Exclusive Interview with Kento Kishigami on Sword Art Online and VR Technology

Exclusive Interview with Kento Kishigami on Sword Art Online and VR Technology

Mr. Kento Kishigami is the CEO of MyDearest Inc., a company that is making efforts in their new “FullDive novel” project that allows users to experience the world inside novels through VR technology. He is also a big fan of Sword Art Online and a world-renowned up-and-comer of the VR industry. We had the chance to ask him about the appeal of VR as well as SAO.

-- How did you learn about Sword Art Online, and what made you a fan of the series?

Mr. Kishigami: I learned about the series when the original novels were released from Dengeki Bunko back in my high school days. I developed a liking for the series as I read the novels, but the anime was what really got me into it. Parts that were rather vague in the novel amazed me in the anime, and I was to find the appeal of VR that came as a result of visualization. The anime allowed the images in the series to be realized.

-- There is an increase in the number of novels and animes based on VR and AR. Do you feel any differences between Sword Art Online and the other series?

Without a doubt, I think the characters in SAO are significantly more fascinating than those in other series. The characters’ charm might be what makes the story interesting, and I think it’s the reason why many people love the series so much. Of course, I’ve watched and really enjoy series like .hack and Ghost in the Shell, but I think they’re geared toward a smaller audience group. In terms of the characters available, I consider SAO to be a very appealing series that can reach out to a wide range of viewers.

-- Among all the fascinating characters, which one is your personal favorite?

That’s a tough question (laughs). I’ve always been the type to like the main heroine.
Although some consider the act of supporting characters other than the main heroine to be an otaku virtue, I have a tendency to settle down with them. I have to say that Asuna is my favorite.

-- Is there some form of logic behind your preference for main heroines?

There’s something unusual about me as an otaku, and that’s the vast amount of shojo manga I read. In fact, I’ve read a few thousand volumes over the years. When I read shojo manga, there’s a concept called “relational moe” that’s in the perspective I read through. While men tend to read manga or watch anime subjectively, people like me - who read shojo manga - have feelings of affection toward the relationships between the characters. Instead of focusing on which hero is the coolest or which heroine is the cutest, I think the actions shared between the hero and heroine are what’s most valuable. It’s best when the dialogue between the two is rich. I just observe what’s going on as if I were a stain on the wall (laughs). The Aincrad Arc in the first season was about the hero and the heroine, and so was the movie, Ordinal Scale. It was also about the two main characters, which is what really makes an impression on me.

-- Has Sword Art Online affected your work in the VR industry?

SAO was my motive to start. If it weren’t for the series, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am right now. In 2012, the SAO anime was being broadcasted, and the Oculus Kickstarter campaign just happened to launch in the same year. I didn’t think about VR as a career, but I did wonder when it would come and how awesome it would be when it did arrive. Once I saw the actual Oculus device in 2013, I truly believed that VR was here and that it was the future.

-- Are there many Sword Art Online fans in the VR industry?

I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry who doesn’t watch the series. Almost all of the younger members of the industry or VR entrepreneurs under the age of twenty whom I’ve met have started their careers because of SAO. They say that if it weren’t for SAO, they wouldn’t be here (laughs). The timing of SAO and the popularization of VR technology matches perfectly.

The same can be said about Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus VR), whose business spread because of SAO. At the same time, because the Oculus was released, there was a sense of reality that emerged within SAO. Palmer Luckey spoke about the synergy between Oculus VR and the SAO series.

In addition, SAO was able to become a common language for us. “This is how it was in SAO, and that’s what I want to create.” That’s the manner through which we are able to communicate. This is particularly true with Ordinal Scale since the movie is described as a blueprint for the VR industry. It’s like a textbook for us (laughs). We really do talk about the scenes in the movie and how we want to make something that resembles them. I think part of the charm of SAO is how it could be applied to the real world. It’s incredible how Mr. Kawahara was able to predict all of this through his web novel that he published over a decade ago.

-- We understand that you also have connections with VR industries outside of Japan. Would you say that the situation of those industries is as exciting?

All of us around the world work together to add excitement to the VR community. Even if you email a famous member of the industry directly, it’s quite likely that you’ll receive a response. At the Tokushima VR Film Festival that was held together with Machi Asobi, the pop culture event held in Fukushima Prefecture, I was able to come into contact with plenty of people who are working outside of Japan.

I think people outside of Japan are also watching Sword Art Online. Not only is the anime popular, but the series is often referenced by Palmer Luckey who even decorates his head office with SAO. Because of those two factors, I believe that many people have at least seen the series before.

-- What are your thoughts about the future of the relationship between the VR industry and Sword Art Online?

I think there’s an implicit assumption that developers have about SAO as a common language and a world that we should work toward. There are a variety of stances and positions that one can take within that assumption, though.

My company focuses on the entertainment in characters and stories, but there are others who are trying to create spaces in servers that thousands of people can enter. Some are even working to reproduce the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch). The current level of VR technology available is just about enough to cover the functions of eyes and ears, and we’re currently in a vigorous stage of development in haptic (touch) technology. We might be able to take on smell and taste after touch. New devices will continue to emerge, and the five senses will be reproduced through technology. In the future, VR will be just about the same as reality.

