For those who were itching to get an up-close look at K-pop girl group aespa and its spellbinding performances, the quartet's first-ever virtual reality (VR) concert, dubbed LYNK-POP, made their wish come true at a reasonable price. It was screened at Megabox COEX in southern Seoul's Gangnam District from Oct. 25 to Nov. 21, attracting some 8,000 moviegoers.
The hyper-realistic show invited viewers to "Kwangya," a virtual world, and then Karina, Winter, Giselle and Ningning offered an immersive experience, rocking the stage with some of their biggest hits including "Black Mamba" (2020) and "Next Level" (2021), just like they do for their in-person concerts.
However, the VR format provided an intimate encounter, allowing the moviegoers to feel like they were the only audience member watching the performances and to observe even the most subtle movements and gestures of the K-pop stars with complete awareness.
According to AmazeVR, a California-based VR concert platform that brought the LYNK-POP concert to life, there was a good reason for offering an unprecedented close view of aespa.
"Since K-pop fans love close-up shots of their favorite stars, aespa members performed right in front of our cameras when they were filming their performances," AmazeVR's co-founder/co-CEO Steve Lee told The Korea Times in a recent interview at the company's Seoul office in Gangnam District.
"A VR concert can also give a more three-dimensional feel when performers are closer to the cameras, becoming more distinguishable from two-dimensional content."
Unlike live concerts that only allow a limited audience, their VR renditions can reach a wider range of fans.
"K-pop fans are often unable to meet their stars in the immediate vicinity even if they attend expensive live concerts," the co-CEO said. As he noted, the ticket prices for K-pop concerts have soared since the COVID-19 pandemic, with most standard tickets costing more than 154,000 won ($117).
"But if K-pop singers film their performances in one to two days and release them in the form of VR, more followers around the world can enjoy them in a fully immersive environment using headsets," Lee explained.
Since its establishment in 2015, AmazeVR has collaborated mostly with U.S. artists like the Grammy-winning rapper Megan Thee Stallion, mainly because the country has the world's second-largest VR headset market after only China. Almost one in five American adults has used or is using VR, according to evaluation platform 99Firms.
"Apple's VR headset, Vision Pro, is expected to launch in 2024, and is likely to play a vital role in market expansion," Lee noted. "We wanted to showcase what we already have before that, so we turned our eyes to K-pop which is basking in global popularity. We decided to start off with SM Entertainment's aespa, knowing that the group's unique concept linked to digital avatars and metaverse would match well with us."
AmazeVR plans to release a VR concert in January featuring another SM artist, Kai of boy band EXO, and then team up with other prominent K-pop acts.
"I personally want to shoot a VR concert for Jungkook of K-pop behemoth BTS," Lee revealed. "I love his songs, and I think he excels in performance."
Defying most people's expectations, it does not take forever to produce a VR concert. These days, AmazeVR spends about six to eight weeks to create one, thanks to technological advances backed by artificial intelligence (AI). The company first uses VR cameras to film a performance and utilizes different cutting-edge technologies to adorn the stage and add special effects, bringing more visual splendor.
"It used to take five to six months to make one VR concert, but much of the process has been automated and simplified," Lee said. "Since we have produced about eight to nine concerts to date, we are proceeding smoothly in terms of creation."
The co-CEO dove into the world of VR after building up experience as a software developer and consultant. He also ran a startup with his friends before joining tech giant Kakao where he bumped into three other co-founders of AmazeVR — JB Lee, Jeremy Nam and Steven Koo.
"Back then, Kakao was making waves in Korea, but I felt like it had room for growth when it comes to global presence," Lee said. "So, all four of us, who thought personalized TVs and monitors would reign supreme in the future, decided to venture into the realm of VR and set up AmazeVR. We believe that VR will soon provide people with a realistic viewing experience that looks no different from our reality."
However, the fact that a VR headset is too heavy for people is a major stumbling block in boosting its accessibility. And this was the reason that aespa's LYNK-POP concert ran for just 25-30 minutes.
"We understand that it can be challenging for viewers to wear these headsets for more than an hour," Lee said. "So, for our next VR concerts, we may extend the runtime by about 5-10 minutes only. But once these headsets become lighter in the future, viewers will adapt more comfortably to longer VR experiences."
In the coming days, Lee hopes AmazeVR can reach a broader audience in the U.S., Japan and beyond.
"We will seek ways to create our own online platform where we can showcase our content for more people," he said. "I think we are still at the beginning."