Baidu, the largest search engine in China, are investing heavily in their developments in ‘Augmented Reality’ (AR) with the opening of their new specialist AR lab in Beijing. The company are renowned for their innovative research into artificial intelligence, most notably Chinese self-driving vehicles and are clearly a corporation set on further technological innovation in AR.
Augmented reality, simply put, is an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information onto the image of something. ‘’Pokemon Go’ popularized this with users capturing Pokemon based on visuals overlayed onto actual locations. After the success of this Japanese game it is clear that there is a great potential for the commercial application of AR in China and Baidu’s team of scientists are leading the charge.
Currently presiding over 70% of the search engine market the digital giant is well placed to have a significant impact on China’s future. Baidu has become the go to reference point for digital consumers across the nation with 75% of all online research currently conducted via Baidu. With this platform in place they have set their sights on mass market, commercially applicable Augmented Reality.
AR Applications in China
The new AR lab will be the focus of their commercial development of AR applications for smartphones. “Our cell phone-based approach has enabled us to ship augmented reality experiences to a significant number of users in a very short amount of time,” said Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, in a press release. “There is an appetite for this technology; we are seeing rapid adoption by our partners in a range of industries.”
It signals a future where your phone’s camera and AR could become a key method of navigating the internet. Users through their smart phones can interact with the online sphere in a mobile way with augmented reality another dimension of the consumer experience.
An additional revenue stream for Baidu
Baidu have seen their first quarterly drop in revenue for the first time last year. The company were shaken by a number of medical scandals, this has affected the lucrative healthcare advertising business on the platform. It came to a head when a 21 year old underwent experimental treatment for cancer and died after finding the advertisement on Baidu. The scandal led to much criticism of paid advertising on the search engine and further regulation curbing healthcare advertising.
We see the company now changing tack and investing in new revenue streams which will enable them to tap into large potential market for AR, especially in relation to smartphones.
AR and Smart Phone Technology
Baidu are focusing on developing AR on mobile, with over 550 million Chinese consumers now owning a smartphone. This is thanks to affordable, mass market brands such as Xiaomei or Vivo which have also proved to be very popular in India, a strong boost for the Chinese economy.
AR can turn a users mobile screen into a new type of view of reality, the user will see through the lens of the camera the initial stimulus plus the digital overlay. Smartphones are highly accessible in China and already connect with Baidu’s online services, a number of Baidu developed apps already have in-built AR functionality including ‘Mobile Baidu’, an app akin to Siri where users seek answers to questions.
AR enabled searching
AR enabled searching could allow users to physically interact with objects and link this with searches that are based on the recognition of them, for example products could be scanned via a smartphone camera and linked directly to an official website or search on Baidu for relevant information. Information and results can appear overlayed onto the actual object itself, it also presents opportunities for e-commerce payment and purchases of similar items as well as exclusive promotions and AR content unlocked via QR codes or links. This offers great potential for branding in a novel way that can incentivize users participation and engagement.
Beijing AR Tour
Baidu recently off an AR tour of the Chinese capital’s nine ancient city gates, which have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition. People passing by a city gate could aim their phones at certain photos to trigger the 3D simulations, or they could do so from home. By searching for the city gate’s name, people can view a virtual model of the city oriented and sized according to their palm, says Zhongqin, the leading scientist for Baidu’s AR team. Zhongqin’s team, now about 50 people, is also working on technology that will enable a a single-camera phone, which lacks information about depth, to generate 3D maps of its environment
“The object integrates into your environment and is tracked [in real-time], so you can experience the city gate from different angles,” he says. The AR Lab is exploring the use of rendering 3D objects wherever users point their smartphone, not only on certain images or surfaces.. source
Reasons why the AR market is promising in China:
1) Desire for brands
The Chinese culture is now geared towards commercial branding and AR developments offer a novel way of communicating messages to a very receptive group of consumers. Consumers in China seek engagement with brands, the growth of AR can add another dimension to the sales and branding experience.
2) Consumers embrace new technology
Consumers embrace new technological developments with VR (for example) becoming greatly popular, the development of AR in a sense is a rite of passage! New AR technology will enhance the consumer experience as well as generating a lot of hype.
3) High user levels of engagement on mobile
Mobile engagement is they key to success, with 550 million mobile users for AR to take off in the mass market it needs to be accessible via smartphones. The strong mobile, ‘on the go’ digital culture in China lends itself to AR which enhances physical environments.