Thursday, Jun 29, 2017, 5:00 AM CST – China

Economy

Virtual Reality

Seeing is Believing

How are Chinese companies engaging in one of the tech world’s most exciting frontiers?

Visitors play a first-person VR shooter at the China (Beijing) International 3D Virtual Reality, Industrial Simulation Technology and Products Exhibition, October 9, 2015 Photo by IC

Visitors try out 9D virtual reality “pods” at the China (Beijing) International 3D Virtual Reality, Industrial Simulation Technology and Products Exhibition, October 9, 2015 Photo by IC

Our reporter is immersed in a three-dimensional virtual world, armed with a gun-like weapon in his right hand. Voice commands allow him to move through the digitized environment, while, outside the visor, he is standing in a bland, white conference room in Beijing. The tutorial continues with a command to jump off a cliff. Extreme vertigo ensues, the eyes and brain unable to discredit what they perceive.

Our reporter is playing a beta version of a game called Finding, designed by a startup established by former Peking University students. To play Finding, you need to own a Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone and its virtual reality (VR) visor attachment, the Gear VR. The phone handset slides into the VR headset, with its screen becoming the user’s entire field of vision once the Gear VR is placed on the head. The Samsung Gear VR is one of a number of consumer-orientated VR devices currently shaking up the tech world.

While posited as the future of consumer entertainment since the late 1980s, VR is touted more than ever before as a brave new world, with the tech industry excited by its possible applications. The main players currently developing VR hardware are Sony, with device Project Morpheus; the aforementioned Samsung Gear VR; HTC and gaming industry heavyweights Valve Corporation, who teamed up to develop the HTC Vive headset; Microsoft’s HoloLens; Google’s Cardboard; and Oculus VR with its headset the Oculus Rift.

Oculus VR made the biggest splash when the company was bought by Facebook in March 2014 for a whopping US$2 billion. This massive price tag slapped on what was then a small, independent company, brought VR technology, constantly in development but largely seen as a disappointing flash-in-the-pan brainchild of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, back to global attention.

Throwback

The development of the Oculus Rift, a head-mounted VR display, was initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign launched in the summer of 2012, which reached its US$250,000 funding target within four hours. A year later the company secured US$75 million from Series B venture funding, led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. One of the firm’s co-founders, Marc Andreessen, a well-known Silicon Valley tech mogul, joined Oculus VR’s board of directors.

Less than four months later, on March 25, 2014, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be acquiring Oculus VR for US$2 billion in cash and Facebook stock. That same month, Sony announced Project Morpheus at the Global Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. The Project Morpheus VR headset is designed for use with Sony’s latest consoles, the PlayStation 4 and the PS Vita, and while there is currently no official release date, Sony says the Project Morpheus headset will be released in the first half of 2016.

But it was Oculus who brought the concept of VR to China, at least according to Chinese tech blogger Nada. A computer science graduate, the 27-year-old Lu Daye, who uses “Nada” as an online handle, has been tracking the development of the VR industry for years. Nada, who is from Hunan Province in southern China, launched the country’s first tech blog solely devoted to VR tech, vrerse.com, in September last year. “There was nothing before Oculus,” he told NewsChina. Now, he claims, there are more than 100 companies making VR hardware in China.

The biggest names in Chinese VR are Noitom Technology, who raised US$571,908 on Kickstarter last year for their prototype motion-tracking device; KATVR, who are developing an omnidirectional treadmill and “racing chair;” ANTVR, who launched their headset in the fall of 2014; and Baofeng Mojing, an affiliate of Baofeng Technologies that manufactures VR headsets. Baofeng Technologies attracted headlines when its stock rose 4,200 percent in only 56 days of trading after the company went public on China’s stock market in April of this year.

Dr Galvin Fan met with NewsChina in Beijing to talk about his company uSens Inc, where he is vice president of strategic development. A US company founded by Chinese developers, uSens is headquartered in San Jose, California, with offices in Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Beijing. The company’s latest development is the Impression Pi, one of the first VR headsets to combine 3D gesture control and visuals in a device that only requires a cell phone to use, which he allowed our reporter to test. Wireless, light and portable, the device allows users to walk around freely. The VR environment itself was simple; a galaxy of stars and planets fills the user’s field of vision, while multi-colored balls, with which the user can interact, drop into view.

Fan told our reporter that VR hardware will be similar to that currently available for PC and smartphone headsets. “It’s a special category of devices that cannot be replaced,” Fan said. “The volume might not be that big, but it will become a very significant [category].” He confidently predicts that the Chinese VR market will be worth US$50 billion in the next five years – a quarter or a third of what the Chinese smartphone market is currently worth.

Ambitious

KATVR, whose product KAT WALK uses an omnidirectional treadmill to track whole-body movement within virtual reality, is a Chinese company based in Hangzhou. The company’s device was created, according to Nada, to solve the problem of how to “simulate real space, in a tiny physical space.” “There is no ideal solution for that right now, you have to invent something from scratch, software and hardware,” he told our reporter. “The omni-directional treadmill is a step, but far from ideal.”

It has been projected that VR will have many different applications in entertainment (creating virtual museums and parks, for example); in health, particularly the field of physical rehabilitation; the military; and education. American Tony Christopher’s Landmark Entertainment Group is hoping to build a series of “virtual-reality aquariums” across China. Christopher has said he has had interest from 10 Chinese cities and is hoping to break ground in a year’s time.   

A market research report from Business Insider predicts that VR shipments alone will create a US$2.8 billion hardware market by 2020. This compares to current estimates of US$37 million. However, some industry analysts predict that AR – Augmented Reality – will be a bigger deal. AR differs from VR in that VR aims to immerse users in a virtual world, while AR adds layers or virtual objects into the real world. Google Glass, for example, is a potential AR device as it allows users to see through and around it, resulting in only partial immersion. A report from techcrunch.com predicted a US$150 billion combined AR/VR market by 2020, with AR securing 80 percent capitalization.

Whether it’s a game like Finding, where users can entertain themselves while fully immersed in a virtual world, or a project like Christopher’s virtual aquariums, the ambitions of VR developers are unquestionably soaring. It is too early to tell whether or not their achievements will reach the same heights. 

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