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PC bang cafes and VR

PC bang cafes and VR gaming stations offer Seoulites the chance to escape reality. But the built environment of Seoul itself can be no less futuristic, too

TRAVEL So popular have some of the bands become, so in demand are tickets to their live shows, that technology has had to step in to offer hologram concerts. I attend one of these eerily lifelike gigs at KLive, in the modern Sangamdong neighbourhood. A stark contrast to the dense, atmospheric heart of Seoul, Sangam is home to Korean Film Archive and a number of media companies that have been incentivised to move here over the past couple of decades. The spectral popstars are beamed into a dark room, with what seems to be a greater focus on volume rather than visuals. It’s not Star Wars-style hyper-reality just yet. The future often feels very close in Seoul, but KLive feels like a reminder that there’s still work to be done, too. While the holograms may be playing to empty rooms outside of weekends, the same absolutely cannot be said for Seoul’s 25,000-plus PC bangs. These intense gaming salons (bang simply translates as room) are packed cheek-to-jowl with high-end computers and an array of games to be played online – it’s places like this that gamers such as OnFleek effectively train in, on their way to the big leagues. It’s impossible to walk the streets of downtown Seoul and not notice just how many PC bangs are around. Some are in dedicated spaces, but they’re more commonly tucked away in seemingly unremarkable tower blocks, sandwiched between office spaces, or taking up a floor between restaurants and bars. In Vriz – a typical basement PC bang in Hongdae – so intense is the focus on gaming that players can order food and drinks to their computer without having to get up. Owner Young-hun Kim tries to make the environment as comfortable as possible, including by providing a smoking room. Occasionally parents storm in to drag out their truant children, but his busiest periods are just after office hours, when Koreans indulging Peter Pan Syndrome come to unwind after stressful days at work. Part of what makes Seoul’s extreme online gaming habit possible is a colossal open bandwidth. The connectivity here rivals anywhere on Earth – lightning-speed wifi is available almost everywhere, without a login. The 4G signal stays true throughout Seoul’s labyrinthine metro network. Ads around the city announce 5G looming over the digital horizon. South from the city centre the Samsung Innovation Museum details how we got to this point. Admirably, the “ SPECTRAL POP- STAR HOLOGRAMS ARE BEAMED INTO A DARK ROOM” Korean tech behemoth’s museum does not focus only on its own gadgetry, but looks at society’s digitisation as a whole, from early experiments with electricity, through to telecommunications, television, aviation, space exploration and beyond. Items from each era of technological breakthrough are displayed here, from Alexander Graham Bell’s early telephones through to Apple’s first computers. Of course, Samsung isn’t shy about showing off its own wares, too, but the approach is decidedly holistic. Virtual reality is here, too, but then in Seoul it feels as if it’s everywhere. There are a number of dedicated VR gaming parks; some are merely a few stations in the corner of more traditional arcades, others are multi-storey multiverses where the impossible happens every day. While VR hasn’t quite reached the ultimate level yet – that of being indistinguishable from real experience – the games are certainly compelling. Inside Hongdae’s Hit VR, Alan is one of the staff on hand to help visitors explore virtual worlds. He enjoys seeing people lose their minds on the rides but, during his breaks, he makes the most of the facility, too. His favourite game is Beat Saber, a sort of psychedelic percussion challenge where huge blocks representing musical notes racing menacingly towards you. In time with the music you have to smash them with your controllers as they approach. It’s a wild ride that quickly creates a sense of urgency. It’s also physically demanding. I watch him play the game on the most difficult level to the sound of a pounding techno tune, dodging left and right, swiping the air with his controllers, winning an invisible battle. Some first-timers get nauseous using VR, but the 26-year-old seems to have mastered the format. “I lost a lot of weight playing this every day,” says Alan. “It’s good exercise. Once you find the rhythm you can make it harder and harder. There’s a real feeling of achievement.” While Alan has some practical reasoning for spending so much time behind the visor, much of VR currently exists only to titillate. At Hit VR, there’s a rollercoaster and a ride in a space ship, while another has you taking an imaginary elevator, then walking out on to a single steel bar 20 floors above the ground. When I try this, the logical part of my brain knows I’m not in danger, but some mammalian instinct is genuinely spooked. THE JAGUAR 65

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