The Virtual Arena: The Explosion of the VR Arcade

Kevin Williams returns to discuss the ever growing, ever developing business of VR entertainment.

In this latest of my regular columns, I turn the spotlight regarding virtual reality’s (VR’s) baptism of fire outside of its expected home setting, and reveal the three main areas of public-space entertainment application of this emerging technology. Following on from the previous feature giving an overview of the aspects of the Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment (DOE) VR scene (Growth of Out-of-Home VR Entertainment, which can be found here) – we dial down into the detail, and supply a view of the key players in the sector.

The first sector we are covering has been named ‘VR Arcade’, (though we are also seeing the term “VR Park”, coined in Asia). This sector is itself split into two main groups with consumer VR hardware deployed into out-of-home establishments, as well as other operators deploying dedicated VR game platforms, placed in either pop-up or specialized retail units.

The Virtual Arena

Why VR Arcade is a thing?

As seen with the previous phase of VR adoption back in the 90’s, there is a strong appetite by an undecided audience to “try before they buy”, a need to have a dedicated approach to offer a chance to experience VR, without the risk of purchasing expensive equipment has proven essential. Sadly, due to various political posturing’s, the support of the DOE application for VR was ignored by some executives, favouring an approach to sign ill thought-out agreements with retail chains to set-up hastily conceived demonstration areas, as seen at Best Buy and other chains.

Attempts were made to side-line the possibility of VR being a commercial entertainment. However, the market has suddenly exploded supporting an audience keen to try VR for themselves – but concerned by the cost of entry, technical limitations, and value of available content. So has been born over a number of territories various approaches towards creating a space for paying customers to experience VR. Much of this fuelled by the early DK1 and DK2 public demonstrations that started the ball rolling in the greater recognition of the technology.

While this year has been ladled by some pundits as “the year of VR” for large mainstream consumer adoption, the hardware has to be a plug-n-play proposition – the same way that LAN gaming could only achieve momentum initially through the popularity of independent LAN Gaming centers. This has seen one aspect of the commercial VR scene borrow from the approach of the LAN centers and Cybercafés.

Oculus-B-roll-capture

 

Applying Consumer VR Out-of-Home

In hoping to run consumer VR in commercial (pay-to-play) environment, this fledgling sector has walked into many issues that the LAN gaming and cybercafé businesses are all too familiar with, revealing the core issue of deploying consumer game hardware in a commercial setting, incurring usage restrictions from manufacturers and publishers of products wholly intended for consumer usage. The need to circumvent warranty and terms of usage agreements, placed on consumer products not intended for commercial setting, issues that have caught out many start-ups.

Some DOE companies have been blocked in their attempts to use certain hardware in this environment. But other manufacturers have taken this new market as an opportunity for promotion; HTC going as far as creating an HTC Vive ‘Business Edition’ (BE), including the licenses and support for those using the hardware commercially. Where others had closed the door on using their head-mounted display (HMD) in a pay-to-play setting, HTC has embraced this and seen their headset and room-scale platform deployed in many new venues.

For the majority of the VR Arcade developers offering a consumer experience in a unique location, the model has been to create VR Enclosures’, based on the preferable 4.5 meters’ diagonal space requirements, and linked to a suitable delivery platform. Players paying for the duration of time to play from an assortment of available VR game content. A hoard of start-ups’ have opened offering their take on the best way to supply time-based pay-to-play consumer VR.

New companies embracing this approach to commercial entertainment include Canada based CTRL V, with their 16 custom-built stations (enclosures) offering a selection of the latest VR games on their HTC Vive BE platform, hocked to a powerful hardware system. Not alone, other new start-ups include Immersion Arcade, based by the college in Illinois, or VR Junkies in the Orem University Mall in Utah. The global reach in interest for these pop-up VR Arcade venues can be seen with sites opening from Austria to Africa and Australia (and all points in-between). VR Arcade facilities in general offering time slots to play the latest VR content, ranging in price from $20 to $50 per-hour to play.

The requirements shaping the deployment of VR Arcades across the globe are starting to make themselves felt. The United Kingdom has seen the newly opened VR-HERE based in Liverpool, with four VR rooms (Enclosures) using off the shelve VR hardware and supported by enthusiasts; but the first officially licensed commercial VR Arcade site in the country will be ROF 59 in the North East, designed and installed by preeVue. This operation receiving official sanction from HTC to use their Vive BE platform and establishing commercial software usage agreements with game developers, including Valve. This is a perfect example of the need for appropriate scrutiny in using consumer content in a commercial environment, and a salutary tale of the issues ahead for the sector.

