Business / Tech

VR attractions to take center stage at Tokyo Game Show

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

With the debut of high-end virtual reality gaming systems for home use, 2016 was heralded as the dawn of the VR era. But while the technology basked in the spotlight, some questioned whether there was substance behind the hype.

If this year’s Tokyo Game Show is any indication, the technology is still hot.

During a media preview of Japan’s biggest game event that opened to the media and businesses Thursday ahead of its public opening on the weekend, VR still appears to be a hot topic with people in the industry who say it has taken root over the past year with relatively solid sales of home devices and the emergence of specialized arcades.

While dozens of participants are showcasing devices and content at the event held at Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba, many visitors lined up Thursday to try the multi-layered VR attractions.

South Korea’s Sangwha set up its Gyro VR attraction that lets players sit in chairs attached to a device that rotates 360 degrees. Users can dive into virtual worlds complete with headset audio and physical movements synchronized to the on-screen action.

Gyro VR is already an attraction at theme parks in South Korea, and the company hopes it will soon catch on in Japan.

“We think the VR market will start growing with VR attractions,” said Youlim, the general manager at Suho, a Tokyo-based firm marketing the system in Japan.

“It is still costly for individual consumers to buy high-spec home VR systems,” so the attractions allow people to experience virtual worlds, he said.

Home VR gaming systems start at around ¥80,000.

Youlim said the firm sees an opportunity in Japan, where small and midsize theme parks are struggling to draw customers.”They can set up this kind of VR attraction to draw more people,” he said. Other VR attractions at the event include shooting games fitted with a massive gun and a virtual motorcycle ride.

Japanese companies have been opening VR arcades over the past year, with mobile game maker Gree Inc. and arcade operator Adores Inc. jointly investing in facility in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in December. Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc. launched a huge VR arcade in Shinjuku in August.

“In terms of monetizing, momentum has been accelerated with VR arcades. It’s really growing into a market,” journalist Kiyoshi Shin said ahead of the Tokyo Game Show.

Shin, who himself runs a VR gaming firm, said his company provides VR content for an arcade in Osaka that is popular with young girls — a demographic he said is not known to be drawn to games.

In the meantime, Sony Corp., is showcasing its contribution to the field, PlayStation VR, at this year’s Tokyo Game Show.

Sony, a leader in VR, said sales of the PlayStation VR, launched last October, have been on track, surpassing 1 million units globally in June. Shin said Sony could have sold even more of the consoles if it could keep up with demand, noting that the figure was a good sign for the industry.

At the same time, he acknowledged the lack of hit titles.

“We haven’t really seen a globally blockbuster VR title,” he said.

Shin added that many Japanese game makers are cautious about jumping into VR since the market is still small compared to smartphone games.

But some makers said they believe smartphones can do more to spread the trend.

“While last year was said to be the dawn of the VR era, I think it only hit heavy game users and arcades, not really general consumers,” because home systems are expensive and bulky, said Kyosuke Iwashita, sales manager at H2L Inc., a Tokyo-based tech startup.

The firm is focusing on smartphone VR because smartphones are “the world’s most widespread device,” he said, adding that H2L is offering a new kind of gaming experience.

The firm makes a simple VR headset that uses a smartphone as its display, adding a wristband that can sense and recognize muscle movements along with the action. For instance, if a player grabs or throws something, the action is reflected in the game so “you can play without holding a controller,” Iwashita said.

It is accepting advance orders at ¥8,980 to be shipped in December.

The public portion of the Tokyo Game Show will open on Saturday and Sunday