However, the devices are still unsuitable for popularization and common use. We still need to maintain some distance between the display and the user’s eyes, which inevitably results in a larger device. There’s a type of technology called retinal projection where videos are projected directly to the user’s retinas.
Adjustments based on the extent of which images are projected to the retinas can be made to change between AR and VR . For example, 100% projection will be VR, and 10% will result in AR. If we can make this happen, devices can be made into slimmer items that resemble glasses, and the devices will be easier to use. In the near future, I think we’ll enter a world like the one described in Ordinal Scale where reality is intertwined with AR video content!

-- What is the goal of MyDearest in the VR industry?

The approach that my company is taking is one that’s focused on entertainment and technology. More precisely, we work on VR and AR through a perspective that concentrates on stories and technology. Even if we have VR technology, it isn’t entertainment unless users can experience the technology for themselves and accept it as something entertaining. In order to make people accept VR as a form of technology that was made for them, much like how people entered the world of VR through the SAO series, I believe that a fascinating story is necessary.

Having said that, we shouldn’t try to simply replicate what’s available in SAO. In terms of the relationships - like SAO and the way it promotes VR - that emerge, what I want is VR content as a story that’s plausible in the original novel. I want stories and characters that can serve as a foundation on which we can build upon, and our goal is to spread our foundation like how SAO has spread.

As for now, we have the “light novel x VR” project that we’re working on. People often ask us what it means or tell us that it’s too avant-garde (laughs). What happens is that illustrations are inserted while users read through the words in lights novels, and those illustrations are presented as VR. The technology allows users to read texts in a VR space where the illustrated parts can be introduced as VR animations. It makes it possible for users to experience being a story’s protagonist.

-- SAO has always been in the world of VR, and the world of AR was introduced in the movie. What are your thoughts about the segregation of AR and VR?

Because reality is more significant in AR, it’s more suitable for services and solutions. I think VR is something to spend time on and be immersed in, so it should essentially be a part of the entertainment industry, with gaming as its first function. Fantasy and other unrealistic elements can be attained easier through VR. Although the two are closely related, I think AR is something that’s lighter and can be enjoyed by a wide range of users. VR, on the other hand, is for those who really like it and want to feel truly immersed.

Personally, I don’t make clear distinctions between VR and AR. I recognize them as similar things with 100% virtuality or 10% virtuality, and I focus simply on which one can offer a more entertaining experience as I run my business. We might release the VR services that we’re currently working on simultaneously with AR. However, the actual state of things is making it difficult for profits to be made from VR. Based on the fact that Apple’s next iOS11 will feature an AR kit, it seems like AR may be ahead in the industry at the moment. I have a HoloLens, and I’m doing research each and every day.

-- Out of all the ideas and options that you had for VR, what was it that led you to your current developments?

I think I’m doing what I am right now because I’m an otaku (laughs). Otaku content and entertainment has really saved me. As the CEO of a start-up company, I’m quite diplomatic, but I certainly wasn’t always like this. I’ve admired various stories and wished I could become someone different. The admiration I had became my source of energy, which drove me all the way to where I am now. In that sense, SAO has disturbed my life in a positive way. I mean, there’s no way I could have started my own company without SAO (laughs).

-- Since you stated that you’ve always been an otaku, could you please tell us if you purchase any related merchandise? Or, are there any products that you wish were available?

Of course. I buy a variety of merchandise related to SAO. I’ve even worn an SAO t-shirt to a startup pitch event before. The event was a serious one where everyone else was dressed nicely, and I was the only one in my SAO t-shirt with a VR headset (laughs).

I definitely want a realistic Yui that Mr. Miki spoke about. It’s a dream of mine to have one. Aside from that, I also want an AR Asuna rapier. The rapier is my favorite item, so I want something that can become an AR real rapier when you hold the glass over it.

-- About the Weapon-Based Computer Glasses by Tokyo Otaku Mode, which model do you recommend?

I love Asuna’s rapier, so I’m going to have to choose the Asuna Model. I like the design, and I think the red is fantastic. Not only do I like her rapier, but I also have lots of love for Asuna as a character, so I think it’s great how the glasses allow its users to feel close to her. Of course, I also tried out the FOVE collaboration. Anyway, from these three models, I’d choose Asuna. There’s no doubt about it. We’re two hearts beating as one (laughs).

-- Finally, please tell us about the expectations you have toward yourself and also toward Sword Art Online.

I’m really, really looking forward to the anime version of the Alicization Arc, which boasts the highest popularity in all of the original novel’s episodes. The best part of SAO has yet to come, and I’m looking forward to that as well. I think the series will only become even more exciting in the future.

Like SAO, our FullDive novel won’t stay only in Japan, since we have our eyes set on the rest of the world. I think we’re the only ones in the world working on VR x novels at the moment, so we’ll do our very best as the pioneers to create something that world can get excited about. Both the Japanese and the English versions of our FullDive novel have now been released, and we hope that people around the world will be able to enjoy it. Thank you very much.

-- Thank you Mr. Kishigami!

[SAO x TOM] Sword Art Online Weapon-based Computer Glasses: https://otakumode.com/projects/sao_computer_glasses

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