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Virus brings smart response

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A nimble start-up switches from hardware to software as supply-chain disruptions rattle market for audio communication gadgets.


Emile Chan

A key strength of start-ups is their ability to adapt quickly to new circumstances, whether these are a change in the environment, shift in markets or technological disruption. Hong Kong start-up Origami Labs proves the point.

When the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted supply chains the communications solution provider had used to produce and market hardware products, it promptly switched emphasis to software. With the strategic shift, co-founder Emile Chan said his firm can still satisfy customers’ demands and scale up despite the pandemic.

How has your business been affected by COVID-19?
Prior to COVID-19, we had been receiving high interest from international customers, which include a multinational hotel group and chain of coffeehouses. Roughly half of our planned deployments were for projects in the United States. The global travel bans in the first quarter of 2020 put a halt to most of these projects, which made us put a renewed focus on the Hong Kong market.Have you taken any measures to minimise the impact of the pandemic on your business and create new opportunities?
In early 2020, we shifted from offering the ORII voice-assistant ring for consumers to the OFLO communications solution for enterprises. The shift has coincidently moved us away from the uncertainty in the current manufacturing supply chain, so we have been able to continue with product development and scaling up to meet demand despite COVID-19. Being software focused has allowed us to launch products that aren’t bound to specific hardware and has given us greater flexibility and a pricing advantage to lower the barrier of adoption. The sales lead time can also be shortened from six months to one month, allowing us to move forward at a much faster pace. Being able to accelerate time to market was and will continue to be our priority.The shift has led to personnel changes and a lowering of our overheads, which as a result has helped us brace for the COVID impact. Our salary expense in the first quarter of 2020 was 11.5% lower than that for the fourth quarter of 2019, even though we proceeded with staff promotions and salary adjustments.How do you see your business develop post-COVID-19?
We expect to have established some successful commercial-use cases of the OFLO and new interest from the local market that will allow us a deeper penetration when the economy recovers, and that will support our global expansion plan when travel bans are lifted. We will be able to demonstrate to enterprises that they can have their frontline staff communicate with each other more by using the OFLO. We will also be introducing voice assistants to frontline workers in other industries to open up the possibility of visual-less computing.What have you learnt from this pandemic?
The impact of COVID-19 will cause the survival mentality to remain for many businesses, so that accelerating speed to market and improving the practicalities of business will be even more important than ever before. Only the strongest will survive this pandemic and we are taking this opportunity to harden and strengthen ourselves.The conferences and exhibitions business has been heavily impacted by COVID-19 since it involves both international travel and extensive face-to-face interaction. Do you see a role for OFLO in the hybrid, online and physical fairs and conferences which are likely to emerge post-COVID-19?
On top of offering a productivity tool for the frontline, we have begun beta-testing our app and web interface for instant communications. From a conference-application perspective, we see the opportunity of using OFLO as a broadcasting channel where participants can sign on to listen and interact with speakers from anywhere around the world on a voice-based platform. Simulating conversations in real time without the hassle of setting up video conferences. Simultaneously, we are also working with companies with remote operations on an instant push-to-talk web interface, making their synchronised communication faster and more engaging than ever before. Many of the changes COVID-19 brought are likely to be permanent - "public-facing" staff such as waiters and receptionists, will expect greater protection. Could you help develop virtual assistants, even robotic ones?
Despite the impact of COVID, for many industries out there like hospitality, security and property management, frontline teams are at the core of their business, their role of physically being on the ground is still a necessity. However, we believe OFLO can play a role offering the same level of productivity if not more by coordinating roles to work remotely. Such as for control centres for security teams no longer having to be on-site, traditionally limited by the range of radio, the control centre can communicate with ground staff through our cloud-based platform from anywhere. Another change is education – many students will probably want to carry on working remotely. Could your technology equip virtual tutors?
Visuals in video conferencing may not always be necessary while speaking to a class of people. We believe that a voice-based interface can equally be effective for broadcasting lectures as well as dynamically discussing subject matter in various channels like breakout rooms.Another fast-growing area is self-drive vehicles. Could your system help “drivers” give voice commands when, for example, changing a destination during a journey?
Not only can professional drivers equipped with OFLO audio devices talk to each other at the push of a button, but dispatchers located in control centres can also speak to individual or multiple drivers simultaneously for instant coordination. Along with location and visual input from the driver, dispatchers will gain richer data in real time and such records will be useful should there be a need for an incident review. Natural-language processing, including translation, is one of the fastest-developing areas of artificial intelligence (AI). Do you create your own systems or cooperate with other developers?
We cooperate with developers in different areas. The transcription of audio to text is a relatively mature area. The understanding and detection of intent however is a much less accurate science. Here we have to rely on our own models to map non-structured sentences to designed tasks and actions that make sense in the context of front-line operations.Will you use Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) events such as the HKTDC SmartBiz Expo to reach out to new markets abroad?
We are already in progress to explore various cooperation with the HKTDC in using OFLO to help with operations of large-scale international events. The SmartBiz Expo would be a great opportunity for us to showcase OFLO in live operations to international visitors.

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