Yes, that is an alien in front of you. It’s big, it’s nasty and it’s hurling a fireball at you with the tentacle on its back. Startled, you shoot. The alien falls, dead, to the ground.
But there’s no time to rest. More are coming. You can’t see them, but you can hear them in the dark corners of the warehouse.
Frantically, you search for an exit. In front of you, everything is on fire. Aha! There! On your right! An elevator! You dash in. Bam! You turn around. Bam, bam!
An alien behind the elevator door has bent the metal in front you, dangerously close to your head. But the elevator is dropping down, away from the horror …
You put your head back and inhale. Then you put your head down and exhale. And that’s when it hits you. Something is wrong. Very wrong. You stumble, close your eyes, raise your hand – the virtual reality headset is yanked off your head.
You’re back in the real world, in a large empty space. For a few seconds, it’s all a bit confusing.
“Are you okay?” a woman asks with a worried smile. “Sorry, I just had a little vertigo,” you say. She leads you to a bench where you sit down – trying to ignore the fact that walking on the ground feels like swaying in a rolling boat.
You take off the backpack that’s carrying the computing power needed to make this virtual reality (VR) experience work. You take off the gloves with the sensors. You return the plastic gun. Everything is put back, ready for the next group that’s waiting to kill aliens.
This game is Mortal Blitz, developed by Skonec, a South Korean company. There are many versions of the game but this one is special, because it has been designed for VR Square, a four-floor VR arcade center built by the company in Seoul’s ever-hip Hongdae neighborhood.
Not everyone gets sick from the experience, but I did. It is a testament to the reality of the VR universe that you feel pretty damned woozy if you happen to look down and see that the visuals do not extend below the waist – and your legs and feet are missing.
A virtual sector boom
You will understand what I am talking about if you’ve tried VR before. But not if your experience has been limited to phone-connected headsets like Google Cardboard – with those, you are just looking at content with a 360° view without actively interacting with it.
Computer-connected headsets like the HTC Vive, the Occulus Rift or the Playstation VR have more developed tracking systems that allow you to interact with what you’re seeing. You can virtually do all kinds of things, from zapping aliens to walking over a plank that is miles up in the sky.
In South Korea, there are multiple VR experiences on tap. There are about 300 VR arcades and cafes countrywide, according to recent research by KoVRa, the VR/AR (Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality) Industry Association. Since the first VR center – VR Plus – opened in Gangnam in 2016, the government has been promoting the VR industry.
It’s booming, though the numbers are nowhere near, say, Samsung’s quarterly profits. In 2018, South Korea’s VR industry saw profits of US$810 million.
“In 2015, 90% of VR production in Korea was content,” said Jeong-hoon Cha, Strategy and Planning team manager at KoVRa. “In 2018, that decreased to 50%. The remainder were device products (25%), platforms (15%) and networks (10%).”
To continue to thrive and reach the $1.26 billion in profits the industry could represent in 2020, the VR sector must surmount two major challenges.
Motion versus motion sickness
Firstly, VR sickness has to go. To fix that, KoVRa has developed a set of guidelines. “We worked together with hospitals and medical professionals so that we could make rules for content that would limit VR sickness,” said Jeong-Hoon Cha. “Our goal is to reach 100% non-sickness.”
But it’s not a simple task. For people to not become sick while using VR, their bodies would need to do exactly what they are virtually experiencing. So, if your experience is submerging in a cage underwater – you should basically be going down in a cage underwater.
The good news is that our brain can be fooled by tricking our senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight. “Even things like temperature, atmosphere or memories can affect our perceptions”, Yong Soon, a researcher at Sogang University developing experiences with VR and senses, said. But the industry is not there yet.
The question of movement is the biggest problem – and most developers have just given up. Popular games like Serious Sam or Elven Assassins have you stand in one place and shoot guns or arrows at targets without moving from the spot.
This limits most VR sickness effects. However, for me, VRight’s Special Force VR: Universal War was great – until it had me flying over a city in a spaceship.
“The problem with VR sickness is that it varies per person,” said Alex Jae-won Lee, director of Business Development at VRotein Inc, a South Korean VR platform company, where his main task is to purchase exclusive rights to distribute foreign and domestic games.
“If your first experience in VR is bad content, it might make you wary of trying the best available experience.”
Battle for copyrights
The other challenge is that the sector must protect itself.
“Arcade owners have been buying one [game] license only and using it on every machine,” Lee explained. In Korea and abroad, VR games are often subject to copyright infringements. VRotein has been suing VR facilities.
“They answer the accusation by saying it’s hard enough to make money without paying the extra licenses fees for each machine – but what about the startups and the developers?” asked Lee.
In VR Square, Skonec uses mostly its own games. Some themes are more popular than others. “The Survival VR area turnover takes too much time and doesn’t make much money,” said Jeong Jin-ho, the manager. “The horror experiences are pretty popular.”
Groups of friends show up, film each other and laugh at the reactions – people cannot help screaming each time a ghost makes an appearance. But after playing once, the experience does not seem to generate return customers.
An American tourist who gave his name as Zane tried Mortal Blitz as his first “real” VR experience. He was positive about it, but noted: “You’re right. It would be much better if you had your own feet!”