My first taste of Virtual Reality in China

Hello everyone from Qingdao, China!

This is my first article written from China and I have to say that I’m very very excited. Here everything is so different from my own country and I’m doing a lot of new experiences. I love being here. I have to say that China is a lot different from what I had imagined and I guess that the only way to really understand it is coming here. Here everything is so peculiar, so contradictory. There are things here that make me feel like living in 3018, together with other that make me feel like in 1918… and all this coexist together, it is really interesting and intriguing.

Regarding the 3018 things, for sure I have to mention Virtual Reality. One of the reasons for my trip to China was discovering how really is the VR ecosystem here, after having read a lot of articles on the topic. Everyone is telling that China is becoming huge in VR, and according to the epic #30DaysInVR man Enea Le Fons, here VR is in every mall. So, is it true? And how is it?

Well, I have just started scratching the surface of how is VR in China. Before strating, I have to say that while we all refer “China” as a single country, actually it is as if were a lot of confederate countries under the same name: there are a lot of differences between the various Chinese cities… so VR in Shenzhen is for instance very different from VR in ChangChun. Qingdao is just one city, one big city in the East of China, that is more famous for the awesome beer (really, the TsingTao is very good, especially the raw one directly taken at the beer museum) than for its technological advancements. So, VR here can’t represent VR in the whole China, but it is surely an interesting indicator. Another caveat is that I’ll have a very ironic tone throghout all the article… I hope that it won’t offend anyone… don’t take what I write too seriously, ok?

virtual reality vr china experience
A fantastic beer taken from the interesting beer museum in Qingdao. I really loved visiting this city

When I arrived here, I imagined to see VR everywhere, in every shop, in every mall, in every advertisement. Let me tell you that: we are still not in Ready Player One, VR is not in every business and in every home, yet (at maximum it may seem Blade Runner, because of all the writings in Chinese). It is almost nowhere in public places, exactly as in all the other parts of the world.
The difference is that in some specific contexts, there is always VR. For instance I’ve seen it in arcades, games rooms and little boots in malls. All big malls have at least a VR station, that’s true. All technology shops have at least a VR headset (I’ve seen one in shops of Lenovo, Xiaomi and Dell, for instance. I’ve also seen an HTC Vive sold off-the-shelf in a tech shop). So, penetration of VR is greater than in other parts of the world, but it is not pervasive at all.

Then, there are far more people that know what VR is and that have tried VR at least once, but not all Chinese people know about VR. When my Didi (the Chinese Uber) driver was told I worked in the VR field, he answered “Oh VR, cool.” then he paused and added “What the hell, is it?” 😀 .
Again, situation is better than in Italy, but it is still not ideal.

Clarified this, let’s talk about public VR attractions. I’m here in China guided by my very kind guide Miss S: Mister President told me that if you want to do business in China, you had better have a Chinese partner and my advice is that if you want to tour China, you had better having a Chinese person helping you. Miss S. is helping me a lot here because a lot of Chinese people do not speak English and also China has a completely different culture from the West.

While going to a Chinese mall with Miss S, I noticed in the corridors a VR booth offering a VR attraction for 30 yuan (4€ circa) per person for some minutes of play. It was a seated experience and I was really interested in trying it, in having my first Chinese VR experience. I paid the ticket for Miss S and her friend (we also got a 10 yuan discount because I was a stranger) and then I was ready for awesomeness. The experience was described as a 9D VR experience and I really couldn’t wait to try a NINE dimensional virtual reality. I, an old western guy, was only used to 3D VR, at maximum with 6 DOF… I have also tried a 4D game, but 9D is really outside my reach. What could these 9 dimensions be? Taste? Smell? Full body haptics? Talking with Gods of Olympus? Visiting parallel universes??

I didn’t know if I was ready for such a futuristic thing. I was quite scared. Anyway, I bravely went on.
I was asked to choose among 30 9D experiences, all described in Chinese. I was like “WTF, pick the one you want, I can’t understand a single thing”, so the manager suggested the experience number 3, describing it as “exciting”. An exciting 9D VR experience. Wow.
We seated on the special 9D seats and the manager put the headset on my head. From my experience reviewing headsets, I immediately understood this was the famous Chinese headset “Potato 9000”, well known in the world for its potato quality. It was made with cheap plastic and ergonomic was so Chinese-focused that it hurted a lot on my big Western nose. Maybe one of the 9 dimension of this experience was PAIN, surely not my favourite one. During the VR experience I thought that my nose was going to implode. My work requires me to always suffer for my readers.
After some minutes of suffering, the mesmerizing exciting 9D experience started and I discovered soon it was just a f*cking rollercoaster. The 1000000th VR rollercoaster experience I’ve tried. How innovative.

