During the early 1800s, photography was made possible when the principle of the camera obscura was discovered. Quite a bit later, in the late 1960s, Martin Cooper invented the first cellular-like portable communication system, without which cell phones, a staple of our society today, would not exist. We have come a long way since then.
We have witnessed great leaps in technology and are now closer than we have ever been to living the lives of people in science fiction movies. In fact, it’s now hard, if not impossible, to keep track of all the concept gadgets that keep landing, products that many believe will revolutionise the world as we see it. And while some of us maintain a healthy skepticism, others are all too happy to clamber up on the shoulders of tech giants. Step up, Thailand’s gadget geeks.
THE TECH DEVOTEE: ML HARIRAS TONGYAI
“Technology is something I have loved since I was very young,” says ML Hariras Tongyai, who also goes by the name Ham. Always updated with the latest technology, it comes as no surprise that his drone was one of the very first available in Thailand. “The first drone I ever owned was the Parrot 1.0,” he says. “I think the reason why drones are so popular is the fact that it’s the first time you truly have the ability to control a device that flies stably and remotely. Moreover, you are able to capture stunning images and videos from a bird’s eye view.”
Ham’s interest in drones is not limited to just the fun side of it. “What intrigues me the most is the potential of these drones to perform autonomous functions,” he says. “The fact that they can be used for military purposes, such as the delivery of supplies and for security purposes, among other things, is very interesting.” He has actually designed his own security drone but it is yet to be created into a prototype.
Ham, who is studying electronic engineering at the University of London, is quite the expert when it comes to the ever-evolving world of technology. Only 23 years old, he has already managed to build his own artificial intelligence ‘family’, smart home and IOT (internet of things: a network connectivity of physical devices) systems. “I’ve been playing around with the idea of chatbot in the last couple of years, using Apple scripts in conjunction with the Nuance Dragon voice recognition software,” he explains in not quite laymen’s terms. “Now I have developed an entire family of ‘weak AI’ digital assistants which help me with my daily tasks.”
Perhaps lesser known to people is that artificial intelligence is classified into weak and strong. “My AI family is still classified as weak because so far, I only have access to consumer-grade hardware,” he explains. He has named them Jarvis, Friday and Veronica. Similar to the way Siri works, they take simple commands, recognise speech and respond to the intended function. However, Ham has designed and coded them to be more interactive than Siri. “On a regular basis, they allow me to access files instantly and to programme shortcuts. They remind me of my daily activities and enable me to control the lights, the AC, curtains, blinds. Moreover, they wake me up in the mornings with a projection news feed.” Veronica is even able to give him voice control over his drones.
Of course for the young driven engineer who never ceases to experiment and create, there’s more. Ham has even constructed his own PC and all of his AI are built into his own operating system, which includes Windows, Linux and Android. He has also created a prototype for a small hyperloop system, which, in laymen’s terms, is a hypothetical mode of transport that would, if ever realised, propel a pod-like vehicle through a tube at terrifying speeds. Currently, he is experimenting with hololens, a holographic interface built into a headset, which enables one to interact with holograms. “Turning the 2D into 3D helps with the visualisation of my designs. Many people think hololens is a form of augmented reality hardware when in fact it’s a mixed reality device which covers both AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality).” As someone who is also very invested in VR, Ham hopes to become a VR content provider and even to come up with a holographic system to enhance learning experiences in the classroom.
“Growing up, I was extremely interested in Iron Man,” he says. So much so that he has even built an entire Iron Man suit of his own, integrated with electronics and weak AI systems. “It wasn’t so much about the superhero but more about how technology should be approached and the individual and community’s responsibility towards the use of technology and releasing new technology into the world.” Maybe one day he will become our very own Tony Stark, who knows? The son of a doctor, Ham is very conscious of the need to help others. He therefore intends to turn his passion and knowledge into a tool for the good of society. “I aspire to use engineering and technology to help improve the future.”
THE VR DREAMER: PONGPAICHAYONT THONGCHUA
Walk into VR1, a virtual reality caf้ in the heart of buzzing Thonglor, and you will find people waving their arms frantically in the air screaming. Some are probably trying to survive a zombie apocalypse while others are struggling to perform surgery on their almost real patients. The co-founder of this virtual reality caf้ is tech enthusiast Pongpaichayont Thongchua, also known as Keng.
“VR is not a new thing. It was actually invented a long time ago but the technological infrastructure back then was not ready,” he says as screams ring out. “Today however, it’s here to stay and it’s only going to get better. It’s a whole new world opened up to you with very vivid emotional triggers. Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus VR for about two billion dollars,” he says. “That was a big investment gamble but also an indication of the solid direction VR is finally taking.”
Keng, who is a founding member of Lazada Thailand as well as Ask Hanuman, discovered VR while he and his friends were in search of new games and new technology to experiment with. “The first time I tried a VR game with my friends, I was mind-blown,” he laughs. “It was a game called TheBlu. You’re deep in the ocean and it was pretty surreal. Because I also dive, it felt pretty much the same.” It was so vivid that the first time he tried it, he found himself trying to hold his breath.
A number of VR headsets and equipment are currently available on the market but only a few stand out. “I think the best ones for now are Oculus and HTC Vive,” he says. “With these two, you are able to use it across different platforms. The technology behind them are more advanced. With HTC Vive, you can move more freely with its guardian system which can accommodate more than just a rectangle with straight lines. With Oculus, hand movements and gestures are more realistic.” He adds with a laugh: “Soon I’m pretty sure someone will invent a mask where you will be able to smell as well.”
