Virtual Reality in Hong Kong

Table of Contents 

Virtual Reality and Metaverse

Are we witnessing the digital ‘Big Bang’ of the 21st century, or are we witnessing the formation of an economic bubble? Since Facebook changed its name to Meta in October 2021, metaverse, along with extended reality (XR), has been the buzzword among investors, creators, and companies – but what does it mean exactly? 

At its core, the metaverse stands as a unified digital realm that bridges the virtual world and the physical world. The term ‘Metaverse’ was first introduced in the science-fiction Snow Crash in 1992. In his book, Stephenson visualized the metaverse as a virtual space parallel to our physical world, allowing users to experience the space through their avatars.

In practice, the metaverse is the product of the advancement in technology ( such as the blockchain technology, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality), the formation of the virtual economy with non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrency, and the idea of a decentralized internet environment of Web 3.0.

Metaverse is made possible with the advancement of technology, the ownership of digital assets, and the emergence of the virtual economy.

Essentially, we can understand the metaverse as a metaphor for our real world, that we are experiencing the duality of the real world and also of the virtual world. To achieve such duality, a research paper on the metaverse suggests that the metaverse has to go through three stages of development:

  1. Digital Twins, which reflect properties of our physical world;
  2. Digital Natives, where the community takes the lead in producing virtual content;
  3. Co-existence of Physical-virtual reality, where interoperability is emphasized.

As the metaverse is characterized by its interoperability, continuity across platforms, and interactivity, Lee and his team proposed eight technological pillars and six user-centric factors that form the ecosystem of metaverse to examine the development of the metaverse:

Lee and his team proposed the framework of understanding Metaverse and virtual reality in general.

Especially with its immutability, metaverse intrigues architects, artists, gaming studios, and individuals to look into the new possibility of preserving culture in a digital space. Let’s take a look at how culture is preserved in cyberspace (video games), how digital heritage was done before the emergence of the metaverse, and finally, the possibilities of preserving culture in the metaverse and its vision in Hong Kong.

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Virtual Reality and Video Games

Video games often give off the impression of ‘entertainment only’, but with sandbox games that encourage originality and creativity, video games prove to be so much more than simply ‘for fun’.

King San (景三), a local YouTuber, revisualizes Hong Kong in three eras: 1920, 2019, and 3019 in his project Hong Kong Operation. His project demonstrates that cyberspace is fully capable of preserving and capturing architectures, infrastructures, urban plannings, history, and most importantly, the sense of ‘home’ in video games.

Let’s hear from him on the topic of the cultural significance of preserving Hong Kong culture in video games, the dissolving line between video games and metaverse, and his remarks on the future development of virtual reality in Hong Kong. 

Some may argue that we already live in a ‘metaverse’ as video games already provide us with hyper-realistic visuals, social communication via virtual platforms and space that allows original digital contents.

Screenshots from The Last of Us Part II demonstrating the hyper-realistic visual capable in gameplay (Photo uploaded by PlayStation on their official website)

Games like Minecraft (2011), SimCity (2013), Cities Skylines (2015) and many other more are great examples demonstrating the fact that duplicating the natural world in a virtual space is not something new. VR Chat, an online virtual platform that allows users to chat with each other in their 3D avatars, was launched in 2017 and has been popular ever since. Video games like the Call of Duty franchise, The Last of Us (2013), Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) also features hyper-realistic visuals, all just like the metaverse promised.

Then, what’s new?

While it is true that the recent development of video games features hyper-realistic gaming environments with excellent in-game physics, video games still lack interoperability which differentiates them from virtual reality.

Table drawn by Lee Lik-Hang, et al. in their report All One Needs to Know about Metaverse (2021), demonstrating the significant gap between cyberspace and metaverse.

On top of what video games look like now, metaverse allows new possibility in gaming and socializing. As illustrated from the graph above, we see that video games now lack the duality between virtual and physical reality. 

What makes metaverse rather exciting for gamers is the interoperability between virtual platforms, enabling users to create and transfer their contents across virtual worlds with a continued identity. When we reach the third and final stage of the metaverse, it is also expected that users can share and connect their digital contents to the physical world. 

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Virtual Reality and Architecture

Beyond video games, it is also highly beneficial to urban planners, architects, designers, artists, and whoever wants to transfer their digital contents without worrying about it too much.