The Potato 9000 headset immediately shown its most important features:
– Cheap LCD display;
– Motion to photon latency that was super-high;
– No integrated audio.
Then, the king of its features: at random times during the experience, circa half of the pixels in random positions on the screen became completely green for like 2 seconds, because “f*ck you, that’s way”. I think that this was another one of the 9D features.

The Potato headset worked together with the Potato 9000 moving chair. It let the seat of the user move and rotate, to have a more realistic rollercoaster experience. There were also two joysticks, one for each hand. Actually, the Potato chair was not that bad, if not for the software integration.
Yes, because the worse thing was the Potato 9000 software. It was a rollercoaster, with just a decent quality graphics, where sometimes you had to shoot stuff. If you shoot this evil things or not, it was the same for the game, that went on in any case, so shooting was pointless. Then the developers took all the rules against motion sickness and said “WTF is this sh*t” and decided to go on their own. So in certain moments, the first person camera detached from the user, switching to a third person visual to frame some dragon or rotated abruptly of 180 degrees just to make me throw all the hot pot I had just eaten. In two moments, the camera also blocked completely, no matter where I rotated my head. The software interacted with the Potato chair by sending it signals so that the movement of the real chair emulated the movements of the virtual one. If I understood the algorithm correctly from what I’ve experienced, I think that this realism was emulated by the following complex algorithm:

void Update()
{
//potato emulation
chair.force = Random.value;
}

There was nothing right in that experience, nothing. I asked Miss S and her friend if they, that are not VR experts, enjoyed it and the answer was “No”. I think that more than 9D experience, this was a 9WTF experience.

Since I wanted more VR, yesterday we went to another mall, where there is inside a little arcade, that has some VR attractions. Inside this mall, I found another little stand that offered me another 9D attraction, but of another brand. I was in doubt if trying other VR potatoness, then I just looked at the screen mirroring of the experience to understood that it was too much for me to try it. Maybe this was a 19D dimension VR.

virtual reality vr china experience
Seriously, this was the mirroring: a huge screen, with the mirroring only projected in that little square in the upper left corner visible only with a microscope. And the funny thing is that there was a man staring at that little square enjoying the experience…

In the end we just went to the arcade inside this big mall of Qingdao. This contained a lot of experiences, VR and non VR. I had fun in it. Of course I’ll tell you about the VR experiences.

The first one that I’ve tried was an installation for four people using HTC Vive VR headsets. Seeing Mister President’s headset, I was really relieved… finally high quality VR was expecting me. Then I entered the gaming area and the guy assisting us, told us the rules of the game: it was a multiplayer experience with 4 stations for 4 people playing together a shooting game in VR. Inside this game, we could shoot each other, but we had better not do that, because you got more points by shooting some green uselss gems on the sky than killing people. How to kill all the fun of a multiplayer experience in few seconds by transforming it in a single player one. I want a death sentence for the game designer.

He put the Vive on my head, but he didn’t give me any headphones (what the hell? No audio?) and closed the initialization procedure with the most WTF thing ever: “don’t move in place and don’t rotate your head while playing”. WHAAAAAAT??? So I’m using the headset that invented room-scale and I should use it as a damn cardboard? Even worse… I could only rotate my head 180 degrees, so it was worse than having a cardboard!!

virtual reality vr china experience
Me during the installation procedures of my first HTC Vive experience here in China

During the experience of course I needed sometimes to rotate my body to shoot targets behind me, so the attendant solved the issue by rotating my visuals with his mouse on the computer when he understood it was needed. I guess that the “attendant moving the mouse when needed” is the new special controller of SteamVR, even better than the Knuckles! Another big WTF.

The second experience that I tried there required that you walked on a net with your VR headset on while seeing yourself as walking on a very high bridge in VR. Nice idea, but it was implemented in a way that while the real elements moved, the virtual ones where fixed, so it was a nice goodbye to immersion and presence. What the f…

The third experience was very similar to the 9D one I had some days ago, with the only difference that the headset was a Potato 8500 headset with the amazing feature of having completely fogged lenses, so I wasn’t able to see what I was doing in VR. I don’t know if this fog was part of the 9D experience, or simply the attendant had no clear idea of how to clean a VR headset between consecutive usages. Maybe the latter one.

