January 2018
Text by Emre Akkaş

Image: © da-kuk/istockphoto.com

Emre Akkaş is the co-founder and CEO of Globalme. Emre is an expert in adapting emerging technologies to different languages and cultures. He regularly writes and talks about his vision and opinion of emerging technology.




Localizing VR: Why Cinderella can’t wear glass slippers in Vietnam

Since the dawn of globalization, we’ve been discussing the challenges of adapting products and information to new international markets. But designing authentic experiences in Virtual Reality environments provides localizers with a whole new ball game. One that doesn’t even leave a Disney heroine’s wardrobe unchanged.

Once a machination of sci-fi writers, Virtual Reality has today become a very real part of our lives. It is estimated that by the year 2020, the global Virtual Reality market will be worth $30 billion; that doesn’t even include the potential worth of Augmented Reality (AR), which is projected to hit a whopping $90 billion. However, as tech companies race towards the future, unexpected hurdles have come up that hinder VR experiences from reaching global markets. Perhaps you are wondering why it even matters for VR to be developed for global markets? After all, the domestic market seems to be thirsting for VR experiences.

Well, to answer this question, we have to step back and realize that the realm of possibilities for Virtual Reality stretches far beyond video games. From companies using VR to train and educate people from different parts of the world, to capturing and sharing personal VR films and meeting friends or even business partners in a VR space online, one thing is guaranteed: Virtual Reality will drive the next wave of globalization and at an ever-accelerating speed. But while the medium is deeply connected to globalization and international business, adapting VR experiences for different markets and cultures remains a major challenge. This might sound obvious with regards to the VR gaming industry, but it actually applies to all industries that make use of Virtual Reality content.

So, why is adapting Virtual Reality experiences so challenging?

Providing authentic experiences

The complex problem to tackle is making sure that the experience within Virtual Reality is authentic for each country, language and culture. Localization is, of course, a challenge for all kinds of products and experiences, but for VR it is of particularly great importance. Before a game, learning experience, or other VR invention can be sold in a particular market, we need to ensure that it is culturally appropriate, accurate and authentic. So, if companies are serious about making VR truly immersive (and making bank on the global market), a lot of work has to be done.

Creating alternate country or language versions of a VR experience is not just about translating the language and shipping it out. Anyone who has tried communicating in another language knows that not everything translates as easily and directly as you might expect. As an example, consider the story of Cinderella: In the North American rendition, Cinderella has a glass high-heeled slipper; in Vietnam, she has a golden one; in the Middle East, she has a golden sandal. It may seem like a small thing, but these cultural and linguistic shifts make all the difference in creating a truly immersive reality for the user.

Setting the stage with audio and video

This leads to the next challenge: creating a harmonious visual and audio experience. In order to stage a believable illusion, the audio you hear in a Virtual Reality environment needs to mimic how we hear sounds naturally. If a bird is chirping outside your window, you process the sound differently depending on which way you’re facing, helping us to be able to accurately pinpoint which direction the sound is coming from. As a relic of our hunting and gathering days, this natural phenomenon is incredibly difficult to recreate artificially, and has slowed the progress of VR programs significantly.

Now, consider that the chirping noises you hear outside of your window may sound different than the chirping sounds a person in India, Russia or Argentina would hear. Different place, different birds. That’s right – for Virtual Reality to create and maintain a truly immersive experience, even the background noises need to be considered carefully and blended together with the visual cues the user sees. If your story is set in a busy marketplace in Luang Prabang versus in San Francisco, the developers wouldn’t be able to just cut and paste the same audio track; it just wouldn’t be an authentic representation of that particular environment.

The marketplace scene takes us to another major consideration: lip-syncing. In this VR environment, say you are exploring the market and decide that you want to buy supplies. The way a person’s mouth moves differs from language to language. If you ask a vendor a question about their selection of apples and they respond with an audio/visual disconnect, your brain will recognize the discrepancy and you will be mentally pulled out of the scene.

The same will happen if text within your VR surroundings is not translated and adjusted. You might find yourself in an important demonstration about workplace safety. But a sign in Mandarin may take up much less space than a sign written in German; Chinese characters are simply more compact than long, alphabetic German words. So, the text not only has to be translated, but it also has to be resized. On top of that, the developer must also spend time researching the design of the signs: They aren’t always red and octagonal. This is true for all UI elements within the VR content.

So is it worth localizing?

Depending on your budget, you might ask yourself whether or not localizing will be worth it. Markets around the world range from startups that are still trying to find their desks, to full-fledged companies who are making significant technological steps. So, for you, the first step is to look at the different market situations around the world. Find out where Virtual Reality is growing for your specific industry and invest there, or think about offering your product on a niche market and owning it. Make sure you set a standard for when you feel a market is viable for localization. To do that, you should look at the current leading markets to evaluate where your cutoff should be.

Let’s look at China: With more than 200 startups in the Chinese VR industry, creativity is what makes each company stand out, so content is not only being created for Virtual Reality games, but also for movies and TV shows, social hangouts, and of course, shopping. Despite investments from Alibaba to make trying on clothes from your living room a reality, VR video and games are expected to be the first VR industries to mature in China.

Another geographical market to watch is Europe. The number of companies working on Virtual Reality software and hardware has grown to 300, with more than half based in the U.K., France, Germany, and Sweden. Gaining momentum over the past two years, France is now at the forefront of the European Virtual Reality industry. Although games are still the most competitive product, Europe’s approach to Virtual Reality is similar to China’s. While making progress in the lucrative gaming industry, the most successful companies in Europe are also looking beyond the status quo to see other areas in which Virtual Reality could be used. Those areas include real estate, as well as pharmaceuticals for both training and treating psychological maladies such as anxiety and PTSD.

While it seems that professionals in the Far East and in Europe are making strides in Virtual Reality programming, other geographic markets may be slower to catch up. When thinking about localizing a Virtual Reality experience for a particular region, it is important to evaluate the value versus the cost. One could argue that it might be the right time to invest in localizing for emerging markets in China, France, Germany, and Sweden, where the growing landscape could help drive market success. On the other hand, a market with little competition could be attractive for localization, as there might not be enough local content, allowing a wide-open space for your product.

The future is now

Yes, localization plays an important role for all kinds of products that are adapted for the global market. But for VR, it is even more important, as people expect it to get as close to reality as possible. Up until the last decade, localization and translation have largely been focused on text. But the new, multi-layered and multi-faceted experiences bring new challenges, and while achieving perfection when it comes to localizing for Virtual Reality seems a tough challenge, it is also an exciting process to be part of. It will enable VR to further drive globalization, change the way we do business and connect people all around the world in new ways.