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Immersive tech opens new world of opportunities for businesses
THE Pokemon Go hype may have run its course, but the use of immersive technology such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) for business applications is only getting started in Singapore.
From classroom and conferencing applications, to virtual showrooms and training environments, local companies are developing solutions that enable remote work, increase customer reach and accelerate training programmes. Immersive tech is also being made available to a wider range of small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) through the SME Centres, supported by government agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG).
One such provider, MR platform Serl.io, offers a way to create collaborative sessions for both educational and enterprise purposes. For example, an educational project that it worked on with Crescent Girls School involved creating a virtual nuclear site modelled on the 2011 Fukushima accident. Students used headsets to virtually explore and collect samples from the site for analysis.
"Imagine being able to conjure up anything in 3D in your classroom and then being able to let your students interact with it. The affordance this brings to teaching pedagogies is immense," said CEO and co-founder Terence Loo.
Silversea Media Group (SMG), a multinational immersive media venture headquartered in Singapore, focuses on connecting businesses with customers through virtual versions of their shop spaces.
"Offline businesses face increased challenges in driving traffic to where inventory is physically on display, like a typical store or a property, or where services are rendered, like a hotel, exhibition centre or museum," said founder Niu Yu Hong. SMG's team takes these businesses online by converting scans of clients' physical spaces into "multi-dimensional digital twins", which could be of properties for sale or rent, stores, showrooms and galleries.
SMG has provided its solution to several furniture retailers through a group-based upgrading project at the SME Centre@ASME. The retailers have reported securing more projects when customers were encouraged to take virtual tours of their showrooms, especially since the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak in January. Other benefits include higher awareness of their products, and more customers being enticed to visit the physical stores.
For companies that need workers to undergo hands-on training and acquire real-world experience, Aviation Virtual provides VR-based training solutions that allow them to gain experience with visualisers, virtual training systems and virtual digital twins. It is also working on a pilot project that overlays building information model (BIM) data onto images captured by head-mounted displays for building compliance checks, with non-compliant areas flagged in real time.
Managing director Chong Chee Leong said that its training solutions for aviation maintenance and airside operations were able to shorten training cycles by 40 per cent and increase trainees' knowledge retention by 50 per cent. The company has also successfully applied its solutions to other industries, such as property development and construction.
ESG has actively supported the immersive tech industry in navigating the startup ecosystem, obtaining funding and finding suitable partners in overseas markets. Said Yeo Meow Ling, director for new industries at ESG: "Immersive technology can be a strong tech enabler to existing industries, leading to better knowledge retention, productivity gains and cost savings."
She said Enterprise Singapore will continue to aid immersive tech companies to develop scalable solutions, and will work with other industries to increase awareness and demonstrate the widespread applications of the technology.
"This includes linking the companies with partners locally and overseas in various industries, (so) they can test-bed and fine-tune their solutions for wider adoption," said Ms Yeo.
Naturally, the budding industry is not immune to growing pains. Serl.io's Mr Loo noted that immersive tech devices like headsets are still considered expensive, and costs of developing quality educational content are high. His company is trying to tackle the second issue by training educators to produce their own content, and conducting demonstrations with the actual end users to understand their needs and achieve a more satisfactory result.
Another solution to simplify content creation is the RealityTransform platform by SFX Corporation, which requires minimal coding and lets users rapidly prototype and develop AR, VR and MR content that works with multiple platforms and can scale easily to serve multiple users. Said CEO Ng Teow Khoon: "This will enable users, developers and enterprises to harness AR/VR/MR to digitalise their corporate knowledge, processes and support."
With immersive tech being fairly new, potential customers are often hindered by the costs and uncertainties inherent in technology development, said Dr Chong of Aviation Virtual. He suggested that companies with common needs should work together and engage a good solution provider to come up with a practical, affordable solution, much like the group-based upgrading projects initiated by the SME Centres.
Cybersecurity is another challenge the industry will need to tackle as more vendors and users come on board. Kevin Reed, chief information security officer at cybersecurity firm Acronis, noted that the recent security risks uncovered in videoconferencing platform Zoom are a cautionary tale of the need to find and fix vulnerabilities before a software is made available to a wide user base.
"If no steps are taken now and the VR industry scores a similar rapid rise in demand, the top vendors will be facing massive security breaches and have their users' private data inevitably compromised," said Mr Reed. The main vulnerabilities would lie in security protocols and whether data is moved via secure servers, he said.
Although immersive technology is more advanced in other markets like the US, Europe, the UK, China and Australia, local players still believe there is room for them to bring something new to the table.
As new applications for the technology surface, Serl.io is well positioned to meet demand for training platforms and content in these new fields, said Mr Loo. "We see that as pivotal in growing the user base for MR globally and are already seeing strong interest in the work we do outside of Singapore."
Interest and challenges
SMG, which provides the virtualised digital spaces for businesses, said it already serves clients in the UK, Italy, Greece, China and Asean, and is in discussions with potential public sector clients in Central America. Meanwhile, Aviation Virtual has received strong interest in its BIM solution after demonstrating it to developers and construction firms in China, India and the Philippines, and its training solution has been deployed in China and the Philippines.
The Covid-19 virus outbreak has created some challenges for the industry, with companies having to put live demos or manual scans of physical spaces on hold during the ongoing "circuit breaker" period. Revenue will be impacted as current projects are suspended and new ones are unlikely to come in.
However, the situation has also stoked interest in immersive technology, and the companies are using this time to ramp up research and development efforts, improve internal processes and engage existing clients to better understand their needs.
Hiverlab, a media technology company with solutions for online learning, remote collaboration and accessible streaming, has received heightened interest during the Covid-19 virus outbreak for remote collaboration and engagement, said chief operating officer Yuan Yi.
"Although social distancing is happening, we have met many forward-thinking organisations who seek to establish closer connections in the digital domain," she said.
SMG expects demand to boom after the outbreak is brought under control, since businesses are becoming more aware of the tools they could be using to cushion the blow. "We are providing a key tool to allow enterprises to make the transition to the next generation of business practices, and in doing so (we will) help facilitate and expedite Singapore's, and the region's, critically-needed digital transformation," said Ms Niu.