Why Saudi Arabia has a head start in augmented-reality tech

An employee of Chinese tech giant JD.com shows an augmented reality system that allows customers to virtually try on clothing at shops. (AFP/File Photo)
An employee of Chinese tech giant JD.com shows an augmented reality system that allows customers to virtually try on clothing at shops. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 18 November 2021

Why Saudi Arabia has a head start in augmented-reality tech

An employee of Chinese tech giant JD.com shows an augmented reality system that allows customers to virtually try on clothing at shops. (AFP/File Photo)
  • To mark Saudi National Day, Snapchat allowed users to explore six of the Kingdom’s hidden cultural gems through AR
  • Smartphone ownership per head is extremely high in Saudi Arabia, making it an ideal place to adopt and market AR

DUBAI: An augmented reality tool that allows users to “visit” many of Saudi Arabia’s historical wonders through their smartphones has been developed by the American camera and social media company Snap — best known for its popular app Snapchat.

Unlike virtual reality (VR), which requires specialist equipment such as sensors, headsets and gloves to provide an immersive experience, augmented reality (AR) requires only a smartphone for users to enhance their physical world with computer-generated inputs.

With almost 90 percent of Snapchat’s daily users in Saudi Arabia already interacting with the company’s AR lenses on average more than 30 times per day, according to the firm’s own data, the AR phenomenon looks set to make a big impact across multiple sectors.

“We fundamentally believe that the camera is the next mode of communication,” Abdulla Alhammadi, regional business lead for Snap in MENA, told Arab News. 

“A picture or a video allows you to communicate infinitely more than a word, a simple text or a simple image allows, and that was the idea that led to the understanding that there is more power behind that image and behind an experience that is anchored throughout the camera.”

Snapchat has proven extremely popular among the Saudi population, with a “monthly addressable reach” across the Kingdom of 19.5 million, encompassing more people than Twitter, TikTok, Facebook or Instagram, the company says.

And given that more than 90 percent of 13 to 34-year-olds are using the app, the potential applications of AR in the Kingdom in everything from shopping and schooling to navigation and home entertainment are immense.

To mark Saudi National Day on Sept. 23, Snapchat allowed users to explore six of the Kingdom’s hidden cultural gems, including Qasr Al-Farid, an archaeological site in AlUla’s Madain Saleh in northern Saudi Arabia, Bayt Nassif in Jeddah’s Al-Balad, Tabuk Castle and Qasr Al-Masmak in Riyadh.




To mark Saudi National Day on Sept. 23, Snapchat allowed users to explore six of the Kingdom’s hidden cultural gems. (Supplied)

“You didn’t have to look at the site through a video — you were actually there at the site, taking pictures of yourself, celebrating Saudi Arabia,” Alhammadi said.

Users were amazed by the experience. “I was randomly going through Snapchat on National Day and saw the AR option,” Saif Abdulrahman, 25, from Riyadh, said.

“It was nice to see how different places were shown. You felt transported to the place itself, and I feel this will help people abroad to see what Saudi Arabia is about.”

These Saudi cultural sites had been entirely reconstructed in digital 3D, allowing users to explore them almost as though they were physically at the location.

“We are testing the limits of AR and what we can do to deliver unique experiences that, I would argue, were impossible historically or very difficult to deliver with other mediums,” Alhammadi said.

The company says the immersive tool does far greater justice to the beauty of Saudi Arabia’s historical sites than a mere photo or video clip does. “It allows people to actually sense and feel the experience of being on the site,” he said.

“Snap has partnered with the Royal Commission of AlUla to create unique experiences where people can visit different areas. That is important globally because now you can show people and allow them to experience what it is like to visit Saudi Arabia, but it’s more important locally because not everyone has gone and visited these different areas.”

READ MORE

Snapchat collaborated with Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission of AlUla to bring the Unesco heritage site Lyihyan Bin Kuza (AlFarid) Al-Farid to life. More here.

The Kingdom’s high rate of smartphone ownership and very strong 5G network make young Saudis the very definition of “digital natives,” says Alhammadi.

Beyond its applications in the tourism industry, AR is also offering potential investors a glimpse of the future, overlaying visual inputs of planned developments and mega-projects such as NEOM — developments aimed at transforming the Saudi economy.

