Virtual reality is transforming the commercial practices of El Salvador — and leading to a $50 million virtual reality revolution

From an historic square in the capital of El Salvador to a village perched on a mountain, hundreds of vendors are playing a risky game to reach a dream: building a virtual reality by…

Virtual reality is transforming the commercial practices of El Salvador — and leading to a $50 million virtual reality revolution

From an historic square in the capital of El Salvador to a village perched on a mountain, hundreds of vendors are playing a risky game to reach a dream: building a virtual reality by 2020.

They’re leading what could be one of the world’s first colonies of virtual-reality kiosks, one of the “hubs” of a $50 million effort to rebrand El Salvador and promote the country’s return to the mainstream with a virtual reality revolution. The effort hinges on the sale of virtual-reality phones at kiosks, which are being set up across the country this year.

“El Salvador is undergoing a revolution,” said Alejandro Carrasco, the CEO of the Telefonos de El Salvador (TVE) firm, which is overseeing the project with funding from El Salvador’s telecommunications company. The U.S. government has also invested in the project, according to reports.

“There is an urgent need to build the popular economy in an economy that has been marginalized,” he said in an interview in one of the first virtual-reality kiosks in a public square in San Salvador.

Carrasco told The New York Times that virtual reality would help his firm’s efforts at “rebranding the country” with a virtual reality experience that will make Salvadorans feel more Mexican or Salvadoran or simply loved. By rebranding the country for foreign investors, Carrasco said, his firm would be able to “export and distribute the country’s image,” adding that it would also give Salvadorans who wish to visit foreigners anywhere in the world a high-tech facelift.

The lab in a park near La Partida in San Salvador, which will be a hub for entrepreneurs and designers. (TNV)

Experts say virtual reality — creating an experience from the internet and cutting-edge technology — is a promising future tool to transform current daily life.

“If it does not happen in the next 10 to 15 years, it’s not going to happen,” said Marco Gambini, an advocate of virtual reality. He estimated that the world has 500,000 virtual reality headsets in existence, each capable of holding up to 10,000 images — all hooked up by cables.

While virtual reality and hardware is already helping the broad industry’s efforts at attracting investors, the reality of building a viable economy depends largely on whether the public will invest in the devices themselves. And now that the nation’s president-elect is working to promote a virtual reality revolution, the stakes are high — especially if the virtual reality kiosks fail to find success and all the money the government has invested in the initiative disappears.

A model kiosk installation in a public square, which will be a hub for entrepreneurs and designers. (TNV)

The kiosks are already open in a park near La Partida in San Salvador, where shoppers select by touch an image of a model with a glowing, three-dimensional skin and then wrap the virtual reality headset on her head. After the virtual reality image is loaded, the user can then purchase the headset at a designated kiosk.

TNV has already installed 15 kiosks in La Partida to start with, and will open the rest in other places around the country, starting with a mall in San Salvador this month and then in the central region of San Luis. The first kiosks have already sold out.

Some are skeptical about the product — especially the goals of the city-building program for the virtual reality kiosks, he said.

“There is already this momentum to get involved,” he said, “but we need to have an understanding that success cannot be measured in dollars.”

Cybersecurity experts are also on edge about their use.

“Even if your AI is less hackable than your human brain, you are still human,” Julio Cesar Canchola, an assistant professor of technology studies at a University of Central Florida, said. “I would definitely advise caution.”

Ibrahim Mohamed (center) and Miguel Arroyo (left) check out their kiosk in a public square in San Salvador. (TNV)

Unlike many products in the virtual reality market, Carrasco insists the kiosks are safe. He said his company has contracted with the largest cybersecurity firm in the country, using paid experts to test the devices.

“[The kiosks] are not vulnerable,” he said. “They have built-in security mechanisms.”

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