A wave of public space virtual reality (otherwise known as location-based entertainment or LBE) is breaking, allowing everyone to experience new high-end home VR systems whose requirements puts them out of the reach of most consumers. Unique, large-scale experiences like free-roam VR, which can never be duplicated at home, will soon appear in malls and other retail destinations around the country.
IMAX just opened its first Experience Centre at the Grove, an upscale mall in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. The system uses an advanced Starbreeze headset, which has a larger field of view than the Vive, and presents experiences available for the HTC Vive room scale VR system. By using Vive experiences, IMAX has greatly reduced the cost of its centers, one of the main obstacles to the financial success of LBE. Vive President Rikard Steiber announced on Twitter on February 14th that the IMAX Experience Centre had already had 5,000 visitors. A visit to the website reveals that the most popular experience is, by far, Vive’s Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine, followed by John Wick Chronicles.
In an interview at CES in January, Steiber told me that HTC planned to open over 5,000 VRcades, starting with 1,000 Viveland VRcades in China (see my article HTC’s Plans for World Domination). He compared this stage of VR’s development to the early days of the Internet where, lacking an expensive computer and high-speed Internet, millions became familiar with the benefits of personal computing and the world wide web through Internet Cafes, which are still a staple in many countries. There’s a practical consideration here, which shows HTC’s laudable understanding of its own product: the current model of the Vive is for gamers and hobbyists, not mainstream consumers. For everyday people, HTC Vive VR is much more satisfying as a curated, attended, human-supported experience.
In addition to the new LA IMAX center, the Vive is being used by new VRcades around the country. Exit-VR of San Franciso has a fleet of panel vans (the kind used as food trucks) that bring the Vive to your event. Google search turns up dozens of such venues in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, major retail chains are closing stores, leaving mall owners around the country with excess inventory, even forcing some malls to close. New VRcades might help revitalize them — if they can generate the hits needed to grow the audience. The challenge VR faces is not only convincing the public to drink Coke, but to embrace of the very idea of soda.
Traditional providers of arcade games like Sega, Capcom, Bandai and Namco, have been providing multiplayer motion based simulation platforms to high end arcades like Dave & Busters since the early ’90s. Make no mistake, even without a headset (which many new systems now feature) these games, which network multiple players into a virtual environment, commonly a race track or battlefield, are truly immersive virtual reality experiences. Despite their high cost relative to the other arcade games, these attractions are among the most popular in their venues. They’ve been carrying the torch for public space VR for twenty-five years, and not because they’re nice guys. Someone is making money.
VR was once again one of the big themes at this year’s International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) show, which takes place in November. IAAPA is where theme parks and arcade operators from around the world come to sample and buy new public space technology, as well as cotton candy machines. This year, free-roam VR pioneer Zero Latency won IAAPA’s prestigious People’s Choice Award. Free roam VR, with 2,000 – 4,000 square foot centers in Orlando (at Main Event mega arcade), Brisbane, Australia (a company owned location, which opened in 2015), Orlando (where it’s part of Main Event, a huge family entertainment center (FEC), Tokyo (with Sega), Madrid, and an outpost branded “The Arena” at massive Kalahari Resort complex in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, about 90 miles New York City. The Kalahari location opened February 3rd.
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Zero Latency co-founder and CEO Tim Ruse was inspired by Star Trek’s Holodek to create the world’s first commercially available free-roam VR experience in Brisbane. In our interview on January 26, Ruse said he and his partners Teal Smith and Scott van Duncan started with a simple premise they came up with on a tram: “wouldn’t it be great if you could actually walk around inside a virtual world without wires.” Free roam uses warehouse scale tracking to network up to 6 untethered players into a shared virtual environment, creating experiences that are much more immersive, intuitive and compelling than one can experience with the best high end systems. In the next article in this series, I’ll go into some detail about my Zero Latency experience, but I will say here that it lived up to the hype in very unexpected ways.
The Void, based in Salt Lake City, opened its first public space free-roam experience at Madame Tussauds’ in New York City last summer (2016), as part of the roll out of the new Ghostbusters movie. Featured in the previous article in this series, its free roam VR experience is nothing less than amazing. It literally puts you inside the movie.
The Void supplements its extraordinary graphics by integrating stagecraft into the experience, so digitally generated graphics interact with props and special effects, like smoke and wind. The company’s dedicated facility in Salt Lake opening March, 2017 features two 3,000 square foot “stages” set for two distinct experiences, Ghostbusters and a yet to be announced adventure in which players use tools and devices to solve puzzles interactively with other players.
The Void’s new CEO, Cliff Plumer told me future experiences will emphasize “big consumer properties” like Ghostbusters. Eventually, it is hoped, people will literally ask “what’s playing at the The Void?” Plumer says the success of the enormously popular low-tech group “escape room” experiences bodes well for the future of hyper reality experiences. However, unlike those facilities, which succeed partly because they are low tech destinations in relatively inexpensive real estate, The Void is seeking to locate in premium destinations with lots of new, daily foot traffic, like Times Square, Mall of America, and Universal Citywalk.
Also notable is the announcement several weeks ago that Stephen Spielberg and several studios have financed a new free-roam VR attraction, Dreamscape Immersive, which will open its first location in Los Angeles this fall.
The current explosion of LBE centers around the country seems different than previous cycles in which promising but expensive new VR technology could not be operated profitably. Today, the cost of opening installations, especially using off-the-shelf technology like the HTC Vive, is much lower, which means lower up front costs to operators, and therefore greater financial viability. But, and this is a big BUT, we don’t know if people are going to come back a second, third, and fourth time for experiences that can cost as much as $30 for 15 minutes. We don’t know if these centers can generate enough off-peak traffic. The problem with LBE is that you don’t have enough seats on Saturday night, and you have too many seats the rest of the time. Operators like The Void are developing strategies to deal with this, like leagues, educational offerings, corporate training, etc., but The Void is in the business of making amazing experiences, not education or training.
We should all be rooting for the success of VR in public places. It’s key to socializing this amazing new media platform. But success is not a foregone conclusion. In the ’90s, LBEs were undone by advances in computer games, and high marketing, real estate and operating costs, suggesting today’s winners won’t necessarily be the producers of the best experiences, but the ones with the best overall retail economics.