Overseas cooperation vital for VR sector to succeed
Published: Dec 12, 2018 07:28 PM

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

While there has been much discussion of the tech world rivalry and competition between China and the US, the sphere of immersive technologies arguably calls for greater joint collaborative efforts. This may yet make it possible to create a virtual wonder world as attractive as the OASIS in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi movie "Ready Player One."

In a fresh attempt to lay bricks for a simulated world that might one day turn out to be an OASIS equivalent, location-based hyper reality experience creator The VOID unveiled a new fully immersive experience center at Resorts World Genting, Malaysia, last week, the first of its kind in Asia. Including the new Asia location, the US-based company now has nine experience centers across the globe, with five in the US, two in Canada, and one in Dubai, UAE.

Guests try on customized equipment that comprises a head-mounted display, backtop computer and a haptic vest. This enables them to escape from their real world into a 15-minute journey inside the "Star Wars" universe or the world of "Ralph Breaks VR." The whole set of gear may feel rather clumsy, but the full-body immersive experience it provides is impressive.

John D Watkins Jr, CEO for The VOID Asia, told the Global Times that the company hopes to open its first China location by summer 2019. If all goes as planned, it will be an example of China-US cooperation in prying open the virtual reality (VR) market.

In fairness, VR headsets and the use of augmented reality (AR) technology in smartphones are already familiar. The increasing availability of VR experiences - via various technology fairs, or shopping malls in Chinese cities where a few minutes trying out a VR headset costs a few dozen yuan - means that the once-magic technology is now within reach.

A VR theme park was also opened in April in Southwest China's Guizhou Province, offering visitors a variety of VR experiences.

However, mass adoption of immersive technologies is still a long way off. VR devices are not likely to become as ubiquitous as smartphones in the foreseeable future. That is not because VR headsets are too expensive. Entry-level VR gadgets from a variety of vendors cost just a few hundred yuan. The problem is that the technology does not yet offer a truly immersive experience that can make users genuinely feel they are part of a virtual world. The scarcity of VR-enabled content is another factor holding back the VR market.

This situation pertains not only to China, but also the US and other markets. There is actually a belief that the China market - where smartphones and mobile payment have become an essential part of people's lives - could be the most promising one for interesting new technologies to be rapidly adopted.

As part of the nation's push for innovative growth, the State Council, China's cabinet, unveiled a development plan for strategic emerging industries during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) at the end of 2016. The plan calls for ramped-up efforts to push for innovative development of VR, AR, holographic imaging, glasses-free 3D, and other technologies. It is hoped that growth in the digital innovative sector can create new consumption trends.

Thus far, however, consumers have had to be patient - they can not expect a world as fantastic as the OASIS just yet.

Location-based VR experiences, exemplified by The VOID's offerings, are currently the most effective solution for melding the physical and digital worlds.

But it is not easy to make such offerings a sustainable commercial success, let alone create real world substitutes. What makes the US-based company stand out from the rest is not just its equipment, but its collaboration with ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm's immersive entertainment division, and Walt Disney Animation Studios. These heavyweight partners help to pique people's interest in giving it a try.

That's something Chinese businesses involved in the virtual world need to learn from. Without appealing content, VR will not get beyond hype.

In the case of China's VR sector, cooperation with foreign ventures adept at VR intellectual property creation will be vital. This could lay the groundwork for a future world in which everyone can enjoy both real and virtual lives.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.