Baidu launched on Wednesday its VR platform DuSee. The DuSee-enabled Baidu Search app turned a 2D map of Shanghai into a 3D graphic during a demo on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of the company)
While Pokémon Go did much to introduce augmented reality (AR) to the general public, Chinese technology company Baidu believes gaming is by no means the only way to popularize this futuristic medium.
The search engine operator, often dubbed the Google of China, started to work on AR two years ago. It recently established an AR lab to develop related services in education, healthcare, marketing as well as tourism. The company is already working with global brands including L'Oreal, KFC and Lancôme to make AR-based advertisements, which allow Chinese consumers to interact with computer-generated virtual products through their smartphones.
The lab also launched an AR project that aims to recreate historical sites in Beijing. Users will be shown restored visuals of ancient relics in the city after they scan certain photos with their smartphones. Augmented-reality effects can also be activated when people point their phones directly at selected sites.
Baidu demonstrated latest AR project in Beijing subway pic.twitter.com/MyQxYMEPhK — Yue Wang (@yueyueyuewang) January 18, 2017
To Baidu, these AR services have a far brighter future in China than even the U.S. Here’s why:
Mobile AR comes first
By focusing on mobile-based AR applications instead of making glasses or headsets, Baidu is targeting China’s hundreds of millions of smartphone users , seeing it as the fastest way to promote this technology.
Baidu has also built AR experiences into its search app, map service and e-commerce provider Nuomi. Together they reach more than 1 billion monthly active users. In its search app, users are offered special AR effects related to the keywords they put in, while Baidu Map provides interactive, 3D routes superimposed onto the real world.
“AR is developing much faster in China,” the company’s Chief Scientist Andrew Ng told Forbes on the sidelines of a Beijing press event earlier this week. “Growth is coming from mobile AR applications…that will be how most users experience the technology in the short term.”
IDC analyst Neo Zheng added that mobile-based AR will start to be the trend in 2017.
AR marketing takes off
Besides the fun factor, some of China’s tech companies have provided incentives to consumers to try AR by embedding digital “coupons” inside real-world locations.
In December, Baidu worked with Yum! Brands to introduce an AR smartphone game to 300 KFC outlets in Beijing. The game gives customers the chance to win meal discounts by scanning table stickers in those selected restaurants. According to the company, the game was played 400,000 times within its first three days.
And Alibaba and Tencent haven’t been left behind. The two rivals launched AR smartphone games for this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations. In Alibaba’s game, more than $4 million worth of digital coupons from 20 foreign brands are already up for grabs.
“AR didn’t have that many good uses before Pokémon Go,” said Wang Xiaofeng, an analyst at market research firm Forrester. “In China, however, marketing campaigns with this technology are taking off really fast.”
Baidu also envisions a future where AR can be applied in other areas including education, entertainment, healthcare and tourism. Last year, it worked with the Hubei provincial government to build a 3D interactive map of the popular Shennongjia travel site, to show off features like hotels and hiking routes.
“This year, we will be integrating AR with more industries,” said Wu Zhongqin, head of Baidu’s AR lab. “There is still a lot more to do to improve those AR technologies.”