“Given the bold ambition that we see in Saudi Arabia and the aggressive vision that we see when it comes to pushing change, creativity and development, while promoting culture and staying true and authentic to its roots, this is a thing that we find very interesting at Snapchat because it stays true to our community,” Alhammadi said.

Developers are only scratching the surface of AR’s potential applications, says Alhammadi, with many untapped opportunities in such sectors as retail and even education.

AR USE BY SAUDI SNAPCHAT BUFFS

* 92% - Communication. 

* 82% - Gaming. 

* 79% - Media & entertainment. 

* 73% - Shopping. 

(Source: Global Deloitte Digital Study, 2021)

According to the company’s own research, 66 percent of Snapchatters say the platform will likely play a bigger role in their shopping habits in the next five years.

Deloitte, the consultancy firm, says AR adoption rate in the Kingdom is in keeping with the mobile usage boom, with almost all of Saudi Arabia’s “millennials” (born between 1981 and 1996) and “zoomers” (born in the late 1990s and early 2000s) expected to be frequent AR users by 2025.

Although many still view the tech as a mere “toy,” the firm says 81 percent of people polled expect and want to use it as a practical tool in their everyday lives.

The 2021 Global Deloitte Digital Study commissioned by Snap found that 92 percent of Snapchat users currently employ AR at home for communication, 79 percent for media and entertainment, 82 percent for gaming, and 73 percent for shopping.

AR’s potential in the retail industry was field tested at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when retailers were forced to close their stores and move sales entirely online.




Beyond its applications in the tourism industry, AR is also offering potential investors a glimpse of the future, overlaying visual inputs of planned developments and mega-projects such as NEOM. (Supplied)

From trying on jewelry at Cartier to finding the right shoe size at Dior, shopping online is being revolutionized by Snapchat’s AR features. “And these are just applications that right now we are testing,” Alhammadi said.

It is not just fashion retailers who are jumping on the AR bandwagon. IKEA uses the same technology to allow shoppers to picture furnishings in their homes before they buy them.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift towards digitalization, with many more students remotely accessing their classrooms and workers virtually attending meetings. Incidentally, video conferencing platform Zoom has long offered filters to obscure unwanted backgrounds, and recently added an AR facial effects tool called Studio Effects.

“This is the interesting part about it — when we open it up to the overall community, whether it’s creators, businesses, brands or different entities across the world, it’s interesting to see how different contributors interpret this technology and how they use it to deliver their objectives and key performance indicators,” Alhammadi said.

Other popular apps, such as Star Walk and Pokemon Go, have long been superimposing data, images, animations and information over live images, allowing their users to explore distant constellations or roam the streets searching for virtual monsters.

Google Maps also uses the technology to help users navigate the streets, superimposing directions and details.

The technology is growing at a rapid pace too. “Different sources report global AR market growth numbers that range between 40 to 80 percent (annually) in the next five years,” Mina Litvinova, managing director of AR MORE, said.




This picture shows a view of the new purpose-built Maraya (Arabic for “Mirror”) concert hall in the ruins of Al-Ula. (AFP/File Photo)

“The reason behind this AR boom is research, development and investments that tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Google and Snapchat have made in AR over the previous years.

“Many of us are using AR every day already and we don’t even know we are using it. For example, whenever you apply a face filter on Instagram or Snapchat, you are seamlessly using AR.

“The main thing to understand about AR is that it transformed our smartphone cameras from devices that simply captured our physical reality into devices that can augment and expand our physical reality in unlimited ways. There is literally unlimited potential with AR and therefore unlimited growth.”

The global AR and VR market is set to be valued at $570 billion by 2025, according to Saudi Arabia’s smart-city mega-project NEOM, which hopes to position itself as a world leader of next generation media tech innovation.

Snapchat’s own “Future of Shopping” report, published in July, predicts that in under five years the world will see a 57 percent increase in the proportion of Gen Z shoppers using AR before buying a product — growing from 23 percent in 2021 to 36 percent in 2025.

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE are predicted to be the leading markets when it comes to the percentage of consumers who will have used AR before buying a product online,” Litvinova said.

“Our region the highest smartphone penetration in the world, is well-positioned to be a global leader in AR adoption by consumers and therefore has the potential to become the global leader in AR marketing.

