan of the photo of a car in a magazine will open a 360-degree view of its interior, change the color of its body and tires, and even display the car’s key specifications and performance statistics.
These are not scenes from a sci-fi movie, but what this reporter personally experienced at the AR Laboratory co-established by Hebei Normal University and HiScene Information Technology Co., Ltd. In the past few years, the laboratory has released a series of world-leading AR products.
China’s First AR Laboratory
Wearing a pair of AR glasses and standing in front of a sandbox showcasing the topography of northern China, information such as temperature and humidity will pop up simply by saying a place’s name. Water levels and air flow can be controlled through voice and gestures.
“These are the HiAR Glasses that we use in sandbox teaching,” explained Guo Wei, technical director of the AR Laboratory. “It was unveiled at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2016 in Barcelona last November, together with Microsoft’s HoloLens.”
At the expo, AR technology in digital education concerning diffraction of light, compositions of forces and topographic sandboxes, jointly developed by HiScene and Hebei Normal University, were a hit among expo attendees.
“The use of AR technology in teaching will make esoteric geography and physics knowledge appear in 3D, thus making it more interesting to students,” Guo added.
Hebei Normal University launched the “Hebei Province Smart City & Educational Equality” project in 2015, which won the Global Smart City Award at the 2015 Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona. This marked the first time that China captured the award since the international event kicked off in 2011.
Liao Chunyuan, CEO of HiScene and an expert included in China’s Thousand Talents Program, has played an integral role in China’s AR technology development. Liao was enrolled at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1994, and as one of China’s earliest internet programmers, he worked as a part-time game designer while attending university.
“Beginning in around 1998, my team designed various computer games including mahjong, card games and Chameleon that were preinstalled in Legend (present-day Lenovo) PCs,” Liao recalls. “Millions of copies were installed at the time.”
Throughout his time at university, Liao showed strong interest in visual art and images. In his third year, he entered the Institute of Man-Machine Interaction and Media Studies, part of the university’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. Since then, he has established an unbreakable bond with artificial intelligence. In 2001, Liao began studying at the University of Maryland in the United States. After receiving his Ph.D., he entered the world-renowned Fuji-Xerox Palo Alto Laboratory in Silicon Valley. He is the only Chinese scientist to win the laboratory’s Outstanding Award on three separate occasions.
However, Liao yearned for adventure and innovation. In 2012, he returned to China to establish HiScene. Three years later, HiScene unveiled China’s first AR smart glasses based on visual interaction technology ― HiAR Glasses, and thus became a forerunner in China’s AR industry.
“The AR Laboratory at Hebei Normal University is the first of its kind in China,” Liao said. “Its establishment was largely attributed to the farsightedness of the university’s president Jiang Chunlan, who predicted that AR has greater potential than virtual reality (VR).”
In August 2016, Liao was appointed director of the laboratory. He likens his relationship with Hebei Normal University as that between a talent and a talent scout.
“AR is technology in nature, rather than a product,” Liao said. “The technology has value only when it is integrated with traditional industries. Hebei Normal University understands education, so it is able to determine proper applications for AR technology relating to education.”
Today, the AR Laboratory at the university is equipped with world-leading AR experience facilities, 3D holographic scanners, 3D printers and a high-performance computing support platform, and has formed its own advantages in fields such as mathematical modeling, image recognition and Algorithm optimization. Here, people can experience AR technology through its applications in education, tourism, home furnishing, and entertainment.
One Billion AR Users
For most people, AR glasses are the first thing to come to mind when considering AR technology. In fact, AR technology is involved in many aspects of our lives: image-optimizing apps as Meitu Xiuxiu and BeautyCam all involve AR human face detection and positioning technology. Additionally, by scanning QR codes printed on commodity packages or advertisements with your QQ or Alipay app, you can access AR in the form of games, videos and animations. AR technology is also used by online shopping platforms including Tmall, Taobao and JD.com.
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, HiScene joined hands with Tencent to present the QQ-AR torch relay campaign, which attracted 106 million participants from 366 cities in 159 countries within 21 days. The campaign was awarded a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest online torch relay. This also marked the first time AR technology was used as a social networking platform.
Singles’ Day is a retail blockbuster celebrated in China on Nov. 11 each year, and is the world’s largest online shopping day by total value of items sold. On Singles’ Day in 2016, HiScene collaborated with retailer Suning to launch an AR sales promotion event. Through interactive games such as “Capturing Cute Lions” and “Grabbing Red Envelopes,” the event linked online and offline shopping. On the day of its launch, the “Capturing Cute Lions” game attracted more than 1 million users. So far, QQ-AR has supported promotion campaigns of many notable brands including Pepsi and Red Bull, in addition to films such as Fast and Furious and Beauty and the Beast. AR technology has been widely used in large-scale marketing events.
“Tencent’s QQ has about 800 million users and Meitu’s monthly active users have surpassed 400 million, plus there are users of Autohome.com.cn and OPPO, which are all HiScene business partners who have adopted a B2B2C business model,” Liao says. “In this sense, HiScene now boasts more than 1 billion users.”
Apart from marketing, AR technology can also be used in industrial repair and maintenance. At present, HiScene has begun cooperation with the China Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China and the Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science &Technology Co., Ltd.
“Zoomlion specializes in manufacturing large mechanical equipment, and after-sale service is a tough task,” Liao explains. “On one occasion, a customer in Xinjiang called to complain that there was something wrong with a machine Zoomlion sold. The company sent two engineers to Xinjiang that night. After checking the machine, they found that a single screw had worked itself loose. If a pair of AR glasses complete with machine data had been provided when the machine was sold, the customers could have solved this minor problem with the solutions preset in the AR glasses. Even complicated problems could be solved through remote specialist assistance. The value of technology can be achieved only when it is utilized in a practical way, and AR is no exception,”
After years of development, HiScene now holds a large number of AR patents. Its HiAR Glasses have won many domestic and international prizes, including the German Red Dot Award and the CES Asia Innovation Award. Unlike the Windows system of HoloLens, the HiAR Glasses features a deeply customized Android operating system, which is friendlier to app developers. Many mobile apps can be easily transplanted to the HiAR Glasses. So far, HiScene’s AR solutions have been used in a wide range of areas, including games, education, tourism, healthcare, heavy industry, automobiles, military products and the internet.
AR market value is expected to eventually reach 165 billion yuan (US$24.3 billion).
“Our second-generation AR glasses, HiAR Glasses, which were released at last year’s Smart City Expo World Congress, entered mass production this July,” Liao said. “The third-generation model will be unveiled at the end of this year.”
In the future, AR will see wide usage in various areas. China now boasts the world’s richest AR application potential, the largest AR user base and the most sophisticated environment for AR applications. The conditions are right for HiScene to establish industry standards that could change the world.