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deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. We’ll dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech, and their impact on society (i.e. me and you).

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deeper tech newsletter southeast asia
Your deep dive into Southeast Asian tech

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

 


 

Hi readers, it’s Ebi here! When I was a kid, I used to watch episodes of Digimon on Youtube with my brother for hours and hours each day. Afterwards, we’d pretend we could enter the Digital World and meet our own virtual monster friends.

Redefining what's real: the inevitable unification of the offline and online world

It’s crazy to think that in just a few years, our world has made significant progress towards such a Digital World. Pokemon GO (with its 1 billion registered users and thriving online community) has shown us the market for digital entertainment, and one day, kids all over the world really might have their own virtual pets (like Tamagotchi), games, and adventures.

Of course, virtual and augmented reality isn’t just for consumers. It also promises a ton of changes for businesses, who can benefit from these tools’ relative safety to produce learnings, predict changes, and protect them from the dangers of the physical world.

TL;DR: As our world becomes increasingly online, the boundaries between the physical and the virtual world will erode, giving rise to a single unified experience.

  • Simulated influencers and social media manipulation—the modification of our digital identities
  • Alteration of our reality with simulated entertainment
  • Virtual/game engines are powering the world
  • VR across Southeast Asia
  • The business benefits of VR
  • The possible risks of an algorithm-based world
  • Becoming more than human

 

Simulated influencers and social media manipulation—the modification of our digital identities

When Instagram was first launched in 2010, it was home to carelessly cropped photos of lunch and travel destinations. In the years that have passed since then, our feeds have become increasingly edited. For many, the lens has been flipped and zoomed to highlight our selves—and the images processed through AI engines and editing apps to create the perfect identity.

Redefining what's real: the inevitable unification of the offline and online world

The issue of what is real and “less-than-real” on Instagram is now so complex that an entire subreddit—r/InstagramReality—has been devoted to highlighting discrepancies between doctored social media photos and the originals. In an article published late last year, the New Yorker documented the rise of “Instagram Face”—going so far as to call the resulting aesthetic “cyborgian”.

In their efforts to pursue this unreal look, younger generations are turning to Facetune, plastic surgery, and aesthetic beauty treatments. What kind of impact will this blending of the real and unreal, offline and online, have on future generations? Do they know that the ideal image they are chasing is rooted in unreality? Or are they aware of this and seek to transcend what is humanly possible?

 

Alteration of our reality with simulated entertainment

We can see undeniable changes in entertainment, especially now that Covid-19 has pushed many of our sources for it online. When asked about the activities they intended to continue post-pandemic, 23% of respondents in a Global Web Index survey said they will watch more content on streaming services, and 24% will watch more videos. Since the pandemic began over half of consumers worldwide have begun consuming more virtual, video content.

Many cultural events like sports tournaments are mixed- or augmented reality, and have been for some time. You’ve also got Bandersnatch, the highly-buzzed-about choose-your-own-adventure episode of Black Mirror released in 2018. At concerts, you can scan QR codes, immerse yourself in dedicated apps, and even enjoy holographic shows powered by drones.

AR is also enabling virtual performers—voice bank hologram Hatsune Miku was slated to perform at Coachella in 2020 before Covid-19 got in the way. (Miku is a Japanese voicebank with a corresponding anthropomorph identity). And AR filters are ubiquitous on social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and, of course, TikTok.

In March 2019, Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wiredwrote about “the Mirrorworld”—a virtual, interactive world layered over our current physical one. Think of it as an added dimension of experience.

He argued that we’ve already caught glimpses of the Mirrorworld. One of the most significant examples is Pokemon Go.

Redefining what's real: the inevitable unification of the offline and online world

With over a billion registered players and well-attended, region-specific events (like the one above in Yokosuka, Japan), the wild success of Pokemon Go is an example of how powerful the virtual world can be in influencing our reality.

 

Virtual/game engines are now everywhere

The Mirrorworld is going to come to life through a combination of hardware and software advancements. Manufacturers and programmers are building virtual areas piecemeal, and we’re excited to see what kind of standards will be developed in the future. Will there be a single digital world? Or could we possibly access different universes by using different tools or hardware?

An interesting thread on Twitter from the other week shares that many real-life processes are now built or simulated in game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine, so there’s a chance that the Mirrorworld will be built and accessed through game engines.

On one hand, game engines could help us transform our own lives to be more game-like—through a social credit system, by allowing us to stock virtual inventory, or more.

On the other hand, they could help us better understand and interact with our real world by providing convincing mirrors and simulations. For so long, video games have been simulations of an enhanced reality, one where we can be and do much more.

But we could just as easily set game engines to accurately reflect our real world’s physics and movements. South Korea’s Doosan Infrastructure is making this happen by partnering with Unity to test tractor vehicles and machines before prototypes are even made.

 

VR across Southeast Asia

Disposable income is higher in the western hemisphere, which means end-consumers there can more readily access leisure VR headsets and use them to amp their gaming experience.

Globally, end-consumers are more familiar with gaming VR and AR use cases and incorrectly assume that VR devices are priced at luxury price points. They may not be entirely familiar with the myriad applications in industry and business, nor realize that many already interact with AR and VR applications in their everyday lives.

AirAsia, for example, launched Asia’s largest 360 VR production in celebration of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in 2017. The campaign featured a virtual 360-degree tour of hundreds of scenes and attractions around ASEAN.

Malaysia is home to The Rift, a massive VR/AR game park situated within one of Kuala Lumpur’s largest malls. The park hosts over 20 tech-enabled attractions, including thrill rides and VR shooters.

