April 2, 2019, photo, a visitor rides a virtual roller coaster ride operated
by a robotic arm in a VR theme park in Nanchang, China. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)
Nanchang, China (AP) —
Liu Zixing craned his neck forward for help with fastening the goggles for
his first ever taste of virtual reality. He took a break from the mining ore
business to travel to a VR theme park in this Chinese provincial capital not
known for high technology.
“It feels like reality,” Liu said after
shooting down robots in a virtual fighter jet, strapped to a spinning
gyroscope lit in purple. “It’s just like you’re riding in a plane.”
Enthusiasm for VR has cooled somewhat
after years of hype, but China’s leaders are trying to drum up excitement,
hoping to take the lead in a technology they expect will eventually gain
Hoping to coax homegrown entrepreneurs
to take the plunge, the government is educating students, subsidizing office
spaces, and sponsoring conferences and competitions.
Nanchang’s VR Star park offers 42 rides
and exhibits, including VR bumper cars and VR shoot-’em-ups. It’s the
highlight of Nanchang’s “VR base,” a sprawling complex of mostly still
empty, futuristic glass-and-steel offices.
The city of 5.5 million is the capital
of Jiangxi province, a relatively impoverished region nestled in the
mountains of south-central China, where the regional industries are copper
mining and rice.
Officials hope that one day it will be
a world-class hub for virtual reality.
“Frankly, VR isn’t 100% necessary in
the Chinese market at the moment,” said Xiong Zongming, CEO of IN-UP
Technology, one of dozens of firms being incubated by the VR base. “But with
the government’s push, many other companies, departments and agencies are
more willing to try it out.”
Xiong was born in Nanchang but studied
and worked in Japan for nearly a decade before returning to China, where he
settled in Shanghai. Nanchang officials enticed him back home with offers of
free rent and 150,000 RMB ($22,340) in startup funds, part of an effort to
lure back local talent from richer coastal cities to help lift the local
Beijing began its VR drive a few years
ago, when slick headsets from Samsung, Oculus, HTC and Sony were making a
big splash at electronics shows in the U.S.
Chinese leaders were worried they might
miss out on a boom.
VR is included in Beijing’s “Made in
China 2025”, an ambitious plan to develop global competitors in cutting edge
technologies including electric cars, solar and wind power, and robotics.
Nanchang is one of several VR hubs across the country.
So far, VR is mostly a niche product
used in gaming and business training, held back by expensive, clunky
headsets, a lack of appealing software and other shortcomings. Analysts say
it could be many years, perhaps decades, before the technology goes
Last year, just 5.8 million VR headsets
were sold globally, according to market research firm Ovum. That compares
with sales of more than 1.5 billion smartphones and is far fewer than
expected when VR fever was at its peak a few years back.
“My experience wasn’t good,” said Xu
Xiao, a PC gamer who bought VR goggles over a year ago after graduating from
college. “When I wore them, my eyes got dry and uncomfortable, and I got
dizzy. I barely use them anymore.”
Stopping by the Nanchang VR park, he
was still unimpressed.
“The image quality isn’t refined, and
it’s hard to operate,” he said after a virtual flume ride.
Even if it’s a gamble, analysts say
China’s state-led push into VR could pay off in the future. Nanchang’s VR
developers are marching on despite a wave of layoffs across the industry in
the past few years. Thousands attended Nanchang’s first VR conference last
“It’s kind of a good move to be there
now,” says George Jijiashvili, a senior analyst at Ovum. “It’s a long game,
and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.”
Beijing still lags behind: Most VR
headsets are designed by companies based outside mainland China like
Samsung, HTC, and Oculus and the major VR content platforms are run by
giants like Facebook and Google.
China’s Ministry of Industry and
Information Technology aims to change that by encouraging banks to finance
VR startups and directing local governments to invest in VR products for
public projects such as schools and tourist sites.
The government has provided subsidies
and purchases of VR software, mostly focused on education, training, and
health care software. Nanchang has a 1 billion RMB ($149 million) VR startup
investment fund, and is setting up another fund to attract established VR
Entrepreneurs and experts believe VR
will get a boost from next generation, or 5G, technologies where Chinese
companies like Huawei Technologies are industry leaders. 5G promises
blazing-fast connection speeds that could smooth lags and optimize
multiplayer games and livestreaming so VR users might not end up with the
headaches some get with today’s technology.
“VR e-sports, broadcasting concerts in
VR format, remote surgery — all of this is only realistic in the 5G era,”
said Chenyu Cui, a senior analyst at IHS Markit. “It’ll make VR better for a
Since the main commercial market for VR
is entertainment, many of China’s VR content makers are game developers in
Shenzhen or Beijing. They’re subject to booms and busts and recently,
business has been flagging.
The state support is helping to protect
Nanchang’s developers from the cycles of feast and famine, but for now the
industry is in a lull, and Xiong, the VR entrepreneur, is focused on keeping
his startup afloat.
His dream is that one day, China’s bet
on VR will turn his thirteen-person company into an industry giant.
“I look forward to the day we can go
public,” Xiong said, “and become a role model for the whole province.”