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Will virtual reality finally break through into mainstream success?

By Katie Cheng

Put on your headsets, shut the real world out and enter the realm of virtual reality (VR) where you can enjoy an immersive sensory experience. With the HTC Vive headset on, you can become a Star Wars Jedi and the remote control in your hand a light sabre. Wave your light sabre and fight stormtroopers and restore peace to the galaxy. Change to another VR headset and you can turn into the sole survivor in a city full of zombies. This time the remote controls become guns.

With a VR head-mounted display, anyone can explore a virtual world by looking around and interacting with elements in an artificial environment. For most people, the best known application of virtual reality is in gaming. VR applications in other commercial fields like tourism and property sales have also made headway.

With an eye on the great potential of VR, big-name brands are investing in related technology. Facebook has put US$2 billion into its VR technology Oculus, while Google is investing US$542 million into Magic Leap. Market forecasts predict VR applications will generate over US$200 billion a year by 2020. But these big players do not represent the whole of the fast-developing VR industry.

JetOne Motion, a VR experience centre located in Central, provides games ranging from VR bikes to horse racing. It costs HK$580 for half an hour of VR gaming. Noel Leung, a special project director at JetOne Motion, describes the centre as a “library” of VR devices sourced from around the world.

But entertainment and gaming are not all the company provides, it also offers content development for various corporations and organisations, such as scenario-based education. By putting on a VR headset, children can enjoy a more interactive learning experience with a virtual teacher standing beside them in a virtual world.

“We do both gaming and content development for VR simultaneously,” Leung says. “It’s a rather new technology and we are not sure which one will outrun the other. So, we do not mainly focus on either part.”

Leung says that throughout the year of 2015, most enquiries about their services were about gaming. From mid 2016 onwards, the ratio of enquries about content development began to even out with those about gaming. Leung sees this as indicative of an emerging opportunity in the local market.

Apart from JetOne, there are also studios in Hong Kong specialising in content development for VR. Creote Studio is a company providing digital design services based in Wong Chuk Hang. Roy Lo, the 34-year-old business director, says commercial applications of VR can be divided into training and simulation, and reality experience. In Creote Studio’s previous project with the Hongkong Electric Company, Lo says they used 3D modelling to reproduce construction sites from the real world for workers’ training.

“There are many health and safety compliances to meet on a construction site, but talking about them using stacks of handouts in lessons is really boring,” Lo says. “Using a VR training software will be a more interactive way [to do it].”

Various VR headsets with different functions made by different companies

As for reality experience, Lo gives the example of a testing laboratory exhibition in Barcelona. The exhibition used VR to offer virtual tours of a laboratory located in Taiwan. There were interactive elements that allowed users to walk through different rooms and learn about the Taiwanese laboratory in Barcelona. Lo says VR technology enabled people to overcome geographical barriers and get a clearer understanding of the laboratory’s operations.

Like Noel Leung, Lo says he has noticed more corporations are now willing to invest in VR. He attributes this to big campaigns and promotions carried out in the past year by major companies such as Samsung.

“Interested parties are starting to consider the budgets and resources to invest,” Lo says. “We see more and more corporations have the determination to adopt VR in their businesses.”

Despite the optimism in the market, Hong Kong may still be a bit behind when it comes to the development of VR. There are various reasons for this, which apply to both the gaming and content development markets. Edward Cheung Kwan-king, a principal reporter at unwire.hk, a website reporting on tech, says there is an overall lack of VR content.

Cheung explains one of the reasons is that filming, producing and even live broadcasting VR content is very expensive. So many companies stick to using traditional methods of producing content like videos. He notes a problem specific to Hong Kong is that although there are a lot of VR devices like HTC Vive, Samsung Gear 360 and LG 360 Cam available, few people shoot their own VR videos. He says many people in Hong Kong still prefer to view online productions that approximate VR.

Aqua Tsang Tsz-chung, a reporter and Cheung’s colleague at unwire.hk, says another problem that has plagued the development of VR technology is VR-induced motion sickness, commonly referred to as virtual reality sickness. Tsang recalls feeling dizzy after playing the game Resident Evil 7 for 45 minutes using a VR headset.

It is not known exactly what causes virtual reality sickness but one theory is that there is a mismatch between the refresh rate of the screen and how quickly the brain can process images. The refresh rate often cannot keep up with the brain .“It is not a problem of quality, but frame rate,” says Tsang.

Richard So Hau-yue, a professor from the Department of Industrial Engineering and Logistics Management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says only half of the human population are prone to motion sickness in a virtual environment. So says the more realistic virtual images are, the more likely they are to induce an illusion of self motion that makes people sick.

Fortunately, according to So’s research, not all movements and images will generate motion sickness. He says that keeping the velocity and amplitude of VR images within a certain set of limits can prevent the likelihood of virtual reality sickness.

Rather than the visuals, So’s largest concern about the development of VR is the lack of 3D audio in a virtual world. He says most virtual reality applications are now quiet. Even if there is sound, it is either in mono or stereo and so he does not perceive it as being real.

“We live in a sensory world. Vision and audio are the most important senses,” So says. “…I think as people get into it (VR), people will start demanding ‘I want to hear that as well’.”

The user is trying out an app introducing road safety through VR

Despite all the challenges faced in the development and popularisation of VR, some companies are making a push they hope will lead to a breakthrough for widespread adoption of the technology. Hong Kong Cyberport describes itself as a digital community trying to blend traditional retail marketing activities with technological elements. Mark Clift, its chief operating officer, says promoting new technologies like VR by holding sports fiestas and installing a model train where customers can don headsets to take a virtual roller coaster does not increase their revenue. However, it does give people exposure to the new technology.

Clift says VR technology is not new; after all it appeared 20 years ago but was quickly forgotten due to the technical constraints. With the market getting excited about VR again, Clift fears the enthusiasm and hopes for VR may turn out to be as misplaced as that for 3D TV years ago. It had been thought 3D technology would change people’s film watching experience in cinemas and on their TVs at home. But the technology failed to meet expectations and became regarded as more a gimmick than an essential part of the viewing experience.

With VR technology now maturing, Clift sees Cyberport’s role as being more of a market enabler and facilitator. He says it is for others to come up with an application that really resonates with the public and allow VR to take off.

“That’s when the tipping point will come,” says Clift. “Will that tipping point be in two or five or eight [years]? I don’t know.”

Edited by: Avery Tsui