These days tech has been getting a lot of attention from the media and our collective imagination. Consider this: US-based tech companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook have completely transformed activities we do on a daily basis -- how we buy things, how we learn new information, and how we connect with friends. Not too long ago, there would've been but one obvious way: get your butt to the mall, the library, the park! But today, the time we spend completely offline is basically nonexistent -- whether or not this is such a bad thing is certainly up for debate. Either way, we can't help but wonder what other aspects of our daily lives will inevitably be transformed next...?
But enough with the US and Silicon Valley. What about Hong Kong!? We were curious to find out what was brewing in the local scene. So last month, the Tech Club banded a group of 18 tech enthusiasts to visit the HK Science Park, one of the leading hubs for tech startups in Hong Kong. Visually, the environment was nothing short of breathtaking. With modern structures, well-kept gardens and impeccable interior design, it's no wonder so many startups decide to set up office inside the Science Park.
The first company we visited was Sensetime, an AI startup specializing in state-of-the-art facial recognition technology using machine deep learning. As Hong Kong's first ever hi-tech "unicorn" -- a startup valued at US$1B or more -- they certainly did not disappoint with their product demos. One was a live feed of a busy department store with an overlay drawing a box on each person and indicating whether they are male or female, and child or adult. Another was a fun machine that had two people stand next to each other in front of the camera. The computer would then guess each one's age and then assign an attractiveness rating to each, declaring one the winner over the other. We never figured out the criteria the computer used to judge.
Next up on our itinerary was a rapidly growing gaming company called Madhead that develops mobile apps under the free-to-play (F2P) business model. Upon stepping into their office, we were warmly received by a very down-to-earth, young-looking man in a plain shirt, jeans and sneakers. Okay, we thought, he must be the one tasked to welcome and show us around. It wasn't until another, older, employee introduced him did we realize that he was actually the CEO and founder of the company. At that very moment, I'm certain we all felt a little bit overdressed in our business outfits.
Afterwards, we moved over to Parallax, an early-stage augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) startup founded by an HKUST alumnus who graduated from the MBA part-time in 2015. Compared to the previous two companies which were arguably no longer startups given their current scale, this one was the quintessential startup -- a 5-man company (including the CEO) with a modest office not much larger than a studio apartment. Their flagship product? An augmented reality-based iOS app that uses the phone camera to let you visualize what an indoor space would look like if you added some furniture and other objects. In effect, it's equivalent to seeing and experiencing the future. How cool is that?
Up next was Thinxtra, an Internet-of-Things (IoT) company that sells tiny and highly energy-efficient sensors that are all connected to the central network. What's unique about them is that they sell their products as a service (aaS) rather than as standalone products. This means that although customers pay an annual fee per sensor, upfront costs are relatively minimal. There are as many different kinds of applications as you can imagine -- from simple temperature/humidity monitoring to the more outlandish ones such as garbage maintenance! And by early 2018, they expect to have expanded their network to cover at least 95% of the Hong Kong population. Clearly it won't be much longer before everything in our physical world becomes hooked up to the internet in some way or another.
Capping off our day was a brief visit to Radica, a big data company that runs the Data Studio @ Science Park. In essence, the Data Studio collects all kinds of useful data and hosts these datasets as app programming interfaces (API) that app developers can easily use to make the data more accessible to the public. Some examples of the datasets are real-time supermarket prices, real-time estimated bus arrival times and real-time car park availability. Although usage isn't widespread yet, it's easy enough to imagine how much more convenient daily life would become if we had constant access to these kinds of data in real-time.
AI, facial recognition, F2P, AR, VR, IoT, aaS, big data: these are all seemingly trite buzzwords that get thrown around a lot lately in tech-related news, but for good reason -- these are the technologies and business models that will slowly but surely become a large part of our lives not too long from now.