A London, Ont. startup’s augmented reality app will help you explore your city in a magical immersive experience.

And it’s testing that magic on a 5G testbed in Waterloo.

EXAR Studios, a London-based team of 17 software engineers, 3D animators and marketing professionals, has begun a six-month residency at the Communitech Data Hub-hosted testbed for ENCQOR 5G (Evolution of Network Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation). ENCQOR 5G supports 5G demonstration projects at five locations, and through OCI (the Ontario Centre of Innovation) offers $50,000 in support to participants.

The testbed provides the opportunity to test devices, platforms and programs in a true 5G environment, with all the bandwidth and data of a real-world situation.

EXAR Studios was founded in 2019, says COO Daniel Kharlas, with the idea of using virtual reality headsets to offer immersive experiences in long-term care facilities. But in February 2020, as the news about COVID-19 became more dire, Kharlas and the EXAR team realized that their access to their target audience would be dramatically limited, and that their VR headsets could not shared among residents, as initially intended, because sharing such equipment was not part of the COVID protocol.

“Some companies can wait months to see where the market is shifting,” said Kharlas, “but startups have to shift on the day. So we pivoted.”

EXAR began talking with stakeholders in London to see which industries were impacted by the pandemic. “The one we connected with most was tourism.”

Most tourist attractions in Ontario have been closed to the public, and likely will face future capacity limits. As well, many galleries and museums have works and artifacts in storage due to space limitations. 

EXAR created Engage ARt, to reveal that hidden content.

“We built Engage ARt as a way to experience attractions in your city: the history, the arts, the culture, the past, the present and the future.”

Engage ARt users also provide data for Engage ARt clients. “We believe this is a big value proposition for tourist organizations,” says Kharlas. “I’ve got someone coming to the city, where do I hit them with marketing, where do I need to connect with them so that I could make them aware of where my business is . . . These are the kinds of insights that we provide to our clients.” 

The free downloadable app launched in September 2020 in London, and is operating in London, St. Thomas, Bayfield and other Ontario centres. 

Once open, a map pinpoints nearby augmented reality experiences. “Once they get there, they scan those locations with their phone, like a wand revealing a secret experience.”

The immersive experience and the data-gathering requires the power of 5G: “It’s going to allow us to do more immersive, more complex, more beautiful experiences using smartphone augmented reality, so we wanted to use the test bed to push as far as we could.”

Mauro Rossi, Communitech’s Director of Advanced Technology Platforms, says 5G is like a pipeline. First, there is the increased capacity of the larger “pipe” – the greater bandwidth of 5G. But there is also dramatically increased velocity of data transmission. 

“EXAR’s idea of augmented reality in 5G touches on a couple of key aspects of the 5G technology: the bandwidth, the low latency, the really quick time that it would take for the information to go from the smart device to their platform and back again.” 

Rossi notes that as more municipalities evolve into smart cities, they will adopt significantly more infrastructure and IoT sensors to provide information on weather, traffic, events nearby, or transit. Potential users could use the app to explore all a city has to offer.

Rossi says EXAR’s augmented reality landscape also acts as a digital twin for urban infrastructure. “The concept of a digital twin is that you build in a simulated environment, a digital version of what you are looking at in reality and then you start doing tests on that. What does it look like if I do this? You can do this a number of times to optimize your solution. Your digital twins — your augmented reality — is the platform that allows municipalities and large organizations to do that evaluation at significantly lower costs than deploying something and redeploying it with a version 2.0.”

Rossi says the 5G testbed is a revelation for companies such as EXAR Studios: “Instead of throttling back to something that is double the speed of an LTE network, they’ll be able to go orders of magnitude faster . . . They’ll be able to test their IoT, their scalability and how many more IoT sensors they can fit into their augmented reality visualization.”

Kharlas said that EXAR Studios is “really lucky to be accessing this service at this stage in our company, because we really feel we are at that level of growth, and experimentation exploration, ready to get to that next stage.”

And for other companies thinking about the potential of 5G for their business, don’t wait.

Says Kharlas, “I think that if you are in the IoT space — autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, augmented reality — and you’re looking to get a glimpse into the future, with a really well-supported program where you’ll have AI services and other things available to you as part of the cohort, I think you should apply. You’ll get a lot of support as well as the added benefit of exploring the future. As a tech company, there’s nothing really more important than getting those quick glimpses into the future to set you up for success.”

EXAR Studios is motivated to support recovery for tourism, events, and local business now. But they’re also blazing a trail for education, diversity, equity, inclusion, sustainability, and mental health. They’re seeking partners with a stake in the future of smarter communities and encourage cities to reach out.