Philippines-based startup ZipMatch offers goggle-based VR experiences for real estate brokers and developers to provide to potential buyers. Many other real estate companies have adopted aspects of this by offering 360 images for their listings.

And Singapore’s Hiverlab lets factory owners revamp and revitalize their facilities by allowing users to “explore the smart manufacturing process and interact with individual machines in their model factory right from their smartphones.”

The list continues.

In Indonesia, adoption of AR and VR has been slow, but like many other countries, the nation has an avid Pokemon Go population, and national airline Garuda has begun offering VR box office films as in-flight entertainment for business-class passengers. Additionally, netizens from all over Southeast Asia—including Indonesia and the Philippines—were enthusiastic about a beauty-enhancing We Bare Bears filter on Instagram, leading to thousands of searches, conversations, and downloads of the filter.

Redefining what's real: the inevitable unification of the offline and online world

SK Telecom, which has long been an AR, VR, 5G, and, of course, online gaming leader, launched their VR/AR service to help players virtually attend games and enjoy other immersive experiences at Seoul’s League of Legends (LoL) Park with a VR headset.

The possibilities here are enormous and we’re excited to see how developers plan to introduce VR and AR to the Southeast Asian masses. (VR goggles? AR glasses? Projections? Temporary public installations?)

 

The business benefits of VR

Virtual reality holds plenty of promise for enterprises and SMEs, especially those in hazardous, cumbersome, or expensive fields such as manufacturing or healthcare. Linked to the Mirrorworld is the concept of digital twins—a digital counterpart of every physical object.

Redefining what's real: the inevitable unification of the offline and online world

By accessing an object or environment’s digital twin rather than interacting directly, students, developers, and professionals can more safely learn skills, address issues, and gain knowledge.

Wired’s Kelly describes it beautifully, writing: “What better way to troubleshoot a giant six-axis robotic mill than by overlaying the machine with its same-sized virtual twin, visible with AR gear? The repair technician sees the virtual ghost shimmer over the real. She studies the virtual overlay to see the likely faulty parts highlighted on the actual parts. An expert back at HQ can share the repair technician’s views in AR and guide her hands as she works on the real parts.”

AR and VR are also helpful for customer-facing businesses. Plenty of businesses have caught on to the benefits of immersion, especially in creating enjoyable customer experiences—hence why omnichannel marketing has become such a popular buzzword.

Modern marketers are eager to create seamless offline and online experiences; Samsung showcased their flagship phones’ image search capabilities in a 2019 fashion show featuring brands like Adidas. Imagine a future where people can interact with any object in the Mirrorworld and get deep information about it in a split-second.

 

The possible risks of an algorithm-based world

The same concerns apply here as they do for other developments we’ve seen. Much of this technology will be powered by machine learning algorithms. Simulations, bots, and algorithms are still built by humans, and they are susceptible to incorrect assumptions, idiosyncrasies, and faulty interpretations of data (as well as incomplete data). Such discrepancies can easily bleed into decision-making and application, lurking invisibly until it’s too late to stop it.

Last year, 189 facial recognition algorithms from 99 developers were tested by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These algorithms—some of which were produced by the likes of Intel, Microsoft, Toshiba, and Chinese firms Tencent and DiDi Chuxing—were found to incorrectly identify black and Asian faces almost ten to hundreds of times more often than they did white faces.

Redefining what's real: the inevitable unification of the offline and online world

This sort of hardcoded bias has already made a real-life impact in the United States, where algorithms incorrectly ignored black patients who needed high-risk care management because it determined need based on healthcare spending while ignoring income and societal discrepancies.

Because the Mirrorworld will be loaded with algorithms, it becomes ever more pressing for developers to push for more diverse data. They must also thoroughly audit their algorithms to avoid the damage that skewed proxies or interpretations of existing data will cause.

There is also the fear of mass manipulation and personal privacy. Such tracking and tracing will result in a total surveillance state: the question is, who will hold the keys to the kingdom of data produced each second? Governments? Individuals? Businesses?

There needs to be an ever-conscious emphasis on good practices such as transparency and accountability; an international system of checks and balances; and an obsession with individual privacy rights and personal data ownership.

 

Becoming more than human

The fact that we can now accurately simulate so much of what goes on around us lends traction to theorists who argue that we’re simply all characters in a video game or simulation, and that one day we may even discover our universe’s source code. There are video games that can almost perfectly mimic the ripples of a body of water as the wind blows, complete with sun-dappling effects—an example of the unreal assuming qualities of the real.

And there are also many cases of “whales”—a colloquial term for gamers who spend loads of money on games of chance in order to gain virtual currency or goods. Day by day, the virtual world and the digital assets we own (whether it’s Pokemon, a high-ranked gaming account, or a 3D simulation of our dream interior design) are becoming increasingly legitimate and meaningful. The identities we flesh out and curate and the goods we collect online are no longer “just” data or numbers—they are significant in our professional and personal lives.

Points in the Mirrorworld are increasingly gaining a sense of place and weight, and we believe that one day, we will be able to discuss aspects of the digital world as if they do have a physical presence (who knows—in the future, they really could). This new way of viewing our world and understanding our reality has already affected our language—we are “on Facebook” or “exploring Instagram”. We could even argue that this merge has already irrevocably taken place and that the future will only solidify their unified nature.

As the real becomes unreal and the unreal becomes real, it raises more and more questions about the type of civilization we are building and the type of legacy we will leave behind for future generations, some of whom really could be more than human.

 


 

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Theodora Sarah Abigail

Ebi’s entire life revolves around words and stories. Over the past five years, she’s written business/science/tech content for major companies, one book, and countless essays and poems.