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Virtual reality is on the verge of widespread rollout

A woman samples a virtual reality experience at Bandai Namco's facility in Tokyo's Koto Ward.

TOKYO -- Virtual reality is entering the stage of widespread use thanks to advances in sensors and other technologies in conjunction with cost reductions resulting from shared use of parts with smartphones.

     Some analysts forecast the market for VR products to grow to $70 billion by 2020 as both gaming and industrial applications are under development.   

     Bandai Namco Entertainment opened a special entertainment complex, called "VR ZONE Project i Can," for a preview on Monday in Tokyo's Koto Ward, located east of the capital's metropolitan center. The facility will open to the public on Friday.

     The attraction of VR technology is that it makes people feel as if they were actually in video images.

     Bandai Namco's new facility offers six types of VR experience combined with sensory video game technology, such as a chair moving in unison with images a player sees through a headset or maneuvering a ski-like controller. For the more intrepid, there are acrophobia experiences in 360-degree environments, one involving the rescue of a kitten stuck on the ledge of a high-rise building.

     "We want to surpass arcade and video game centers," said Kunihisa Yagishita, a general manager at Bandai Namco.

     Reservations are required for the VR sessions, which will cost 700 to 1,000 yen each, and they are already fully booked through Japan's Golden Week holiday, which runs through the first week of May. 

Finally catching up

Although the development of VR technologies began in the 1980s, they have failed to become widely accepted due to the high price of hardware. Also, computer graphics have yet to reach the level where there are no gaps between video images and the sensory experience, which has led some users to become "VR sick," a state similar to motion sickness. 

     Recently, however, the massive production of smartphones has made sensors and other electronic parts that are also applicable to VR machines widely available at moderate prices. The use of software tools to produce refined CG inexpensively is also spreading. 

     Sony Interactive Entertainment plans to release in October a device for VR experiences at home at a pretax price of 44,980 yen. More than 230 companies have announced plans to develop software for the PlayStation VR.

     The Wall Street Journal has begun distributing VR images, while Japanese construction company Kajima has introduced a VR system to show images of a completed building for a virtual tour to confirm construction designs.

     There are a number of issues to address before further promotion of the technology, though, such as how it affects children. Bandai Namco limits VR experiences at its complex to those aged 13 or over. In addition, many people participating in the preview noted that the headset is heavy and cables attached to it are bothersome. 

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