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Real world gets digital boost
IT was late last Friday when Khairul Sufiyan read that Pokemon Go, the new location based augmented reality game, was playable in Indonesia, even though it has not been launched across Asia yet.
Less than 24 hours later, he was on a ferry headed for Bintan, with aims of capturing and upgrading as many Pokemon creatures as he could within the next day.
As it turned out, the mobile game is only playable in larger Indonesian cities, such as Jakarta, but the servers for Bintan, like the rest of Asia, are not available yet.
Though it has been nine years since the public relations manager touched a Pokemon game, the new mobile game was appealing not because of nostalgia, but due to the extensive use of augmented reality and location-based features.
Players have to physically travel to locations to catch the digital critters, while computer generated imagery that appear on screen allow players to interact with the creatures over real world objects "viewed" via the phone's camera.
"Pokemon has always been a social game, encouraging you to trade creatures with your friends," explains the 29-year-old.
"With the new game, there's a new level of realism, with people having to actually go outdoors to explore their surroundings, and interact with the Pokemon creatures in a new way."
While developer Niantic has not announced a launch date for the game in Asia, the global success of Pokemon Go has finally brought the concept of augmented reality, or AR, to the masses.
In simple terms, AR is the use of computer generated graphics and data placed over a real, physical world, usually via a display. This real time display is an overlay that provides users with more opportunities for interaction.
Think of Tom Cruise in Minority Report and Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man movies manipulating data, in the form of holographic projections, with their hands.
A popular example of AR are the Lenses within messaging platform Snapchat, which create moving on-screen graphics when a phone camera is pointed at a person.
Unlike filters which affect the overall tone of pictures, and overlays which add fixed images and text on photos, Snapchat Lenses adds contextual graphics to a subject.
This explains having a rainbow popping out of a person's open mouth, a hat on a head that shifts in relation to head movements, or an animated expression plastered over a face.
Augmented vs virtual
For a more immersive experience, there is also VR, or virtual reality. This is where users don a VR headset, and are transported into a simulation viewed through the headset.
To enjoy AR, a smartphone with a working camera is enough, since the AR data can be shown on screen.
With VR, users need to invest in new PC hardware and accessories, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets for computers, or the PlayStation VR headset for console games.
As smartphones can also double as VR displays for some headsets, such as with Samsung's Gear VR, users will need to invest in the headset that the phone fits into, as well as earphones, to be able to listen in the virtual world.
According to Ivan Boo, president of Singapore's Serious Games Association, which looks into incorporating video game technology into healthcare, education and training, work has begun in making use of AR and VR beyond video games and entertainment, and the popularity of Pokemon Go serves as a great introduction to the capabilities of the technology.
"A lot of people don't understand AR or VR, and games is the easiest way to approach it. But there is more to AR and VR, and folks are beginning to find more uses it."
For example, the Sephora mobile app uses augmented reality to "apply" digital make-up and lipstick on users, for them to see how different shades of colours looks on their skin, via their smartphone front camera.
At several Six Flags amusement parks in the United States, passengers on select roller coaster rides wear Samsung VR headsets that display simulated footage which are synchronised with the physical turns of the ride.
Locally, StarHub has experimented with both AR and VR in the last few years, as a potential way to engage subscribers.
In 2012, it showcased AR during the live broadcast of the opening segment of its TVB Awards.
Earlier this week, it did a concurrent live broadcast of Wednesday's mm2 UnUsUaL Concert Showcase, held at MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, to partners and members of the public, via Samsung Gear VR headsets, at Suntec City.
"We have always been committed to harnessing new technologies to bring about fresh, innovative experiences to our customers. This time, leveraging VR technology, we hope to create an immersive and engaging concert experience, even for audiences who can't physically be at the concert," says Howie Lau, chief marketing officer of StarHub.
One reason why it has taken so long to get things right is that technology is still evolving. Current broadcast technology allows for the transmission of ultra high-definition 4K content, but VR technology is only capable of streaming at up to full high definition quality for now.
While companies such as Samsung have showcased potential 4K VR technology, a consumer roll out is not expected to take place soon.
"AR and VR have been around for a while, but we are seeing enhanced versions of the devices that support these technologies. As a result, user experience has become a lot smoother and enjoyable," notes Mr Lau.
Technology's limited reality
Another issue preventing early adoption of these reality enhancing hardware is the lack of devices here, says Loh Mun Yew, co-founder of local startup ReVR, which specialises in enterprise and skills development using AR and VR.
While smartphones are commonplace, they still require the use of at least one hand. Head-mounted displays such as Google Glass serve as a better fit for AR technology, but those are not sold here.
Upcoming AR headsets, such as Microsoft's HaloLens and the Meta 2 have been announced, but no launch dates have been set either.
Then there is the issue of battery life. One constant complaint from Pokemon Go players is that the mix of AR, location-based services and data consumption drains phone batteries very quickly, so players need to bring several battery packs along with them.
These also tie up the hands of AR users, instead of having AR support them.
"We want to train workers in real-life scenarios, like how pilots are trained using flight simulators, But it is better to have hands-free options."
One concept the company is planing is to have building and land details appear in AR when they are physically viewed through an AR-enabled device.
Information of the property can be made available at a glance, and if there are defects or issues, work orders can be created immediately within the AR environment.
With no indication of when the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will go on sale here, all eyes are on the upcoming PlayStation VR headset, which works with the PlayStation 4 video game console.
Slated for launch in October for US$399, the PlayStation VR has support from several leading game publishers and games, including Capcom's Resident Evil 7, RockSteady Studios' Batman Arkham VR, Ubisoft's Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Electronic Arts' Star Wars: Battlefront X-Wing VR.
Sony is expected to announce the local availability of the PlayStation VR at next week's Ani-Com & Games Hong Kong convention.
Product marketing manager and avid gamer Michael Khoo, 30, is waiting to pick up a unit when it launches here. "I think the PS VR will bring a new kind of entertainment to the scene, just like how AR is working extremely well with a popular franchise like Pokemon Go. All it takes is for gamemakers to optimise the gameplay towards the VR experience. From the early game demos, it looks like horror games will surely be a hit with VR."
On the AR front, Pokemon Go has done its job in educating consumers, says Mark Wong, 46, co-founder of FXMedia, a multimedia company working with AR and VR content. Now, someone else needs to step in, to add to the narrative.
"When AR first came on, people were surprised with it but the curiosity died down, because there were limitations," he points out.
"Now that it has taken off again, it remains to be seen if upcoming AR devices like the HaloLens and Meta 2 can come out with a breakthrough, to entice consumers even more."