The fourth experience let me ski in VR on a moving platform, and was quite decent, apart from the fact that:
– to steer while skiing, I had to turn my head and this gave me a neckache;
– the moving platform’s algorithm was similar to the one of the 9D experience and was completely random.

virtual reality vr china experience
Me and Miss S skiing in VR on a moving platform. Headsets were Vive and were also cleaned between consecutive usages, but the interface of the game was bad and so was the emulation of movement

Then I tried a non-VR experience that is anyway relevant: it was a rollercoaster made with a huge screen in front of us. Having a monoscopic vision reduced a bit the realism of the experience, but it was really amazing. The big screen offered immersion with an enormous FOV and the movement of the platform was completely synchronized with the visuals, so it was wonderful. Maybe the best VR-like experience of all the park… and it didn’t include VR headsets.

In the end, I found a new attraction made with Optitrack-like tracking that let people wander in a 10m x 10m aerea and shoot monster with a rifle. Theoretically I couldn’t play it because I had to schedule it, but being a Western person, the manager let me try it anyway (being a stranger in China has its advantages). I was excited I could play a free-wander experience with a prop in my hands and a backpack on. It was surprising finding it inside a Chinese mall… this means that VR is really going forward fast in some sectors here.

virtual reality vr china experience
Getting ready for the battle

They put my headset, my headphones, my gloves and my backpack on and I was ready to go. They gave me a lot of instructions in Chinese that Miss S translated and that anyway I was too happy to listen. Then they put me the headset on and I clearly felt that my nose hurt: even this experience used a headset of the Potato factory. It seems that in China factories only make headsets tailored for Chinese people… they don’t give a heck about us!

Then they told me to push a virtual button with my bare hands to start the experience and… wait… where the heck are my hands?? The situation was this one:
– The IPD was clearly wrong and I couldn’t see stereoscopy well at all (and the headset was a Chinese one without IPD adjustment);
– My hands were in a random position in space (it seems that Random is a function that chinese arcades love a lot);
– The headset had an enormous latency: if I turned my head, everything started calmly turning after ONE SECOND;
– If I looked up or down with my head, all the world around me started spinning like crazy.

I started telling them that I couldn’t operate nothing, telling with in a terrible Chinese “it spins, spins”, but they answered me “ok, let’s make it more comfortable on your nose”. What?? So the fact that everything spins around me is not a problem for you? It is another dimension of your 9D experiences? Whatever problem I reported, they just tried to make the headset more comfortable. In the end I told them “ok, ok, let’s go, it’s comfortable” to make them happy and I started playing. The experience was not top notch (no real props apart the gun, no matching with real environment, no full body and graphics not excellent), but wasn’t even that bad… I had to shoot at monsters and walk in the real world to go on with the experience, activating buttons with my bare hand. The fact was that I couldn’t see properly because of bad stereoscopy, I couldn’t aim properly because my gun was not were I expected it to be, I couldn’t walk safely because of latency of the headset and I couldn’t activate things with the hands because they were somewhere random in the virtual space. And don’t forget that the world spinned around as soon as I looked up or down: basically when there were enemies up or down, I had to shoot them by moving the gun randomly, hoping to get them (remember that “random” is always the magic world). Let’s add to this picture the fact that my stomach wasn’t healthy that day and you get why I started feeling all the sickness of this world and I started cold sweating. Being someone that has experimented with non-working VR system, I have been able to finish somehow the game, killing the enemies and not puking. I call that a success.
Miss S told me she spoke with the attendant and he said that this is a new installation they are very proud of… maybe they have not learned how to configure it yet and something went wrong with calibration… causing me all those issues. And thanks to them I saw the world spinning around me for half an hour.

I loved to be a bit satyric about my experience, but seriously speaking what are the takeaways of my first days in China?
1. China is a big country and not all cities are the same;
2. VR is far more widespread in China than in Europe, but it is not pervasive. Diffusion especially regards some vertical sectors;
3. The most used VR headsets in Chinese installations are HTC Vive and custom cheap Chinese devices, particularly designed for Chinese people;
4. Most VR installations have a low or medium quality and IMHO can’t satisfy VR experts and gamers. They can appeal to kids or people that have never tried VR. There are anyway some higher-quality installations that can showcase people the true power of VR;
5. Avoid any experience that claims more than 3 dimensions at all costs :D.

My impression is that Chinese people are moving too fast in VR and so they started using a tool without clearly learning how to use it: they just want to start selling the new tech, without making a well packaged product. Most of the experiences that I’ve tried clearly suffer from a lack of design and testing stages and the results are subpar. Anyway, this also showcase how China wants really bad to be great in VR.

I can’t wait to discover more about the Chinese VR ecosystem. And if you want to ask me some other questions about China, me and my temporary assistant Miss S will be happy to answer you. Have a nice day and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter… 谢谢!

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Skarredghost

AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I'm not giving up: I've started an AR/VR agency called New Technology Walkers with which help you in realizing your XR dreams with our consultancies (Contact us if you need a project done!)

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