With limited space for tourist attractions, Singapore bets on augmented reality

Will people really hop on a plane to gaze at their phone?

Singapore attracts millions of tourists every year, but lags well behind competing Asian destinations like Malaysia, Indonesia or Japan. Part of the problem is limited space available to build tourist attractions – the whole country is on an island. So the Singapore Tourism Board has turned to creating digital experiences to lure in guests and their wallets.

The board's CTO, Wong Ming Fai, said at a developer conference on Tuesday that the plentiful availability of no-code deployment tools enabled it to develop extended reality tourism projects quickly.

"We see that the mainstream apps like Google, Google Maps are making this experience available in their app natively," said Wong, adding: "Once AR glasses become commodity, I think that we will then see these experiences become a lot more in use widely."

One project tackled by the board and available since May is a partnership with Google that projects cartoon musicians onto Singapore's Victoria concert hall when viewed through a phone.

The major challenge faced with projecting cartoons onto a building was accurately placing the user so the musicians don't appear to stand on thin air – a task GPS alone couldn't solve, said Wong.

The environment must be scanned for visual cues so the board used Google's visual positioning system (VPS) API. That scan is then matched to Google's Street View database.

Wong admits that for the Singapore government to create an installation like this, it has a lot more work to do – scanning of the environment, as well as data and analytics.

But is the effort worth it? Can visuals on a phone [VIDEO] really draw in the crowds from abroad?

Not likely. But the tourism board did sweeten the deal with an immersive video game-esque recreation of a fictional Second World War battle at a historical location: the decommissioned artillery battery site of Fort Siloso on Sentosa Island. While it's not likely to bring people to Singapore's shores on its own, it could enhance their experience while visiting.

The 5G-enabled XR experience – called The Battle of Fort Siloso – is a joint venture between the tourism board, telecom company Singtel, the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), and Singapore's Government Technology Agency (GovTech). It's currently being trialed.

During the game, the user can walk around in any direction, backtrack or revisit places as they shoot planes with their stare and complete missions.

"Where the AI comes in is really to enable that, because we need to program the behavior of the non-player characters (NPCs), which are the soldiers as well as the planes, so that they don't follow a fixed script and are able to respond to how the user is walking through," said Wong.

Creating the environment took the use of reinforcement machine learning, which the team achieved by using the open source ML agent platform in the Unity engine.

"That platform allows us to define objects, define what the object can do, define where the rewards, objectives and penalties are, and then let you run many parallel runs together. You just train the system and then finally you can deploy the train model," explained Wong.

The CTO said Unity made it possible to complete the task without having to get his data science team involved.

"We definitely want to try to partner as far as we can, because the resources are so precious," said Wong.

The tourism board hopes those in the industry might be inspired and make more experiences of their own. The organization has made a library of tools available, just in case. ®

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