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November 6, 2016

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No matter where you turn, the Internet shapes us

At a recent Star Trek event at the Hub Shopping Mall in Shanghai, dozens of visitors queued up to play roles as crew members of the Enterprise spaceship, aided by virtual and augmented reality technologies.

Besides the “immersive” experience, visitors could also “interact” with Captain Kirk and other spaceship crew in the English-speaking environment of the original sci-fi episodes.

Huayu, the virtual reality system developer, said the language element is designed to help Chinese users learn English in an easier, more interesting format.

Virtual reality English learning is just one example of Internet Plus services in Shanghai — a merging of online applications and offline lifestyle trends. This latest digital trend covers a wide range of services, including the panoramic view of a restaurant when you book a table via smartphone, sharing bicycles unlocked by mobile apps, and paying for Metro trips and drinks by smartphone or even smart watches.

Internet Plus services are turning Shanghai into one of the world’s most “digital smart” cities and, at the same time, changing human experiences and habits in education and entertainment, dining, transportation, payment and investment.

The revolution is encouraging innovative start-up companies, with many new ideas coming from young entrepreneurs on campuses. It’s also an opportunity for Shanghai’s Internet, integrated chipmakers and software developers to shine.

Education and entertainment

With partners that include Foxconn, Disney and Marvel, Huayu plans to create new methods for learning English in China.

Under the leadership of Chief Executive Simon Leung, former CEO of Microsoft China, Huayu is establishing a nationwide online learning platform that is now being trialed in some schools and universities.

At the same time, the company has developed an artificial intelligence English testing system that enables computer-assisted evaluation of a student’s oral English ability. It meant to complement the lack of professional language teachers in China.

Hujiang, Vipabc and other firms are offering online English courses with native speakers, breaking limitations of time, space and even borders.

Vipabc, aided by the endorsement of basketball star Yao Ming, provides some 10 million online English courses a year, with more than 10,000 native speakers as teachers. It has recently linked up with Flairmedia to better integrate education and media industries.

For virtual reality content, Shanghai-based online video website PPTV announced last week that it will open 50 offline digital entertainment stores with VR centers across the country by next year. The first one, in the Wujiaochang region of Shanghai, has already opened.

Future dining

Consumers who find difficult to book tables at some of Shanghai’s finest restaurants now have a new option — the mobile application Meiweibuyongdeng, which literally means “no more waiting for gourmet.”

Compared with traditional methods of telephone and online booking, the app offers consumers a panoramic view from inside a restaurant and automatic feedback on their booking.

The application now has about 40,000 restaurant clients, mainly in Shanghai. It received 500 million yuan (US$74.6 million) in investment last year from top dot-com firms like Baidu and Tencent-invested Meituan-Dianping.

Meanwhile, the Shanghai-based food delivery website has adopted artificial intelligence to optimize delivery routes and ensure food orders arrive within 30 minutes. delivers 5 million orders a day and has more than 70 million users. It was started by Zhang Xuehao while he was still a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Smart transportation

China’s technology industry giants like Tencent and Xiaomi are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into what they are betting will be the country’s next big Internet craze — “Uber for bikes.”

Service providers, including Shanghai-based Mobike and Beijing-based ofo, starting out as student projects in Peking University, offering bike-sharing services with smartphone apps, GPS and scannable codes.

The services received a warm market welcome from people who use the shared bikes for short distances, such as to Metro stations, that cost regularly one yuan a trip. Bicycles can circumvent traffic snarls and help relieve smog from vehicle emissions.

The bicycle sharing is based on the Uber model of ride-hailing by online apps, which offer people cheaper and usually more efficient transport services.

In major city sites like the Bund and Shanghai Disney Resort, government-backed real-time traffic monitoring systems have been implemented, provided by telecommunications carriers that use data analysis with signals obtained by cellular and Wi-Fi base stations.

By consulting their smartphones, people can be apprised of traffic conditions and potential bottlenecks. The data also provide visitors sites information on the most popular restaurants and the major source of domestic visitors.

Payment and investment

Mobile payment systems like Apple Pay, AliPay and WeChat are widely accepted at grocery stores and cafes in Shanghai. The popularity of the services has made cash and even credit card less necessary in the city.

A wristband called Sharekey that tracks fitness can also be used to pay for transport and tourism services. It features what is called a “near-field communications” payment system for public transport, including Metro lines, tourism sites such as Shanghai Zoo and some retail stores.

In the investment sector, advanced technologies including artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data are being applied to personal wealth management and risk hedging.

Financial technology is using trends like facial recognition, big data and artificial intelligence investment, according to Shanghai-based ChinaPnR, which offers investment and payment services and has annual trade volume of 1.5 trillion yuan.

Such advanced investment assistance is also used to help investors make customized decisions, based on their gender, age, career and risk. It offers users high returns with minimum risk, said PPDai, a Shanghai-based online peer-to-peer platform that has about 30 million users.

Local firms are also seeking new opportunities related to bitcoin trading and the blockchain technology.

Upgraded IT infrastructure

Internet Plus services don’t make sense without a reliable “information highway” in the city.

China Telecom, a strategic partner of the Shanghai government on Internet Plus development, recently announced the biggest network upgrade for family broadband services, up to a bandwidth of 1 gigabyte per second. That would give the city the fastest broadband network in the mainland.

The high-speed fiber optic network will enhance and diversify Internet Plus services covering smart home appliances, 4K video content and other data services.

With the support of carriers including China Telecom and China Mobile, Wi-Fi signals cover all Metro lines citywide, offering passengers Internet connection during trips.

Shanghai is leading the nation in the integrated circuit industry, which offers advanced chips for smart devices covering smartphones, computers, TVs and cars.

Shanghai-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp announced last month that it will invest US$10 billion in a new 12-inch wafer plant in the Pudong New Area, providing the most advanced chip manufacturing technology in the industry.


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