What began for fun and games for the 32-year-old is now a business venture. “VR is very fun, but the truth is, it’s better when you can enjoy with others. It’s not always easy to get a group of people together all the time and playing VR alone at home after a while just isn’t as fun.” Despite the hype, the fact is that acquiring a top-of-the-range, high-spec VR set is still very expensive in Thailand, costing around 150,000 baht. In light of the fact that it is still not accessible to everyone and even those who can afford it might not necessarily have space in their homes, Keng and his partner decided to open a space to play VR.
However, although very popular in the world of gaming, the concept of virtual reality is advancing faster than many realise. “I think it’s important to note that even though many people associate VR with gaming, its potential is far greater than that,” says Keng. As a VR enthusiast, he believes this invention can become a key tool in the field of education and many other things. “Pilots will have access to even more realistic simulators and doctors, particularly in the field of cardiology, can perfect their operating skills on VR models while simultaneously enhancing their 3D perceptivity,” he says.
“Soon, it will become more mainstream and most mobile phones will become VR ready,” he adds. And he’s not wrong. Take the Google Pixel XL for example, which today is one of the few cell phones that support the VR platform. “One day, people will be able to do advertisements via VR and people can shop as they would normally do online through virtual reality environments,” he says.
While he used to play VR regularly with his friends, he admits he has very little time for that these days. He is now focused on sharing the experience with others and providing a fun space for people to experience this hi-tech invention.
THE CONCEPT CAR BUFF: VITHIT LEENUTAPHONG
As always, the automobile industry sits right at the vanguard of consumer-level technology. Take the latest Tesla cars, for example, which are commonly recognised as being at least a decade ahead of their time. In Thailand, only a small handful of people have the luxury of owning these futuristic vehicles. Vithit Leenutaphong, ex-chairman of the board of directors at Advanced Info Service (AIS) and current president of Thai Yarnyon, as well as some of his family members, is among them.
The automobile industry has definitely come a long way since he acquired his first car, a 1981 Lancia Beta Coupe. Currently his family owns a limited edition Tesla Roadster, three Model S and a recently acquired Model X. A Tesla’s attributes, explains Vithit, include autonomous driving capabilities and an acceleration speed (0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds) that makes it the fastest four-door sedan in the world. It is also entirely electric and has adaptive lighting, an air filtration system that removes 99 per cent of exhaust pollution, bacteria and allergens, as well as a bioweapon defense mode to protect all those in the car. What’s not to like? “Overall, it’s very fun to drive,” he smiles.
“I discovered the brand at a motor show many years ago when the Tesla Roadster came out,” he says. “Back then, it was already ahead of its time.” For Vithit, being a fan of the car goes much deeper than appreciation for the advanced technology installed in the car. Being the businessman that he is, the ability to effectively turn brand philosophy into brand value is something he respects and admires.
Meeting Elon Musk, the mastermind behind the brand, in 2010 contributed to his interest. “He is very confident and I guess you can call him eccentric,” says Vithit. “Most geniuses are like that.” He adds: “If you dig deeper, you will understand that he doesn’t only focus on cars.”
Indeed, in addition to being a unique automaker, Tesla is now considered one of the main clean and sustainable energy companies. It has created among many other things, the Powerwall, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which enables people to store and use solar electricity. “It has acquired Solarcity. There’s also SpaceX, created to revolutionalise space technology,” he says. “The man wants to build a colony in Mars because our planet probably won’t last forever.”
It’s not clear whether one day Tesla will attain a wide market in Thailand. “Even in the USA with one of the world’s most liberal markets, the cost of such a car is high,” he says. “In Thailand, the import tax is very high unlike the very environmentally friendly countries of Scandanavia, where Tesla is offered special tax incentives.”
Vithit certainly breaks the stereotypical illusion that all things hightech only garner interest and understanding from the younger generations. Aged 61, he still makes sure he stays up-to-date with the world’s changes, be they technological or not. This is largely due to his philosophy in life in general—that in a constantly changing world, one must stay updated to not fall behind. “No matter how old you are, you can always learn something new,” he says with a smile. “This is something I always tell my children and my staff because I beleive that we can always better ourselves.” When asked if there is such a thing as too much technological advancement, he gives an answer that will ring true with tech geeks everywhere: “There is always room for improvement,” he says.
THE SMART HOMEMAKER: NICHAYA PHAHUSITR
When it comes to homes, the trend is towards increased automation. In Nichaya Phahusitr’s home, for example, you need only one device to turn the lights in the entire house on and off or control the light of each individual room. “I think it just makes thing easier to be able manage and to control everything in the house,” she says. “If you are in the bedroom, you can adjust things in other rooms say, if you forgot to turn off the light downstairs.”
She continues, “we decided to go with the programme called IBuild, a smart home kit. You can regulate all the lighting in the house including the AC, the curtains and the television.” Small speakers are installed in various corners around the house and they too are connected to IBuild.
“I love the lighting system because in order to make a house look nicer, sometimes you need to involve the light design,” she says. Her living room lighting has four mood-changing scene options, including for dining and relaxing, all achieved by adjusting the tone and percentage of lighting. Nichaya and her husband don’t have guests over all that often but when they do, they’re impressed.
There are still numerous other technologies than can be installed in one’s home and Nichaya is open to adding new advanced features to their beautiful home. “If the technology comes and something is of interest to us, I would definitely consider it.” Having said that however, the couple made sure to maintain a balance between the traditional and the very hightech. In case the system fails, which it has done before, normal lamps have been placed here and there. “When the system is down, you need specific engineers to come and solve the problem,” she says. “So it’s good to have a back up.”
She adds, “Life is just easier with technology.” But when asked if there is such a thing as too much technology, she replies that it depends on which type and people it applies to. “With my two-year-old daughter for example, I barely let her use the iPad or watch TV.”
Living in the same building are her mother and brother, all of whom also have the same hightech installations in their homes. “From my mother’s system, she is actually able to control the lights in our apartment as well,” she says laughing.