With the emergence of virtual spaces, there is a surging demand for architects and interior designers to design voxel-based assets and structures for the virtual realm. What does it mean to aspiring architects in the new age? What is the possibility between new media and architecture?

Meet Professor Kristof Crolla, an award-winning architect with his most recent artwork Resonance-In-Sight as the centerpiece of the outdoor exhibition Redefining Reality, organized by the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA).

Resonance-In-Sight demonstrates the immersiveness between the virtual and physical world and the significance of dissolving the line between the two realms. 

Professor Crolla mentioned that when HKMoA reached out to them, they initially pictured a big arch connecting and presenting four core collections from the museum. Yet, as fabrication and budgetary reasons challenged the team, they decided to leave the middle of the arch open and instead present the museum’s collection virtually through the customized Augmented Reality (AR) application. 

“Why do we in this day and age need to make the whole sculpture anyway?” said Professor Crolla.

Professor Crolla then moved the conversation toward users’ interactivity and the possibility of completing part of the sculpture virtually. With this new idea in mind, it allows the team to be abstract, playful, interactive and educational when presenting the museum’s collection. 

With every update, a new set of animated AR representations of the museum’s collection will appear virtually. The installation has entered its second phase and is expecting its third and fourth phases in June and September 2022, respectively.

From his project, we can draw five characteristics when it comes to working between physical and digital space:

1.     LOWER COST: By dividing the sculpture into its physical and virtual counterparts, it lowers the budget and allows mobility for sculptural design. This also applies to urban planning that combining the virtual and physical space allows fluidity and decluttering in urban areas, as Professor Crolla suggests. For example, moving billboards and advertising placement into the virtual world opens up more space for other buildings and infrastructures in the physical world, demonstrating the interactivity and the connectivity the metaverse promised. 

2.     ACCESSIBILITY: The easy access to the AR application also highlights that when we are working between the two realms, accessibility is crucial as it implies how broad your audience base will be. Accessibility, for instance, includes hardware (AR goggles, smartphones, computers, and more), software (application, engines, etc.), and network coverage. Currently, the 5G network in Hong Kong covers more than 90% of our population, implying that Hong Kong can interact with virtual reality at a higher speed.  

3.     INTERACTIVITY is also essential when it comes to working between the two spaces. The final ideal of the metaverse is to bridge the two realities and provide parallel experiences between the two. People can effortlessly transfer their works and ideas between the virtual and physical world, enabling new possibilities and inventions in the future. 

4.     EDUCATION: Especially when it comes to art and history education, building a database in virtual reality enables us to gain immediate access to the information behind it. Students can gain a better understanding when they are in an interactive space. For example, art history students can interact and take a much closer look at antiques or paintings that would otherwise only be available through photos. Architecture students can better understand what they are learning, like anthropometry, human-centric designs, usage of space, and more. It also visualizes human anatomy, nervous system, and cardiovascular system to medical students and forensic students. The list goes on, and we can understand that the educational significance is a huge part of the metaverse. 

5.     FLEXIBILITY: While the physical sculpture is fixed, the AR animation allows the team to provide updates to the installation, making it more inclusive and entertaining when representing the museum’s collection. It is beneficial to have virtual representations, as updating physical objects every few months would simply be too costly. 

With Professor Crolla’s work Resonance-In-Sight, we see the potential and characteristics of connecting the virtual and physical world. We also see that the technology of doing so is totally attainable and accessible. 

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Virtual Reality in Hong Kong

We have discussed how we can apply virtual reality to video games, architecture, and cultural heritage – how can we understand virtual reality in the context of Hong Kong?

Hong Kong standing as an international transit hub of Asia, along with its outstanding coverage of 5G network, well-equipped digital and physical infrastructures, and talents in the high-tech industry, has surprisingly low trust in cryptocurrency – a key to establishing the virtual economy, and hence a key to building the metaverse. 

While Hong Kong is one of the world’s top crypto-investors, most Hong Kong people still see crypto as an investment rather than a payment medium. That is because buying crypto in Hong Kong can be frustrating and difficult are local banks are reluctant to deal with and provide services to those who own cryptocurrency. While the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) does not regulate cryptocurrencies in Hong Kong, it clearly states that cryptocurrency is not a legal tender and warns Hong Kong citizens of the risk of purchasing and selling digital assets. 