“Our region is ideal for brands to consider as their pilot market for AR-driven campaigns that can be then taken globally.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Stunning French soprano enthralls Jeddah audience

Clara Barbier Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini. Her journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. (Photos/ Hayy Jameel)
Clara Barbier Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini. Her journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. (Photos/ Hayy Jameel)
Updated 24 January 2022

Stunning French soprano enthralls Jeddah audience

Clara Barbier Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini. Her journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. (Photos/ Hayy Jameel)
  • Clara Barbier Serrano performs arias taking audience on a special journey through European history
  • To be in this place in this Maraya concert hall was just incredible, because it’s beautiful; it’s so magical how we can bring this music to the whole world, and then people will somehow connect to it

JEDDAH: The first recipient of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship, French soprano Clara Barbier Serrano, thrilled a Jeddah audience with her stunning performance on the Hayy Jameel stage on Jan. 22.

Serrano performed arias by composers such as Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Puccini, taking the Jeddawi audience on a special journey through European history from the 17th to the 20th centuries, via Italian opera, Mozart and finishing with French songs, accompanied by a pianist to complete a beautiful, intimate recital.
This event is considered the first classical music performance at Hayy Jameel.
In an exclusive interview at Hayy Jameel, Serrano told Arab News that she was lucky to receive the scholarship as it created chances for her, including the opportunity to perform next to Bocelli at different locations throughout the world.
“I had my first performance next to Bocelli after I received the Bocelli-Jameel scholarship, it is really always a pleasure to sing next to him,” she said.
“Now I feel more at ease when we’re on the stage together. I’m more relaxed than before because I know him a little bit. There is very nice energy that he gives on stage.”
The talented young singer performed the day before with Bocelli at one of the Kingdom’s prominent cultural destinations, the award-winning Maraya in AlUla.
“To be in this place in this Maraya concert hall was just incredible, because it’s beautiful; it’s so magical how we can bring this music to the whole world, and then people will somehow connect to it,” she said.
As a child, Serrano said that she did not know much about opera. “My family also didn’t listen to classical music, I was not particularly into it. I was listening more to jazz and things like that.”
Serrano’s journey into opera began 10 years ago when she was 16 years old. “I played the violin as a kid, and I took so many musical classes, singing in the choir, and playing the violin, I got more and more interested in the voice and then my teachers would tell me, you have a nice voice you should think solo, and that’s how I got interested in opera or more in lyrical singing.”
“At the time, I hadn’t seen many operas in my life. And it’s a very particular form of art actually. However, this interest in the voice just led me to practice this kind of singing,” she said.
Serrano said that when an opera is performed on stage a great narrative combination happens. “When we are on stage, it is like a story and a plot, it is like a theater piece being performed in a music style. The technique and the way we use our body to make the sound are very emotional. You have to take people with you in something very personal.”
Serrano received the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship in 2020; she was rewarded with a two-year diploma in opera and a chance for her to be fully immersed in the opera world.
“I have been studying opera classical singing for six years, including my four years of bachelor in art and music in Germany, and now I am doing a special kind of postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music in London,” she said.
Serrano performed with Bocelli in the 2020 “Believe in Christmas” concert at the Teatro Regio di Parma, at the annual Concerto di Natale in Assisi in 2020, and in 2021 at the Teatro di Silenzio in Bocelli’s Tuscan hometown of Lajatico.
The opera scholarship is open to students from around the world. Community Jameel, which supports the scholarship, and Art Jameel, which runs Hayy Jameel, are sister organizations founded by the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia.
The Andrea Bocelli Foundation and Community Jameel scholarship were established in 2019, with the aim of supporting up-and-coming singers to study opera at the Royal College of Music in London. The second Bocelli-Jameel Scholar was awarded to Egyptian talent Laura Mekhail in 2021.


Saudi Arabia and Romania sign defense cooperation agreement

Saudi Arabia and Romania sign defense cooperation agreement
Updated 18 sec ago

Saudi Arabia and Romania sign defense cooperation agreement

Saudi Arabia and Romania sign defense cooperation agreement

RIYADH: The Saudi and Romanian governments signed an agreement for cooperation in the defense field, state-run SPA news agency reported on Monday.
The agreement covered a number of defense fields between the two countries, most notably training, exchanging expertise, technologies, developing communications systems, medical services, military history, archives, publications and museums, among others.
“The agreement comes within the commitment of the two governments to promote and encourage international peace and stability,” the statement said.
The deal was signed by Saudi Assistant Minister of Defense for Executive Affairs Dr. Khalid bin Hussein Al-Bayari and Romanian State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations Simona Cojocaru.


