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[Herald Interview] SKT aims to take lead in AR/VR service

South Korea’s top mobile carrier SK Telecom is betting on high-end virtual and augmented reality technologies to increase its foothold, despite the complexity.

Backed by many years of sturdy investments and its 5G mobile network, SKT has been releasing pilot VR/AR services -- promoted in the form of virtual zoo, for instance -- with the aim of eventually creating a whole new experience for customers.

Jeon Jin-soo, vice president and head of 5GX service business division of SK Telecom (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Jeon Jin-soo, vice president and head of 5GX service business division of SK Telecom (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Behind its initiatives in the newly emerging market is Jeon Jin-soo, vice president and head of 5GX service business division of SKT.

Jeon started her career in 2000 as cell phone software developer and moved to SKT in 2011 to explore the new AR/VR industry. Being tech-savvy and keen to new trends -- a long time user of open-source software development platform Github -- she shared SKT’s recent AR/VR initiatives and personal insights in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“If people took photos of memorable moments in the past, in the future they will be able to keep their precious moments in AR/VR videos,” Jeon said, while explaining the upcoming studio the company will launch in Seoul in spring.

The studio, which will open in collaboration with Microsoft, has VR/AR production facilities, including a room equipped with more than 100 cameras. It will support production firms here to create different kinds of AR/VR contents by utilizing a 360-degree camera system.

“Say that we film BTS’ Jungkook dancing in the studio, then users of our service will be able to watch every detail of him performing, by adjusting angles and distances on their smart devices,” Jeon said.

Cooperation is SKT’s key strategy in the increasingly competitive global AR/VR market where global IT giants are aggressively competing in mergers and acquisitions to prepare for another groundbreaking change.

“You frequently see a startup being acquired by a bigger company regularly,” she said, noting that Microsoft’s purchase of Minecraft in 2014 and AltspaceVR in 2017, were some of the memorable mergers. Apple’s 2013 acquisition of Israel-based 3D sensor developer PrimeSense was another one, she recalled.

SKT is, however, not jumping into the competitive M&A business. Instead, it will ramp up efforts to take the lead as an AR/VR service provider, Jeon said.

“In the areas that we are not specializing in, such as AR/VR devices, we will seek partnerships.”

SKT is currently cooperating with many global players to enhance its AR/VR services, including Microsoft, Facebook, Magic Leap and others.

Now going hand-in-hand with global players, SKT’s AR/VR unit went through a lot of trial and error since it started to invest in the area in 2012.

“Back then, producing 3D contents was expensive, and the company also did not have ample devices and network that could handle the heavy data load. I almost thought of giving up,” Jeon said.

But, the company continued to tap into the market. In 2015 and 2017, it joined Google I/O invitation and introduced its own AR/VR contents and platforms.

In 2018, it rolled out its self-driving car promotion, which used AI speaker HoloBox and a female avatar based on girl group Red Velvet’s Wendy. But, it failed to capture public attention.

In 2019, Jeon gave another shot. This time, SKT created an AR show of fire-breathing dragon flying over the company’s baseball stadium. The large-scale AR project, which used every corner of the stadium was much more widely received, yet Jeon and her team again, found room for improvement.

“It was in March and still cold. I think we ran through on-site rendering of AR video over 100 times to tune it in constantly changing weather conditions. After the event, we decided to invent a program capable of self-rendering AR videos,” Jeon said.

SKT then started to develop its own self-rendering system and successfully installed it in the aqua world of VR animals, which they brought to CES 2020.

The company’s next step will be to install a self-rendering system in its cloud service, which will do heavy-rendering processes for users who want to make high-quality videos with their smartphones.

SKT will also prepare for services that can make a smooth transition to the next-generation smart devices, like smart glasses.

“There are still limits in experiencing AR/VR contents through smartphone as users have to turn on their phones, applications and cameras. They are just a few steps but inconvenient enough to make people not to use them,” Jeon explained.

While preparing for the next paradigm shift, SKT will continue to develop different kinds of AR/VR services. With the help of Microsoft and its own 5G network, for instance, the company aims to expand its cloud-gaming service, said Jeon.

By Shim Woo-hyun (