By Jenny Lee WIRED Korea
South Korea has always been among the first movers when it comes to embracing new technologies. But in the current “arms race” for immersive technology supremacy, the country is lagging behind, far behind other countries.
That is the view of Woo Woon-tack, one of the country’s first pioneers in immersive technology—virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). He says South Korean companies are currently walking the wrong path, committing themselves to developing immersive contents, not platforms.
“The importance of this technology goes beyond providing entertaining experiences,” says Woo, a professor in the Graduate School of Culture Technology at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), in an interview with WIRED Korea. “In my view, the VR and AR technologies are platforms, upon which applications are going to be built. And they will transform the way we work, learn, play and connect with the world.”
VR, AR and MR Explained
While VR, AR and MR are emerging technologies that all deliver to users “immersive experience,” or a deeply-engaging, multisensory, digital experience, they have some differences.
VR provides a digital immersive experience where people can view a computer-generated world using headsets or head-mounted displays, and AR places digital objects in the real world via a wearable glass device or smartphone applications. MR uses elements of both AR and VR, enabling real-world and digital objects to interact. These acronyms however are often used interchangeably.
Immersive technology isn’t anything new; it dates back at least to the late 1960s, when Ivan Sutherland, a Harvard University professor and computer scientist, invented the first head-mounted display called “The Sword of Damocles.” A primitive user interface and images notwithstanding, the system displayed output from a computer program and was able to track the user’s eyes and head position.
Since then, this technology has evolved, but remained on the peripheries of society.
“The lack of computing power in the late 1990s undermined pursuits of VR and AR,” Woo says. “While countries like the U.S. continued to invest in VR/AR, their development came to a screeching halt in Korea as all research institutes and facilities that specialized in immersive technology shut their doors in the early 2000s. This is why we don’t have many professionals today who have a deep knowledge of this technology.”
Competition Heats Up
It was not until the mid-2010s that immersive technology reemerged, with the arrival of smartphones, powerful computer graphics, motion controllers and computer interfaces that track gestures. Competition was launched when Google and Apple, which had been keen on the potential of AR, have respectively introduced ARcore and ARKit, AR mobile platforms that enable app developers to readily build AR experiences into their apps and games. Both platforms use technologies that allow Android or iOS devices to sense its environment, understand the world and interact with information.
South Korea’s top mobile carriers and some tech giants, buoyed by tremendous market opportunity, have also joined the fray, but instead making huge investments in creating and providing VR, AR and MR services available on mobile devices.
In April, SK Telecom opened a digital content production studio called Jump Studio that allows users to create VR, AR and MR content for various entertainment and education applications using Microsoft's Mixed Reality Capture Studio technology. The company showcased for the first time in June a 3D MR image of a 12-meter-tall Choi Si-won, a member of South Korea’s boyband Super Junior during an online live concert. South Korea’s top mobile carrier has also joined hands with a game company, medical institutions and VR production companies earlier this year to diversity its content.
In addition to its 4K wireless standalone VR media service, Super VR, KT, in partnership with Silicon Valley-based startup AlcaCruz Inc and others, unveiled in April the world’s first 8K VR streaming service, which offers a wide range of high-resolution VR content. LG Uplus, with Chinese startup Nreal, is planning to launch Nreal Light, AR glasses designed for high-resolution multimedia and gaming content as well as access to popular social media services including YouTube and Facebook.
“There are markets for immersive contents, hardware, network services and devices,” Woo says. “Although the market for immersive content is not small, it is relatively small compared to the platform market. Korean companies seem to be solely devoted to content development, and this implies they may miss out on many opportunities.”
The global AR and VR market size which stood at $11.35 billion in 2017, is forecasted to reach $571.42 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 63.3 percent between 2018 and 2025, according to Valuates Reports.
Woo says immersive technology will be the linchpin that will move the internet off screens and out into the real world, and in order to gain a competitive edge over its rivals globally, it is crucial for Korean companies to come up with a location-based “digital twin” interlocked with the physical world that instantly gives information in real-time.
“Various technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, and computer vision technology must be tied together to make such a platform, which would pave the way for people to see and use the information they need anytime, anywhere with an eyeglass display or smartphone,” Woo says. “I believe this is the way Korean companies should head.”
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