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A post shared by Becky Wong (@index_game_hk)

Digital assets design by Index Game

Even though Hong Kong, in general, is against cryptocurrency and digital assets, many studios, businesses, brands, and companies are taking a step toward virtual reality and digital assets in recent two years. Last year, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) announced a partnership with The SandBox Game, a world-leading blockchain-based metaverse, and successfully launched the project in March 2022. Two weeks ago (April 2022), Time Square entered the metaverse by partnering with AiR Metaverse to create a new shopping environment for its customers.

How should Hong Kong position itself in this rising trend of partnership and expansion in the virtual world?

Meet Becky Wong, the co-founder of Index Game, the first local metaverse studio with a local team of voxel designers and creators. 

With Kowloon Walled Project being their first project in the metaverse, they received the SandBox Game Maker Fund and became the first Hong Kong studio appointed by the SandBox. The studio later announced the sequel to Kowloon Walled City and participated in the project of revisualizing The Central Ferry Piers with SCMP. Besides projects on game design, Index Game also designs non-fungible tokens (NFT), including The Master 8, the studio’s first NFT series about Chinese martial arts. 

With a local focus in their works, Index Game believes in the vision of Web 3.0 and metaverse in Hong Kong. “We want to be the studio leading Hong Kong towards the metaverse,” said Becky. With this vision in mind, the studio is developing Index Academy to train future voxel designers and virtual architects. 

“[Voxel design] is still new to the industry. It isn’t easy to find someone with previous experience in voxel design. When we first founded [Index Game], we had to train our team at ground zero, and we work from there,” Becky added, “It is relatively easy to pick up the skills in voxel design, most importantly is that you believe in the vision of web 3.0. That’s all you need.” 

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Changes can be intimidating

The emergence of virtual reality prompts a new debate regarding technology and the environment. It is true that with blockchain, mining of cryptocurrency, networking, and the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the carbon emission and the electricity consumed by the metaverse is highly concerning.

In 2020, crypto mining in the United States generated nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide single-handedly. A study in 2019 also revealed that the carbon footprint for one AI language processing model would be more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. These technologies consume more energy than we ever have. It is costly for us to even develop the virtual reality.

We are also seeing big tech companies revolutionizing their operations to reduce energy consumption and their impacts on the environment. For instance, Google is working towards its goal of a 24/7 carbon-free energy operation in all of its datacenters by 2030. Microsoft also plans to use renewable energy for its cloud platform and reach carbon negative by 2030. Meta is committed to zero net emission by 2030 with its new wind farm in Altoona

Changes can be intimidating. It is intimidating that the futuristic fantasy we see in films and video games is happening right before our eyes, and we are afraid of unknown. What if we spend our entire day in the virtual reality that we no longer recognize the physical world? Is it just another fancy term for companies to cash on it? Isn’t this just another episode from Black Mirror? All these concerns relay back to how we understand our relationship with technology. 

Some may worry that our internet addiction may worsen with metaverse  – but we have to understand that this has been the problem since the emergence of social media. Teenagers are now spending 7.7 hours daily on social media, study shows that we are checking our phones 344 times per day, filters on social media apps are pushing their users to unrealistic beauty standards, and the auto-play function on your homepage along with an algorithm that will lure you to spend more time on their apps – we are already living in the era of daily internet consumption, and while metaverse may worsen it, we are already at a pretty worse place to start with. Fundamentally, the problem lies within how we situate ourselves with social media and the internet.  

“It is dangerous when you think of everything as something new,” Professor Shaw stressed on this point multiple times in his interview. It is not new, from the concept of virtual reality to the vision of a technology-based society and socializing through the internet. What new is the improvement and advancement in digital infrastructures, that now we have better smart phones and goggles that allow us to interact with AR projections,

The dot-com bubble in the late 1990s is similar to the “metaverse gold rush” we are seeing today. The States saw an exponential rise in its technology stock at that time, and tens of hundreds of internet-based companies were investing in this internet vision. Even when it burst, it was still a step forward as investors invested billions of dollars into this bubble, which ultimately funded the development of digital infrastructures that laid the foundation for us now.

“Is it the digital big-bang, or is it another economic bubble?” is just another question for “how do you see change, and how do you face the changes in your life?”  One thing for sure is that the metaverse is happening right now, and it is always better to stay informed. 

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