Young Chinese play a first-person-shooting virtual reality game at an experience center in Beijing. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
The goggle-based technology got off to a hot start in China last year, and creators are now chasing The Next Big Thing in content to continue the momentum, Xing Yi reports
I'm locked in a deserted workshop. Dead silence, except for the sound of mice running across the dust-covered floor. I've been groping among the rusted tools and cases for almost half an hour now, cracking one code after another, but the door still doesn't open.
I have to get out, before my nerves get the better of me.
I turn around to look into the mirror on the wall and spot something unusual - the reflection is indeed the room I'm standing in, only what it was like 15 years ago when everything was shiny and new. There is a string of numbers written on the wall. Could this be the last code I'm looking for? Heart pumping in my chest, I dial the combination on the door lock ... and it clicks.
The door opens, to my surprise, to a train compartment. I look outside the window only to be more surprised - the train is running on the surface of the sea.
But in reality, I didn't go anywhere. I take off the goggles, and I am in a small office of Oz Technology, a startup in the southeastern suburb of Beijing.
For the past half-hour, I've been playing a virtual reality game of the room-escape genre created by the company.
Young Chinese play a first-person shooter game at a virtual reality experience center in Beijing. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
Tan Shuhong is the founder of the company with 15 employees, which released the game The 18th Floor in October. On his desktop stand five trophies for the game, all different industry awards.
"My first encounter with VR was a 'wow' experience," says Tan, recalling his first try of several virtual reality demos on an Oculus headset in 2015.
"I see it as the future of games. It will totally change the way people feel," says Tan, who used to design games on smartphones before he founded the company with some angel investment in April.
"I'm so excited to step into the VR gaming industry when it's still in the cradle."
In China, 2016 is regarded as the beginning year of virtual reality by industry insiders. The technology, which creates a lifelike environment to immerse users in virtual worlds, ripened as big companies released various consumer-level VR products in the same year.
To name some of the most popular ones - HTC Vive from a Taiwan-based smartphone manufacturer, Oculus Rift from Oculus VR (acquired by Facebook), and PlayStation VR from Sony.
People leave notes about their feeling after playing virtual reality games at The Choice's VR experience center at U-Town shopping mall in Beijing. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
In a report published in early 2016, Goldman Sachs predicts that the total addressable market for virtual reality and augmented reality (which overlay digital information onto the physical world) will be $80 billion in 2025, with $11.6 billion and more than 200 million users in the segment of games alone.
Tons of venture capital has poured in, and numerous startups like Tan's company mushroomed in the first half of last year.
"A majority of VR games are first-person shooters," says Tan. "But we think VR is not just about killing, it's to create different worlds."
Just as its name hints, Tan says The 18th Floor is an ongoing project and will immerse player in 18 different scenes, each having its unique features.
"We started with something people are familiar with, like the workshop you were in, then to something one could only imagine in their childhood dreams - the train running on the sea was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's animation Spirited Away - and now we realize them through virtual reality."
This is a game that Zhang Wen would be interested in.
Crowds wait in lines before going to watch the final of National Electronic Sports Tournament in Xiamen in November. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Zhang co-founded The Choice, a room-escape chain, in 2011. The company has a dozen branches in big cities in China, providing a role-playing game in which people are trapped in a sealed room and have to solve puzzles within a period of time to escape.
"Even in cities with a large population like Beijing, the branch has to change its theme every several months to maintain its appeal to customers," says Zhang.
With the help of virtual reality technology, changing themes won't require physical renovation.
Tan says that cooperation between his company and The Choice is under way.
In May, The Choice opened its first virtual reality experience center in U-Town Mall in Chaoyang district, Beijing.
In an area of 300 square meters, people come in to shoot enemies, slash zombies, fly helicopters, and race cars, spending half an hour on average for a cost around 100 yuan.
If one wants to buy a virtual reality device, the cost ranges around 3,000 to 7,000 yuan ($430 to $1,000).
"There are now around 4,000 VR experience centers around the country," says Zhang, "and the famous director Zhang Yimou invested in one that just opened in Beijing's Wangfujing in November."
For the first time, seven virtual reality games are included in the national e-sports competition. [Photo provided to China Daily]
But the rapid expansion of the virtual reality market had cooled down a little bit by the end of 2016.
The lack of good content still keeps virtual reality games from becoming more popular among the public.
After the first months, there have been fewer people coming into The Choice's VR experience center. According to a survey done by The Choice, only 15 percent of customers are satisfied with their VR experience.
In the second half of the year, many venture capitalists stopped funding unprofitable virtual reality projects.
"We have witnessed the in and out of the capital, but we think it is not the winter for VR industry itself. The technology has been advancing steadily in the past year," says Zhang.
The government has also pushed to popularize virtual reality games.
The National Electronic Sports Tournament held by General Administration of Sport of China included seven virtual reality games in its e-sports competition last year. After three months of preliminary contests in 14 cities, 42 contestants made it into the final in Xiamen, Fujian province.
But the virtual reality gaming industry is still waiting for its killer apps - ones with the appeal of Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies - that could make virtual reality a must for every household.
One possible candidate is Raw Data, a sci-fi action combat game, which became the first virtual reality game to gross $1 million in a month after being released in July.
Its creator, California-based virtual reality company Survios, disclosed in December that it raised $50 million in funding last year.
The 18th Floor, a room-escape game, features different immersive scenes created by the virtual reality technology. [Photo provided to China Daily]
James Iliff, co-founder of Survios, thinks the release of many hardware options with various features in the last year has created a lot of confusion for content producers.
"Many people are asking: What is the key to make VR successful?" said Iliff at a conference in Beijing last month.
"What we realize is that this is the wrong question to ask - VR itself is the key. The question we should be asking is: What are we unlocking? What doors are we opening?"
The three-day conference Iliff attended was held by a Chinese technology forum, Geek Park, and half of the second day was devoted to virtual reality.
"VR is the next step in a very long history of art and entertainment," he says, "from the scribblings of pictures on the wall of a cave to theater and photography, radio, television .... And now, we are creating our own simulations."
"What does VR unlock? It unlocks human experience - it gives us the opportunity to expand ourselves," Iliff tells an audience of around 500 people.
"If you had a thousand lives to live, what would you do? Would you be an astronaut, a knight with shining armor, or a speed racer? What character would you be? What goal would you want to achieve?"
"In a way, a virtual reality experience is like a miniature reincarnation - a small life that you get to live. It allows us to learn, to grow, and to evolve ourselves."
Lu Lili contributed to this story.