Welcome to a new reality
Part of the buzz is tied to the fact that the movie features the latest in three-dimensional technology, offering a realistic experience that has viewers believing they are actually part of the film. But audiences are just as interested in the story itself, which takes place in a world where people can transfer their souls and minds to avatars - or puppet-like bodies. In the movie, the main character, an ex-marine named Jake who is paralyzed from the waist down, is able to walk again by inhabiting his avatar body, to which his consciousness is linked.
The Japanese animation “Summer Wars,” which was released this past summer, explores a similar concept, detailing what happens when a virtual world called OZ collides with the real world.
In the movie, people can connect to OZ with devices like cell phones, where they can do everything from shop and meet with friends to pay their bills through their avatars.
But filmmakers aren’t the only ones taking an interest in virtual worlds.
A number of global companies and governments around the world are focusing on them as well, viewing these alternate realities as a way to boost profits and lure new customers in the digital age.
And they’re putting their money where their collective mouth is, pumping roughly $600 million into developing content for virtual worlds last year, according to a study by U.S.-based media research company Engage Digital.
Korea hasn’t made much headway in this area, but that’s beginning to change as the government and companies dip their toes into virtual worlds. The goal is to tap a potentially huge new market and provide services and information to people in an entirely new format. But it remains unclear if these worlds will catch on with Koreans, as previous efforts have been met with limited success.
Ideal place for humans
While there is plenty of skepticism about whether virtual worlds will actually ever really catch on in the mainstream, many observers think that they will at least play a role in the daily lives of people at some point. Numerous experts argue that virtual worlds are an ideal place for humans, who always try to challenge the limitations of reality.
“Virtual worlds will bring about a revolution in our lives just as the Internet did,” said Park Soo-yeon, a senior researcher at the Korea Creative Content Agency. “Aside from their importance from an industrial and economic perspective, they are likely to be the nucleus of societal, cultural and political changes around the world.”
Currently there are about 100 Web sites with virtual worlds globally. The most vigorous region in terms of development in this realm is the United States.
“Second Life,” a 3-D virtual world where users actively participate in creating content based on technology provided by Linden Lab, was a huge hit internationally and spawned numerous other virtual worlds like “Vivaty” and “IMVU.”
As its name suggests, the technology aims to give users a “second life” via avatars in a virtual world. Many global companies are making good use of Second Life, utilizing it as a way to collect data about consumers, test products and create new businesses. Some sell goods and services for use only in the virtual realm - such as prime real estate for building a digital house - while others advertise products for use in the real world.
A second stab
Korea boasts well-known online games such as “Lineage,” but the concept of virtual worlds hasn’t taken off here to date.
Even Second Life, which entered the Korean market in 2007, recently withdrew from the country last month due to lackluster performance. It’s somewhat surprising, given the nation’s technological prowess.
But local firms are taking another stab at developing this nascent market.
Hi-NG Corporation, a local 3-D computer graphic development company, is currently working on developing an online community called “Azitro,” a virtual space intended for women in their 20s.
“We will create a 3-D version of places mostly visited by 20-something women around Seoul, such as the Hongik University area, Daehangno and Cheongdam-dong,” said Park Young-woon, chief executive of the company. “Then users can create their own space in the virtual world to build a house with a garden of their design.”
Park, who studied electronics engineering in college and worked in a major company’s research institute for about 10 years, established Hi-NG Corporation in 2003 jointly with his three friends. Park said that he was attracted to the concept of virtual worlds after seeing the hit 1999 movie “The Matrix.” He built his business to provide people with a unique cyberspace experience. The company tested Azitro last year and will officially launch the service next month.
Though Second Life failed to establish a presence in Korea, Tri-d Communications - a local 3-D content developer - is striving to create a Korean version of the virtual world. Dubbed “C2Town,” it will closely resemble the real world, according to Lee Yong-soo, CEO of Tri-d Communications. Avatars in C2Town will allow users to express their emotions and use the same type of gestures they use in the real world.
Lee spent seven years developing the technology behind C2Town. His company has operated “Puppy Red,” a 3-D virtual world community for children, since 2003. Puppy Red, which has also advanced into Japan, now boasts about 4 million users who each spend about 15,000 won ($12.77) a month on average purchasing items in the virtual world.
“Puppy Red was intended for children, and C2Town is targeting adults,” Lee said. C2Town is set to begin its service early next year while its demo version was released to the public early this month.
Aside from the private sector, the government can also make good use of virtual worlds, said Wie Jeong-hyun, professor of business administration at Chung-Ang University.
According to Wie, Gyeonggi’s English villages are currently operating at a loss of 22 billion won. However, it would cost far less to operate an English village with similar benefits online.
And there’s another big plus: “In addition,” he said, “these virtual areas have the advantage of being accessible anywhere in the country.”
By Park Hye-min [email@example.com]