Game or reality? “Sword Art Online: The Beginning, Sponsored by IBM” takes a stab at the future of technology


alpha test playing view battle

“Sword Art Online: The Beginning, Sponsored by IBM” was a VR demo event held in collaboration between Sword Art Online (SAO) and IBM Japan. The SAO brand has garnered worldwide popularity in a variety of forms, from light novels to anime and games.

Three-dimensional models of each participant were created by scanning them at this innovative event, so that they could experience the game in VR space with others. Only 208 people (228 including additional registration) were able to participate, out of approximately 100 thousand applicants. But did they really get a taste of what technology will bring us in the future?

What exactly is “Sword Art Online: The Beginning, Sponsored by IBM”?

alpha test playing view field

So much energy has been poured into the VR technology world in 2016, it could be referred to as the Year of VR. Sony Computer Entertainment’s announcement of their “PlayStation VR” head-mounted display to be released in October 2016 is still fresh in our minds, but other well-known tech companies are announcing their entrance into the VR market as well. Facebook and Apple are investing more aggressively in VR technology, while Google is currently developing a VR headset of their own.

One development worth mentioning in particular is “Sword Art Online: The Beginning, Sponsored by IBM”, a VR demo event held in collaboration between Sword Art Online (SAO) and IBM Japan. The SAO brand has garnered worldwide popularity in a variety of forms, from light novels to anime and games. The novel’s story mentions that VR service begins in the year 2022 for a VRMMO game (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online game) called Sword Art Online. However, under supervision of the story’s author Reki Kawahara, a secret subplot was incorporated, explaining that the game’s “alpha test” took place in the year 2016. This development was explained on the website, and also provided participants with a glimpse into the VRMMO game world this year.

Staff members were clad in white lab coats surrounding the large-scale VR machine, evoking images of a “mysterious lab” at the venue.

alpha test venue

The event was held at an undisclosed location in Tokyo, with SAO’s iconic “NerveGear” VR machines hanging from the ceiling, evoking images of a mysterious lab environment.

Once the 3D scanning process led by the staff in white lab coats is finished, we suddenly had avatars identical to us, to be used as characters in the game. Once I was immersed in the VR world, a guide character named a “Cog” gave me a hand mirror so that I could check my own avatar.

The “NerveGear” VR machine used in the “alpha test” was a prototype limited to visual and auditory senses. I was asked to wear a helmet-like VR machine and special shoes equipped with sensors. Before entering the game world, I noticed there wasn’t as much of a closed-in feeling as I expected, maybe because of the camera attached to “NerveGear” allowing me to view the surrounding environment. And once I entered into the game world, I could walk around streets of the town, and see enemy characters precisely copied from the series, making me feel as if I was fully immersed in the story’s VR world.

The VRMMO game world in the SAO story actually uses fictional technology, which is impossible to replicate with what we have in 2016. But through a combination of our latest technology with IBM’s high-performance cloud service “SoftLayer,” they made an impressive effort to see how close they could get to the story world.

At this event, four players could play simultaneously. Tomoari Yasuda, Senior Architect and IBM Cloud Evangelist, IBM Cloud Japan, had this to say: “The system used at this event used 3D capture data, in an environment created with high scalability, allowing thousands, or even tens of thousands of users to play simultaneously.” He said a significant aspect of this type of system is that more intricate tuning is possible due to SoftLayer’s superior technology, in which preferred specs could be used for isolated physical servers (bare metal) in assigned data centers.

Another feature worth mentioning is the appearance of a guide character called a “Cog.” This was added to evoke a futuristic image of cognitive computing that IBM advocates. At this event, actual cognitive technology wasn’t used to power the “Cog,” but “Cog” evokes the futuristic image of cognitive computing that learns from experiences and engages in natural conversation.

Everything about this VR world was massive, evoking an overwhelming, immersive feeling.

alpha test playing view dive
alpha test playing view field

The second I put on “NerveGear”, I found myself in immersed in the game world. In the original story, the players start off in the aptly-named town of beginnings and the “alpha test” begins in the city’s plaza. “Cog,” the guide character created based on the image of cognitive computing mentioned earlier, showed me how to move around in the VR world, so I could catch on fairly quickly. Soon I was freely walking around town of beginnings with the stepping move, using arm movements and hand gestures to swing my weapon, open menus, etc. I noticed the avatars of others in the VR world were moving around and using voice chat in real time. The amount of data exchanged between each “NerveGear” unit was huge, but this was processed via the SoftLayer cloud.

The feeling of immersion provided by the VR machine and motion capture technology was pretty remarkable. The giant doors appearing in the stage, and the “Gleam Eyes the Ancestor” enemy character was several times larger than me, so I felt as if I was literally looking up at them. Moving my arms in wide sweeping motions to attack and defend felt completely different than a game controller.

Why hold such a massive event?

alpha test venue
alpha test venue

The event was labelled as “alpha test” and even Reki Kawara, the original author of SAO novels, was able to participate. He had this to say: “It was truly the world I was imagining, but I wish I could have played for another 30 minutes or so.” Unfortunately, the game developed for an “alpha test” has not been planned for release as a commercial product or service.

The reason for this was explained by Yukiko Yamaguchi, Manager, Communications & Brand Experience, Marketing & Communications, IBM Japan:

“Sword Art Online: The Beginning, Sponsored by IBM” was a project to try and get as close as possible to the VR world using current technology. It was essentially an opportunity to get excited about what future technology can bring us. Our goal was to stimulate thoughts and discussions on the possibilities of the future what SoftLayer and cognitive technology can bring us.”

IBM selected Sword Art Online so that we could experience the possibilities of what technology can bring to the future.

This is not a game, folks. It’s reality.

Related Articles


With its reiterations in Manga, Video Games, and a 2012 Anime series, the light novel “Sword Art Online” (SAO) became a surprising hit phenomenon, gaining tremendous popularity not only within Japan, but to an expansive international audience.

Aiming to reproduce the virtual environment illustrated in SAO, IBM has created the opportunity to experience its advanced technologies through SAO’s alpha test, named “Sword Art Online – The Beginning, Sponsored by IBM”.

“What would happen if Cognitive Computing was used in future gaming?” This is a concept illustrated in the world created in collaboration with Sword Art Online.

Event participants will be body scanned to create 3D models for use as avatars, which can also be seen by other players connected through integrated play. All of this could be realized thanks to the innovative online system built with IBM’s cloud service, “SoftLayer”.

IBM’s advanced technologies are creating a transformation, bettering the future for business and people. We are excited to provide this opportunity to experience that future.