Seoul, South Korea's virtual reality attractions: Where technology rules

I'm sitting on a rollercoaster, climbing steadily towards the dreaded summit. In the distance there are mountains and lakes; above I can see stars piercing the firmament. In spite of what's to come, it's really quite beautiful up here … a couple of seconds later, we're over the precipice, shooting towards doom, G-force transplanting my stomach into my mouth as we simultaneously corkscrew and loop the loop.

Later I remember the thrill of this rollercoaster as well as any I've ever been on, but this one has a significant difference: it doesn't actually exist. It's one of the virtual reality rides available in Hit VR in the Hongdae neighbourhood of Seoul, using footage from the visors worn along with a hydraulic chair to create an incredibly lifelike experience.

The technology's biggest advocates say that in its ultimate incarnation, VR will be able to replicate everything that has happened, everything that can happen, and a whole lot more besides.

For now, though, visiting the South Korean capital feels like a pretty good way to see what's to come. Some of the technological advancement is driven by tech behemoth Samsung. For most people outside of Korea the brand represents products such as phones or televisions, but in-country its tentacles have permeated every aspect of life. Not that it's all sinister corporate plotting. In Suwon, just outside Seoul, the excellent Samsung Innovation Museum condenses the entire history of technology into a slick, multi-storey space. From the discovery of electricity, through the Industrial Revolution, it continues to the development of telephones, radio, lightbulbs, batteries, telecommunications, aviation, space exploration and beyond. Samsung has spent some of its extraordinary fortune on buying original examples of each major breakthrough. Remarkably, this includes a computer made by their rivals, Apple.

Back in Seoul's  nightlife district of Itaewon, technology feels much more hands-on in South Korea's first self-pour beer bar Tap Public. I make a mess of pouring my pint from a digitally controlled pump, the machine only turning on the liquid when I've scanned my wrist band. The price is charged per 10ml and I lose at least a dollar's worth through my poor bar-keeping.

Having eventually mustered some Dutch courage, I visit KLive to watch a hologram concert. But, arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, it seems I'm the only person who thought it was a good idea to see a pre-recorded gig from K-pop stars 2PM. It wasn't at all what I'd been expecting – the picture was not too sharp, the effects not too convincing – and, while undeniably loud, it wasn't the Princess Leia-style 3D hologram I'd hoped for.

If KLive was a disappointment, later that night, the LoL Park more than made up for it. Opened in 2018, it is a fully fledged sports arena where fans gather to cheer their heroes. The difference is that they aren't playing sport at all – they're gaming.

Launched in 2009, League of Legends sees five-player teams duel against each other in a virtual battlefield. To my eyes, it doesn't seem to be anything particularly special but with 127 million people tuning in to watch the last major final, it can rightly be described as a global phenomenon, though 

nowhere is the support quite so feverish as in Seoul. Players such as Faker are known all over the country by their gaming handles and held in such reverence as to seem like mythic knights. In the real world, the 22-year-old Lee Sang-hyeok is a multi-millionaire thanks to his prowess in LoL.

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His image is the first I find in the hall of fame inside LoL Park, where live games take place twice a night, Thursday to Sunday. In the 500-seat arena, crowds chant and hold up banners of encouragement for their favourite players. I take my place at the back and watch the battle commence on a massive HD screen. In truth I don't really know what's going on, but then that's not the first time I've felt that in this techy city.

TRIP NOTES

Jamie Lafferty travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/south-korea

visitkorea.org.au

FLY

Korean Air flies daily to Seoul from Sydney and four to seven times a week to Seoul from Brisbane depending on the season. See koreanair.com

VISIT

Learn about the history of modern tech at Samsung Innovation Museum in Suwon. Open every day except Sunday, reservations must be made before visiting. See samsunginnovationmuseum.com

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