Remember watching movies like Minority Report or Iron Man where the main characters simply look into the air in front of them and wave their hands around to shuffle through files or develop robotic prototypes? The concept is called augmented reality (AR), meaning a layer of media like an image; video or sound is added on top of the real world environment, when a device’s sensory input like a camera recognizes what is in front of it.

Although commercial technology is not as far as advanced as Iron Man yet, AR is quickly gaining traction and is now becoming a reality and it’s very exciting!  One of the coolest examples I’ve seen, was developed for Japanese advertising agency, Dentsu called iButterfly. Using your iPhone, you point your camera at the air and detect a flying butterfly. Then you flick your phone to catch it like using a butterfly net. The captured butterfly then goes into your phone to be redeemed for a coupon like a free drink. Check out the video below to see how –

In a recent interview with Senscape, one of the early players in the AR space in China, I was presented with a demo and spent sometime with the founding team. Senscape is currently under private beta.

How the team came together

There are three founders, Allen Lu, HongBo and Tan Lin. Allen and Tan Lin met at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, one of the most prestigious in China. Before founding Senscape, Allen was at Akamai China. Tan Lin formerly worked with Hang Bo at Computer Associates.

From social media to augmented reality – how the idea evolved

The three originally started thinking about creating a social media browser, after being inspired by Rockmelt (backed by Marc Andreesen). “But the timing in China was not right”. They then decided to create a mobile browser using AR because they saw mobile becoming more powerful with sensors like a camera, GPS, compass accelerometer etc. They discovered they could get the data from the mobile sensors, capture and organize it in the servers, add content and augment it. So they sized the opportunity in AR and started Senscape in February 2010.

“Senscape is a platform for developers to build on top with an api, for content providers they can upload their data, for end users they just need to download the apps using Senscape to interact with AR. It’s a very user friendly platform.”

AR means no more need for keyboard input

“AR is a bridge between people and data, using environment and time. The sensors are an easy way of inputting data here and now. You don’t need to enter something into a keyboard. This is brand new!”

How AR helps businesses

There are many ways that AR can help businesses, here’s 5 examples:

“For brands like a café, they can upload 200 locations and have different promotions at each place. For example, a user can hold up their phone to a shop, capture a coupon and get a discount for coffee. (see the iButterfly video above)

For products, they can hold their phone up to something like a bag. The phone will detect the brand and type and take you to Taobao and show you the different places you can buy it for the cheapest price. You can bring people off the street and into stores or online.

For tourism, you can go to somewhere like the Shanghai Expo location and although the buildings have been removed, we can show you what was there before. Also if I went to the Great Wall in Beijing, I could point to the wall and it can tell me the history about the wall in text, audio, pictures and video.

For education, for example you could learn to use a coffee machine by pointing the phone at the machine and it will tell you what to do.

For games, you can play a social game with people around you. You can make games that people do tasks and get rewarded.”

The Senscape business model is to grow the platform and help others make  money first

“At these stages we really want to promote the concept and technology however as a platform we want to have content providers or developers make money, so we can take a small share. Advertising may also be another revenue stream.”

The rise of mobile makes AR now more accessible

“The direction and how fast the technology becomes more accurate depends on the eco-system of partners, users. AR is not new. A long time ago, armies were using AR in weapons but they were very expensive and very big and heavy machines. Now mobile phones are becoming more powerful, lighter and cheaper for normal people to use.

You just can’t stop this. The phone has become very smart now and people are challenging how smart it can further go. We are helping this process. There a several key factors that makes it the right time: 1) mobile internet 2) smart phone technology 3) cloud computing so I think the eco-system will become very open so everyone can help each other.”

Europe is now the leader in AR but Senscape aims to lead in China

“The history of AR on mobile is very short, following the release of iPhone around 2008. Some applications allow people to find restaurants on the street around them or to see what the street looked like 50 years ago. We followed AR technology very closely, especially from countries in Europe and Japan. There is a company called Junaio from Germany, Wikitude from Austria and Layar from the Netherlands. AR is still very new, even in Europe. Layar is the biggest AR platform and has about 2 million users so is still at a starting stage.”

AR will change how you see the world!

“AR can change how you see the world. Instead of using a mobile phone, you could even use glasses to see a brand new projected world in front of you.

You are only awake for usually for 16 hours so there is limited time, so there are many screens competing for your attention. You watch TV, you look at your computer screen and you look at your mobile phone but the mobile phone knows more about you – where you are, what you want, who you talked to etc. so it has the greatest responsibility to help you. It becomes an extension of yourself, that’s why we call it Senscape, because it enhances your senses. Now it extends your eyes but later it can extend your smell, your touch and maybe your hearing.”

Hang Bo also believes that because China has a very long and impressive history, there is a lot of content to use. There are many stories to tell.

Senscape will be launching their product at an event on Monday 25th to call out to developers and publishers to start using their platform.

The technology is so new and revolutionary. I am really excited to see AR become main-stream – it will happen!

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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    1. Hi Tim, I think naturally as Senscape is just launching it is kind of rough and not as advanced compared to Layar which has been around for longer. However I haven’t really played around with the Layar AR browser.

      1. Layer seems to have an “Add on” strategy where 3rd parties can use their API to create their own “layers” to put over top of the AR browser. Does Senscape have that same strategy or will they be doing their own layers on top of the browser themselves?

        1. Hi Tim, they will be using a similar strategy to Layar and have an open api for developers, content providers and publishers to build their own ‘layers’ on top of the Senscape browser

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