On the morning of April 13, students of Tonggu No.2 Middle School in Central China’s Jiangxi province, rushed to campus for the long-awaited reopening of in-school learning. Surprisingly, nobody stopped them for a temperature test, which is quite abnormal considering the safety measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Actually, a security guard at the school’s entrance, wearing a pair of AR glasses, did test the student’s temperature, quietly and efficiently, without even being noticed.
These glasses, rolled out by Chinese startup Rokid, were first used on March 23 by security guards in Hongyuan Park, in Hangzhou, East China’s Zhejiang province, to help to measure the temperatures of park visitors. Since then, the device has been exported to 35 countries and regions including Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, and South Africa.
Transportation operators across the globe including, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit, private airport operator Aeropuertos Argentina 2000, and Dubai Transport Security Department are all among its clients.
The eyewear, which looks like a normal pair of sunglasses, is equipped with infrared sensors and can detect the temperatures of about 1,000 people within one minute from a distance of three meters. If someone is detected with fever, the security operator will be alerted by an alarm function within the device.
KrASIA recently talked with Zhang Xinyang, chief operating officer (COO) of Rokid, a Hangzhou-based firm that claims to be the world’s first producer of such AR temperature-detecting glasses, to know more about the company’s inception and future plans.
The next method of human-machine interaction?
Zhang explained that Rokid’s AR glasses, equipped with cameras, can be also used to increase efficiency in scenarios such as mechanical repair and vocational training. Other clients include the State Grid Corporation of China, Chengdu Subway, and German nonwovens producer TWE Group.
“AR glasses, donned by an on-spot worker, can allow a technical expert located somewhere else, to see what the worker sees and provide guidance on the repairs, enhancing efficiency and productivity,” said Zhang.
For example, in August, an engineer of TWE Group in Germany guided a textile worker based in Hangzhou wearing a pair of Rokid Glass 2 in repairing malfunctioning equipment. Rokid’s devices have been deployed in eight of TWE Group’s manufacturing plants worldwide, according to Zhang.
The glasses can be customized by adding various modules via USB to meet different needs. That’s why the company could come out with the temperature-testing function in late March, based on its soon-to-be-mass produced Rokid Glass 2 devices, he added.
The startup has mass-produced the device in May this year, after delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it comes to AR glasses, the more natural light that can enter the user’s field of view, the easier and safer it is for the user to safely navigate their environment. In this respect, Rokid has an advantage, as its products allow over 80% of light, while competitors like Microsoft’s HoloLens only allow about 60%, and Magic Leap One just about 15% of light, according to AR/VR-focused media outlet 7tin.cn.
The Hangzhou startup’s devices also allow computerized images to be displayed as if they were on an 80-inch screen, promising a wide field of vision. Rokid’s glasses can also perform functions such as taking photos or videos via touch, voice commands, and gestures.
“Our gadgets can be awoken without wake-up words, as one can talk to the glasses like talking to their friends, and they work only after receiving the wearer’s vocal commands, not disturbed by other conversations around,” Zhang said, adding that this function is enabled by the company’s location-based human-machine interaction technologies.
“Our mission of ‘leaving nobody behind’ means that we are always sharpening our technologies to make our products as easy to use as possible, which can help to narrow the digital divide between people,” Rokid’s COO explained.
In addition to Rokid, computer maker Lenovo, Beijing-based startup LLVision, and Shanghai-based HiScene, are also competing in this field, designing AR glasses designed for remote work collaboration, training, and more. Beijing-based Nreal, for example, has started pre-orders for its U+ Real AR glasses to individuals located in South Korea, KrASIA recently reported.
While Rokid glasses are mainly used for industrial use, the company expects that its products could eventually meet the demands of individual consumers, a goal that big companies such as Google and Magic Leap have failed to obtain so far.
“Currently we still need to sell our products to businesses first to nurture the consumer market,” said Zhang.
The company is focusing on using its products in scenarios that prioritize user engagement. “For example, we want to sell the device to museums or exhibition centers, which will lease such devices to visitors. Or, we want to sell them to vocational training schools, so they could be used by some of their students,” he added.
Surviving in an immature sector
Despite the company’s belief that AR glasses could become the next primary human-machine interaction device even above computers and smartphones, the firm first started producing smart speakers. The startup, founded in 2014, launched Rokid Alien, a smart speaker in February 2016, way before current sector leaders Alibaba (NYSE: Alibaba), Baidu (NASDAQ: BIDU), and Xiaomi (HKSE: 1810).
The early entrant failed to stand firm in the sector due to a price war initiated by Alibaba, which slashed the price for its Tmall Genie X1 device from RMB 499 (USD 71) to RMB 99 (USD 14) on Single’s Day, a large shopping festival, in November 2017. The Rokid Alien, comparatively, were priced above RMB 5,000 (USD 720).
Rokid has now stopped selling the Rokid Alien, but maintains some other smart speakers, such as the Rokid Me, priced at RMB 999 (USD 140), and the Rokid Panda, RMB 599 (USD 86), on e-commerce platforms such as JD.com.
Even if still managing a smart speaker line, the firm reallocated resources into the AR business. After closing its Series B round in January 2018, bagging around USD 100 million from investors including Singapore-based sovereign wealth fund Temasek, Rokid swiftly focused on AR development, which was planned as early as 2016, launching its first AR glasses in June 2018 in China.
“A small company needs to allocate its resources wisely and be focused,” said Zhang, adding that “any misallocation or waste could be disastrous.”
The company managed to mass-produce the Rokid Glass by May 2019 and unveiled the next-generation model, the Rokid Glass 2, in January 2020, featuring a foldable monocular design.
“We have been focusing on R&D, especially our human-machine interaction technologies since the launch of our company, and have tasted a tiny bit of sweetness as our glasses can be differentiated from peer products.”
Zhang revealed that his company managed to break even in the second quarter of this year, although losses were generated in the first quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rokid closed another Series B+ round in the second quarter of this year, bagging USD 25 million, he revealed to KrASIA for the first time.
The company sells its hardware directly to corporate clients and IT solution providers as part of a package for end-user clients. Rokid also customizes pay-to-use software for some customers since there is no app store for its AR glasses, Zhang explained.
For example, property management company GreenTown and Xixi reserve manager bought Rokid glasses directly, while the Dubai Transport Security Department bought the glasses via a distributor called Emcode, Zhang said.
While Rokid has managed to find early adopters for its devices, Zhang admitted that there are still a lot of barriers such as batteries capacity, optical display, and computing power, for the industry to take off, adding that companies that can make technical breakthroughs will be leading the industry.
“In the long run, we would like to be a Chinese local leader in the AR glasses sector, producing devices that look and feel like ordinary glasses as much as possible, leveraging the country’s supply chains,” said Zhang.
Rokid Glass 2 can be used for work collaboration and exhibition. Video provided to KrASIA by Rokid.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Inside China’s Startups” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in the country.