Asian Games 2023: from robot dogs to hot meals vending machines, Chinese tech firms chase new customers in Hangzhou

Asian Games 2023: from robot dogs to hot meals vending machines, Chinese tech firms chase new customers in Hangzhou

Deep Robotics’ robot dogs danced to piano music at the Asian Games Village in Hangzhou. (Photo: handout)
Deep Robotics’ robot dogs danced to piano music at the Asian Games Village in Hangzhou. (Photo: handout)

The Asian Games in Hangzhou has provided a stage for local Big Tech firms and start-ups alike to showcase their latest gadgets and services, offering a window into China's technological ambitions.

At the Smart Technology Experience Centre of the Asian Games Village in Hangzhou, visitors are greeted by three robot dogs lined up in a row and dancing to the event's theme song, The Love We Share.

The four-legged robotic canines, developed by home-grown start-up Deep Robotics, are among a bevy of innovations that the host city, the capital of eastern Zhejiang province, has hand-picked to demonstrate its tech inventions.

At the Games opening ceremony at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium, also dubbed the Big Lotus for its resemblance to the flowers that bloom at the city's scenic West Lake every summer, virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI) were prominently featured - including a digital fireworks show that could only be viewed on smartphones, computers and televisions.

For local tech firms, the event, which opened on September 23 and will conclude on October 8, serves as a golden opportunity for them to show support for a key state project.

Alibaba Cloud, a unit under South China Morning Post owner Alibaba Group Holding, is the "official information technology integrator and cloud service provider" of this year's Games. During the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Alibaba Cloud's transmission technology enabled broadcasters to live-stream the event to billions of viewers around the world.

Alipay, the digital payments service of Alibaba's fintech affiliate Ant Group, has enhanced various functions in its app to make it easier for foreigners to navigate, while offering them discounts of up to 100 yuan (US$13.6) for each transaction paid using select international bank cards.

For Deep Robotics, the Games provides a high-profile platform for the start-up to demonstrate the usefulness of its robot dogs: since April, its latest X20 models have been tasked with conducting daily inspections at underground electricity substations.

"Our robots can take over dangerous, repetitive and boring work," said Qian Xiaoyu, marketing director at Deep Robotics.

"In the past, people might have had the impression that Hangzhou was China's 'internet capital', but through the Asian Games, we want to show that there are actually quite a few hi-tech companies [in the city], especially robotics companies," said Qian.

Consumer-facing devices are also making the rounds at the Games. A green boxy food vending machine, which can whip up meals with pre-cooked ingredients within two minutes, has become warmly embraced by event staff.

Chen Xiaoqiang, founder and CEO of the vending machine's developer and operator Hangzhou-based Kuaie Fresh, said a total of 13 such machines have been deployed to various venues, serving some 300 hot meals each day.

"I want to create a new way of eating here, with its own characteristics and through the adoption of technology," said Chen, who used to work as a technical executive at a Hong Kong-listed company and is now leading a team of 110 employees.

At another event venue, an "intelligent AI fragrance machine" emits the aroma of traditional Chinese herbal medicine, which is believed to have therapeutic effects.

The device was developed by ScentRealm, a Hangzhou firm founded by a former Alibaba employee focusing on using digital technology to recreate the smells of various items from food and drinks to perfume and natural sceneries.

"Whether it is Asian Games or Olympic Games, these events set the stage for scientific and technological achievements to be displayed," founder Huang Jianwei said.

No matter their technological focus, all those companies are trying to win the mass market through exposure at the Asian Games.

ScentRealm's Huang plans to officially release its herbal medicine fragrance machine after the Games closes later this month. "Within the next two to three years, we hope to see the machine become [part of] the medicine kit of many Chinese families," he said.

Chen from Kuaie Fresh, which has so far set up more than 70 food vending machines across its home city, said he is planning to take his inventions to Shanghai next, and use both cities, roughly a two-hour drive from each other, as a base to expand to other cities with a population of over 8 million.

"I worry all the time" about food safety and market competition, said Chen. "But I believe intelligence and digitisation are definitely the future."

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