Giant pink jellyfish float within arm’s reach as schools of migrating fish dart past. Suddenly, a giant blue whale – mouth agape and teeming with krill – surges into view.
“I like this game, it’s just really peaceful,” says Ea Saraboth, the founder of Virtual Reality Cambodia. “The whale is to-scale, too.”
Wearing a headset that includes goggles and headphones, Saraboth’s own senses are immersed in the underwater environment. Onlookers can watch a 2D version played on a television, the video tracking his eyesight as he explores the 360-degree field of vision.
Saraboth is a big fan of virtual reality, or VR. The walls of his home in Sen Sok district are lined with neatly stacked boxes of headsets and controllers, and he doesn’t try to contain his excitement regarding the relatively new technology.
“My first goal is to get people to know what VR actually is,” he said. “It’s a game-changing technology – like bitcoin or the internet – that could really apply to a lot of industries.”
Saraboth founded Virtual Reality Cambodia about a year ago, renting out VR sets to companies hosting events or functions. Even though business has been slow so far, Saraboth is optimistic about the future of the industry.
“We rent out the tech by hour, and everyone who has tried it is just completely immersed,” he said. “Maybe in six months, we’ll reach a threshold where Cambodians start seeing the entertainment value in this tech.”
Until recently, only one company – GameStation – was offering a consumer-oriented VR experience in Cambodia. Located on Street 174, the business attracted a steady stream of gamers who rented out PlayStation 4 virtual reality rigs for $10 an hour, according to its manager Jeffrey Steeves.
“Our virtual reality rooms were doing well, but they could’ve been doing better” he said, noting the steep price likely limited the number of backpackers or travellers who would be willing to test out the games.
His firm recently moved down the street to board-game emporium Happy Damrei, which has the same owner. Steeves said he hoped the consolidation would cut the price in half and help draw more new users.
“I thought VR would be a fad, and so did a lot of people, but it’s only getting better and better,” he said. “I’ve seen gamers turn into VR believers after they’ve played.”
At least one local game development company has expressed an interest in creating VR games. Ear Uy, co-founder of the developer Sabay Osja, said that while his company might expand into VR in the future, the barriers to entry were just too high right now.
“We have some ideas for developing VR, but at its current stage . . . you need too much equipment,” he said. “We’re looking for something the general public can use, and that’s not VR yet, not for a long time.”
But it’s not just gamers getting in on the VR buzz in Cambodia. US-based NGO Golden West Humanitarian Foundation has been working on virtual reality and augmented reality programs at their lab in Phnom Penh for the past 18 months, hoping to assist specialists in charge of removing explosives from the Cambodian countryside.
“Our programs are still in beta testing, but they’re being used in classes around the world already,” said Allen Dodgson Tan, the NGO’s director of applied technology.
Tan said Golden West had already sold their technology to organisations in Germany, the US and Vietnam, and had rented it out free-of-cost to a handful of Cambodian organisations focused on ordnance removal.
Much like at GameStation, the feedback from users has been overwhelmingly positive.
“People hear about us and ask us to ship them a beta unit, and the response has been unbelievable,” Tan said. “We’re not trying to push it out, people are pulling it out of us.”