Vive BE
The HTC Vive Business Edition

Ignoring the ground swell of popularity in the West, some have stated that the VR Arcade approach is more a thing for the Asian market than applicable for the Western scene. Citing restricted living conditions and a lower disposable income to spend on consumer VR. A culture of “iCafe” (or Net Café) LAN gaming seen as suited to VR exposure. A number of major venue operators in China were quick to ink agreements, Shunwang Technology, one of the country’s largest iCafe operators with some 100,000 locations, signing to operate their own VR enclosures platforms for public-space gaming across their franchise.

The application of consumer VR in a commercial setting is not a trivial task, we have already alluded to the issues of commercial usage agreement, but there is also the consideration of the need to appropriately license the software from game studios to be used in VR Arcade settings, and established correct remuneration. Already a number of commercial usage schemes are being started to monetize and protect the use of VR games in this setting; offering a brand new and possibly lucrative means to fund game developers.

There is also the constant need for correct operation of these VR systems in this commercial environment; issues ranging from hygiene, to appropriate attendant training, as well as all the issues of public liability, required insurance and licenses to operate dependant in each region.

Disclaimer – To ensure transparency, it is important that the readers are aware that my consultancy (KWP) is commissioned by many of the developers in this field, and we are also involved with the creation of a dedicated commercial content licensing & delivery service that will have direct implications for this sector.

Immersion Arcade
Image via Immersion Arcade

Beyond Consumer Adoption

While these start-ups apply consumer VR content into a commercial setting, there are developers moving towards dedicated (specialized) VR entertainment platforms built to fulfil the needs of the DOE sector. Some of the leading Japanese amusement manufacturers, who also operate their own game center business in the Home Islands, have turned to testing VR amusement systems to evaluate how best to support this new opportunity.

Using the HTC Vive BE HMD for commercial deployment, the Japanese amusement factories have created bespoke VR Enclosures to entertain their guests in VR. One of the most recent to throw their hat into the ring is CAPCOM, who announced the installation of VR Monster Capdom, seeing players stomp around a virtual city transformed into a rampaging monster.

It is the test facility established by BANDAI NAMCO that has caused a major shift in opinions regarding VR’s place as the saviour of the arcade, creating the speculated ‘Arcade 2.0’ boom. Opened this year, VR Zone: Project i Can, representing a 550 square meter facility located in a retail unit at the Tokyo Plaza mall. Comprising multiple dedicated VR platforms created as test beds to try out amusement style entertainment within a virtual universe, evaluating the means of delivery and operation, as well as the popularity of the games with players.

The first example of this approach to open its doors, VR Zone has become a mecca for those interested in VR Arcade development, the facility overwhelmed by its popularity. Players have to reserve a ticket to attend, and these spots have been fully booked months in advance. Upon entering they are able to pay to play individual games using a smart card system. Games created especially comprising exhilaration and excitement; from traversing a plank high on a skyscraper to rescue a cat, or navigating a haunted hospital in a wheelchair. As well as more familiar fair as skiing, piloting mechs, or finding yourself in the midst of a giant Gundam robot battle, clinging to the hand of the robot! The VR Zone is an experiment pop-up venue, scheduled to close in October after only opening in April; developed to ascertain the best approach for VR in this sector.

Other amusement giants in Japan, such as SEGA LIVE CREATION have deployed pop-up VR experiences in their facilities. We will go into greater detail on SEGA, and others investment in a ‘VR Arena-Scale’ attraction in the following feature. SEGA has also invested in a home grown VR horror experience (called The Room of the Living Dolls). While veteran amusement manufacturer TAITO has taken another approach announcing the installation of ‘VR Theaters’ franchises within their game centers – offering dedicated booths, able to be rented to experience VR films on the Samsung Gear VR within.

The popularity of VR was self-evident at the recent Tokyo Game Show this month, but along with the consumer investment, TGS revealed a considerable interest to invest in specialized VR Arcade establishments beyond incorporating it into existing centers. Major mobile powerhouse GREE announcing a business alliance with Adores, a respected entertainment facility operator, working towards developing standalone VR professional amusement facilities.

