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Bringing a 615-year-old South Korean palace to life: how SK Telecom harnessed the power of 5G

In 2019, South Korea became the first country to launch commercial 5G services nationally. The country’s largest wireless carrier SK Telecom takes The Drum inside a campaign it worked on with Google which made use of 5G to create unique, immersive and interactive consumer experiences.

In the midst of reviewing various ideas for a new campaign, Hui Kang Yea, the vice president and head of brand marketing group at SK Telecom says the telco came across the 'Barrier Free Cultural Property Viewing Policy' of the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea and thought it could bring synergy with its 5G tech.

“In palaces, where the values ​​of preservation and utilization of cultural properties clash, a project of overcoming the limitations of physical improvement of accessibility to cultural properties for the public and the disabled was undertaken with 5G and AR technology,” she explains.

“5G, MEC, ARcore, and Cloud Anchor are all the latest technologies that can feel unfamiliar to users. By presenting these technologies to the users through a holistic experience at one of the most historical palaces in the world, gives special meaning to our company.”

So together with the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, Google and Nexus Studios, SK Telecom created the Changdeok ARirang experience, an augmented reality tour of the Changdeokgung Palace, a UNESCO Heritage site in South Korea and one of the "Five Grand Palaces" built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty built-in 1405.

Guided by an enigmatic mythical creature, Haechi, visitors can discover 12 interactive activities. They can select their own route around the palace by choosing from an interactive map within the app. Haechi then plots the route from any spot in the palace.

To get a virtual taste for the authentic customs and activities of the Joseon Dynasty, visitors can practice archery with the Joseon Prince, learn an ancient dynastic dance, discover the role of the Sinmungo Drum and explore secret portals to unlock hidden histories.

They can also interact with the King and Queen in a much more informal manner in the courtyard, where they pose for photos with visitors that can be saved and shared instantly.

Elaine Shuainan Zhu, the lead and executive producer for Greater China and Korea at Google Partner Innovation, says creating innovative and meaningful user experiences through technology is at the core of her team’s mission.

“When we visited the Changdeokgung palace in Seoul, we were awed by the beauty of the well-preserved palace and its rich history. It inspired us with the idea to create an experience to showcase the unique cultural heritage and significant historical moments of South Korea,” she explains.

“Technologically, we also wanted to push the boundaries. We believe AR is a great tool to create unique, immersive and interactive consumer experiences. This represented a unique opportunity for us to combine the latest Google ARCore features with Korea’s leading 5G capabilities to create something truly new to the world.”

With the heavy use of emerging technology, the team encountered many challenges. This included aligning the virtual and real-world while being thousands of miles away as Nexus Studios was based in London, balancing performance and heat over the length of the experience, fighting bugs and Iteration time because it was basically a day between input and output.

“We made local test maps in London / Hannover to be able to test things nearby. We had a feedback loop with the engineering team and client on the ground where they would record what they had done / how it was working,” explains Rob York, senior digital producer at Nexus Studios.

“We put a 'debug view' in the app that showed where the virtual map expected things to be so we could spot differences visually. We also made automatic logs to record how the code perceived the environment it was in / log changes in height etc.”

SK Telecom’s Yea adds that to download high-quality, large-capacity AR content over 4GB at once, it takes a considerable amount of time to wait. To solve this, several 5G base stations were installed in the palace, and during the experience, a split download method was applied.

The development of the split download method was also a challenge, but she says it was more difficult to obtain a base station installation permit from the Korean Cultural Heritage Committee for installing a 5G base station in the cultural heritage palace. However, the telco was able to obtain installation permits in due course.

Due to the difficulty of visiting the palace due to Covid-19, SK Telecom released a Changdeok ARirang at Home version, and Yea claims 123,000 people have downloaded it. She notes that despite the need to download large content over 4GB, it maintains a rating of 4 or more on Google Play.

The campaign saw the Changdeokgung Palace Office awarded the Excellence Award in the Government Innovation Active Administration Contest hosted by the Cultural Heritage Administration.