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Baidu expands augmented reality beyond brand marketing

Baidu aims to become an AI-first company

Chinese search engine Baidu plans to expand its AR focus beyond brand marketing to the travel, architecture and healthcare industries, as it shifts focus away from its online advertising business.

Baidu has identified artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) as key strategic priorities, as it moves to become an AI-first company. The shift has seen it allocate $200m to fund AI, augmented reality and deep learning research and hire ex-Microsoft executive Qi Lu to head up its AI division.

“AI is the main strategy for the company right now and AR is an important part of the AI strategy - AR is very important for Baidu,” said Hui Qiao, chief architect of Baidu’s Augmented Reality Lab.

The AR Lab, which launched in January, was a formalisation of the AR work the company was already doing with brands such as L’Oreal, Mercedes Benz, KFC and Lancome.

Qiao told The Drum, Baidu plans to build on this work by expanding its focus beyond brand marketing to industries such as travel, architecture and health care.

“When we started to explore AR applications in 2016, we found advertising and brand marketing was a very good fit for us. After just one year, we have so many customers and we realised the potential that AR can bring to their new products. That’s why we thought advertising was a good start for AR. Brand marketing is our first step, we are actually trying other industries with AR.”

Qiao said the company is already working with Chinese travel companies as well as a theme park brand. The Lab will continue to work with brands while also exploring how its technology and talent can assist other industries.

“People in the industry are actively talking about how their business can cope with AR. I think people are still exploring what they can do with AR and we are talking with a lot of companies about how AR can help their business.

“Currently we are talking to brands about putting ‘AR inside’ logos onto packaging so that users will know there are AR effects that they can access with their phone.”

“People don’t really know what AR is, probably this year or next year people will be much more used to opening their phones to trigger AR effects.”

But forget about AR headsets, Qiao says the future is all about mobile phones.

“China has a huge percentage of smartphone users – more than 700 million. So most AR is happening on smartphones instead of AR headsets.”

The advancements in smartphone technology – most notably the use of dual cameras in mobile phones - will deliver a huge boost to AR technology.

“Currently we are working on one camera cell phones and there’s a lot of limitations for AR. If we have two cameras we can do much more in AR.

“We have two eyes and that is important for us to see and judge how far an object is located from you. That depth perception ability is also a very fundamental capability for AR. Dual cameras will allow the technology to evolve and improve significantly.”

Baidu’s AR and AI focus follows a change in advertising regulations which delivered a 16% decline in advertising customers for China’s search giant.

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Danielle Long

Danielle Long is APAC Correspondent for The Drum with a remit to cover news from China, Australia and New Zealand. Danielle has 15 years experience as a marketing journalist and has worked on publications in the UK and Australia. She has interviewed some of the world’s leading marketing, advertising and creative brains and has written about almost every standout brand and marketing campaign from the last 15 years.

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