Internal Audit Conference to start today in Riyadh

The conference will be held under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari. (SPA)
The conference will be held under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari. (SPA)
Updated 41 min 8 sec ago

Internal Audit Conference to start today in Riyadh

The conference will be held under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari. (SPA)
  • The conference will host 30 local and international leaders and experts specialized in internal auditing and control systems

RIYADH: The activities of the 8th annual internal audit conference starts in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Organized by the Saudi Institute of Internal Auditors, the conference will be held under the slogan “The Future of Internal Audit,” under the patronage of Hussam Al-Anqari the president of the General Auditing Bureau and chairman of the board of directors of Institute of Internal Auditors.

The two-day conference aims to review the developments of the internal audit profession and control systems globally, chart the future of the profession according to worldwide developments and enhance the characteristics of flexible leadership for the profession in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

The conference will host 30 local and international leaders and experts specialized in internal auditing and control systems, in addition to a number of representatives of international organizations and companies, led by the president and CEO of the International Institute of Internal Auditors , Anthony Pugliese.

The conference will include dialogue sessions, presentations and specialized workshops, discussing the new trends in internal auditing and risk tools in leading control systems in enterprises, as well as role of governance in crisis management and business continuity and growing demand for internal auditing in the Kingdom.


Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center

Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center
Updated 25 January 2022

Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center

Saudi Arabia assumes presidency of GCC Commercial Arbitration Center
  • Saudi Arabia takes over the presidency from Bahrain

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has assumed the presidency of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Commercial Arbitration Center and will be headed by the Kingdom’s representative Fahd bin Ali Al-Omari, Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
Saudi Arabia takes over the presidency from Bahrain following a decision made during a board of directors meeting in December.
Tariq Yousef Al-Shammari, the center’s secretary-general, said that Al-Omari is regarded as one of the most prominent legal figures in the Kingdom, and holds a leading position in the Federation of Saudi Chambers.
He also served as vice chairman of the disciplinary committee in the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and participated in several research projects on economic systems.
Bahrain’s representative and former president, Sami Zainal, praised the GCC’s accomplishments over the past year and the efforts made by the General Secretariat to achieve the center’s strategic objectives.
Oman’s Ali bin Salem Al Kasbi assumed the position of vice president.


Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia

Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia
Updated 24 January 2022

Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia

Cirque du Soleil to debut major international shows in Saudi Arabia
  • The Kingdom will host a brand new Cirque du Soleil resident show unique to Saudi Arabia
  • The deal also says the two parties will establish a regional Cirque du Soleil academy and office

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture has signed an agreement with the Canadian entertainment group Cirque du Soleil to enable it to put on its renowned creative performances in the Kingdom.
The agreement was signed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, minister of culture and chairman of the Theater and Performing Arts Authority, and Gabriel de Alba, co-chairman of Cirque du Soleil, at a meeting held in New York City.
The agreement will see Cirque du Soleil present a number of award-winning circus shows for the first time in the Kingdom, including touring shows such as “The Illusionist,” “Now You See Me,” “Paw Patrol Live,” “Race to Rescue,” “Trolls Live,” and the Blue Man Group’s world tour. The Kingdom will also host a brand new Cirque du Soleil resident show unique to Saudi Arabia.
The agreement also says the two parties will establish a regional Cirque du Soleil academy and office, to provide a curriculum of high standards led by the best global circus experts. Students from all over the Kingdom and abroad will have the opportunity to hone their performance skills through the circus’ international school exchange and artist-in-residence programs, and will also be awarded internationally recognized certificates.

Cirque du Soleil has presented six shows in Saudi Arabia since 2018, the last of which was the “Messi 10” show, which was held in November during the Riyadh Season and shed light on the life of the famous Argentine footballer Lionel Messi.
The agreement comes with the performing arts witnessing greater development in the Kingdom, especially after the establishment of the Theater and Performing Arts Authority, which announced its strategy to further improve the sector last year.
The plan includes better infrastructure for theater and performing arts, providing job opportunities, building partnerships, and providing educational and training opportunities for about 4,500 playwrights and more than 4,000 trainees by 2030.