 

Tomb of the Golems screenshot_03
Tomb of the Golems: GREE VR Studio’s first title

The Growing Chinese Perspective

It is suggested that in just Guangzhou in China, alone, there were at the beginning of March some 30 VR Arcades – though while many may be the more conventional consumer VR pay-to-play booth experiences, there is a growing move towards developing a more dedicated facility business, dubbed ‘VR Park’ experiences.

Building off many of the lessons gleamed from examples like BANDAI NAMCO’s VR Zone, other developers have created their own dedicated retail franchise; leading Asian amusement manufacturer WAHLAP recently opened their own facility concept project, under the brand VR Station, building off of the concept of dedicated VR platforms housed in a four zoned environment.

Another company that has borrowed heavily from the ground broken by the Japanese concept is the Chinese based Famiku Park VR; operator Shanghai ShiHiroshi having opened a flagship 2,300 square meter facility filled with over 30 VR platforms, zoned off with standing, skiing, racing and VR Arena-scale dedicated gaming platforms. Another major force in bringing VR to the Chinese audience is eMAX and their franchised retail VR arcade approach. Other leading developers in the scene include LekeVR, and their VRLe range of VR Parks, all deploying dedicated VR platforms; many using locally sourced VR HMD hardware.

Another example of new VR Park franchise emerging is from Super Captain, the company developing their 500m2 MIX [V] venue and smaller 70m2 Mini [V] sites. Facilities based around six zones comprising Dream Walker (VR Arena-scale), Wonder Land (VR motion film), Fantasy (an HTC VR game enclosure), The Place, Time Travelers (standing VR shooter), and AR Space – a chance to experience Microsoft HoloLens. All this supported by a full food and drink offering. We will look into the dedicated VR entertainment platforms developed for sites such as these in a later feature.

The development of dedicated VR Parks is seen as a growing opportunity for the theme park sector, looking at developing regional entertainment hubs (virtual theme parks), such as that being created by Scene57 Entertainment in North America. The cinema industry is also keen to explore this additional draw, adding a VR Park to their existing multi-screen real-estate. Such as seen with the influential Hengdian Cinema chain in China, opening their own VR zones on property running the latest VR platforms. An approach building on the popularity witnessed from previous major blockbuster film promotions using VR enclosures (such as with The Martian, Interstellar and Paranormal Activity).

How the cinema sector is looking at developing a brand new mixed reality entertainment proposition is best illustrated by the far reaching joint venture between IMAX and headset manufacturer Starbreeze. IMAX launching premium location-based virtual reality sites are set to leverage the StarVR widest field-of-view (FOV) head-mounts in specialist locations operated by IMAX who is planning to launch pilot-centers in up to six venues this year. Possible further venue locations are Shanghai, London, and New York, this year. Other major cinema and film studios have been linked to secret development of their own location-based VR facilities, and 2017 is expected to see a deluge of major developments in this field. Starbreeze have revealed the first IMAX VR Pilot Center to open in the Los Angeles area as part of this investment.

For investors who were, rightly or wrongly, fixated on the consumer application of VR in the short-term, the reality of this market has been rationalized by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, stating he felt it will take 10 years for virtual reality to reach mass market. This realization has forced these investors to now look at other sectors to generate revenue as they wait for this adoption.

http://www.supercaptainvr.com/
Super Captain’s Mix [V] on it’s opening day.
Towards the Next Stage of Development

In researching the ‘VR Arcade’ sector, the observation was clear that a large position of the application of VR in DOE is based on its novelty factor, and a compelling interest by the audience to experience “presence” for themselves; a fascination to be immersed. It is a essential consideration for this technology to migrate from a mere novelty stage to embrace new and compelling software, the development of new games that draw the audience as much as the hardware. Emulating the ascendance from Atari’s PONG (1970), to TATIO’s Space Invaders (1978), during the Golden Age of video amusement.

In conclusion there is a cross-over that is quite evident in compiling this column that a number of these ‘VR Arcade’ sites employ attractions within their zoning that embrace the fast growing technology. ‘VR Arena-Scale’, ranging from pop-up enclosures to full VR Entertainment Centers (VEC), will be discussed in the next column. A sector of the DOE approach to VR that is seeing an incredible interest. Also we will widen the coverage to evaluate the impact of ‘VR Attraction’, with their greater audience pulling abilities beyond the restrictions of consumer adaptation of VR.

The Virtual Arena will return next month to VRFocus with another in-depth look into the VR industry. For further discussions on the topic raised within this article Kevin Williams can be reached at kwp@thestingerreport.com.

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