Virtual reality finds real home

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 1996, 12:00am

Players battling spaceships and aliens in the world of virtual reality at the Hong Kong Science Museum do not have much cause to think about the cost behind the reality.

That job falls to people like Chan Ki-hung, an assistant curator at the museum, who has helped make the technology more accessible to the public.

The museum's latest virtual reality exhibit - one of three - came with a price tag of $300,000, including shipping from Canada, installation and six games.

Another virtual reality game, the Adventure Simulator, cost more than $1 million. While many exhibits can run to about $100,000, the hi-tech world demands deep pockets.

However, Mr Chan is not optimistic about the future of virtual reality at the museum if it remains such a costly toy.

'I think it will be impossible to bring here in the future because it is so expensive,' says Mr Chan. 'We'll just have to wait and see.' But in 10 years, the length of time Mr Chan says he plans to keep the exhibit, the museum may be facing technology's worst enemy - its rapid pace of advancement. Will this display then be considered primitive? 'I cannot say,' says Mr Chan. 'It's too early to tell.' And therein lies the problem. For now, the three-month-old exhibit still has the appeal of a new technology, one that has not been made widely available yet.

For the most part, the technology that allows users to interact with a simulated three-dimensional world is used in teaching, research and industry such as training pilots in mock flight sessions.

At the museum, this virtual reality exhibit is marked in spectacular fashion by a neon sign and monitors are placed at the back of the playing area, allowing those in the queue to watch participants flailing their arms around, battling imaginary enemies.

Those taking part will have their images superimposed on to the screen, becoming characters who navigate through shark-infested waters or race their way through an urban jungle of spaceships.

This is 'reactive' VR, which allows navigation and the ability to touch and manipulate objects.

Although costly to set up, this virtual reality game is not expensive to maintain. The 'immersive' virtual reality game and a headmount is more expensive to run because of the cost of supervision.

Mr Chan says the headmount is a fragile unit, and might be abused by users who do not know how to use it properly.

This second exhibit operates only during allotted hours, when there is a supervisor on hand.

Besides the cost, another challenge Mr Chan faces is how to present various forms of technology in a way that will appeal to people of all ages.

'We want to give the younger kids a chance to experience the new technology, and for the older ones, we want them to understand how a computer can manipulate an image,' he says.

The varying levels of interactivity one can have with a computer are explained on a notice beside the exhibit.

Mr Chan also finds it hard to find games for the museum's family environment.

'Much of the virtual reality content is not suitable for kids. It's often too violent,' he says. 'We don't just want things that are popular, they must be able to teach the kids something. It must be educational.' The queues are longer than usual on this particular Wednesday because it is the first day of free admission and school children have been arriving by the bus-load. On seeing their image encapsulated in a video game, the children cannot help but giggle.

Games of soccer, basketball and a driving game will be installed this week, to add more variety to the already popular exhibit.

'We get about 1,000 people taking part a day,' says Mr Chan. 'And we get about 4,000 visitors to the museum during the peak season. It's quite popular.' One visitor, a seldom-glimpsed adult in the hordes of school children, says of his virtual reality experience: 'I've seen this in the United States before but I've never tried it. If I had enough money, I would get one for my living room.' The Virtual Reality Exhibit is on permanent display at the Science Museum