The rise of VR technosport

June 5, 2019
Virtual reality games designed to make you sweat are taking off across Asia. What’s the attraction?

This year will see the world’s first HADO Youth Cup in Singapore, the launch of a professional HADO league in Japan, and the third HADO World Cup. Yet to come across it? Expect to soon. First launched in Japan in 2016, HADO had over 1.3 million players in 2018, with a growing presence in Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, and Hong Kong—as well as Europe and the US. The promotional video for the 2017 world cup went viral.

What is this rising phenomenon? Its American-Japanese creator Eido Inoue describes it as a ‘technosport’ which uses augmented reality to engage a player’s whole body. As he explains, it’s crucially different to video gaming sports that are using augmented reality to enhance the visuals of a game, but still only activate a player’s hands to control it. HADO takes place in indoor arenas, where two teams of three players hurl flaming ‘energy balls’ at each other using fist-gestures modelled on the ‘wave attack’ in video game series Street Fighter. Before the game, each player can tune the speed of their balls, their strength, their charging speed, and the resistance of barriers they can put up for their defense (though using these costs points): options that add a layer of strategy to the skillset, along with teamwork.

The equipment is custom-made by MeLeap, the company behind the game, as the head-mounted displays (HMDs) and arm gesture sensors need to be both very lightweight to enable high energy movement, hygienic so as to avoid absorbing sweat, and designed to allow peripheral ‘real-world’ vision, which the team finds limits VR motion sickness.

The question begs: why go to the effort of developing all this expensive technology, when you can pick up a real ball anytime?

One problem in Asia, and globally, is that young people aren’t doing this enough. Childhood obesity is rising across Asia-Pacific region, and costing $166 billion a year, according to the Asian Development Bank Institute. The culprits include sedate lifestyles, rice-based diets, and over-consumption of fast foods. Could AR games lure young people into action where real-life sports are failing?

Another advantage of AR is for sports training. The Badminton Association of Malaysia is currently exploring partnerships with the brain-computer interface company NeuroSky to get ahead of global competition. Already, the US Olympic Archery team is using the technology to train muscle memory. The key to its effectiveness, NeuroSky Chief Executive Stanley Yang explains, is that muscle memory does not distinguish between virtual and analog experiences. This means a professional can practice as much as they like, without having access to their team or a specific location.

For rising sports stars in remote areas, this could be a particular benefit, potentially increasing access. No need to travel to the nearest city to meet your team: once the global community is large enough, you may be able to practice anytime, anywhere.

There’s a long way to go still for most professional sports to develop and commercialize virtual reality versions. A review of this multi-user, cross-platform remote table tennis game by Watty lists the current limitations: limited control over the racket, not enough players online to find a match, and poor responses from the game’s AI opponent.

But if HADO’s rise is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time.