The Virtual Arena: The New Drive for Out-of-Home VR (Part 1)

After a flurry of announcements, Kevin Williams takes stock of all the location-based VR news of the past month or so.

What a difference a month makes! We enter June to a cacophony of announcements regarding major LB-VR projects and new hardware using powerful Intellectual Properties (IP), deployment aimed squarely at virtual reality (VR) and the digital out-of-home entertianment (DOE) scene. Industry specialist, Kevin Williams continues his retrospective of developments in this emerging market.

Anyone that tried to ignore or label the Out-of-Home application of VR as an unimportant niche, has had to concede their folly. Following an avalanche of news stories, and investment, regarding brand-new Location-Based VR development. We have followed many of these projects from their inception some years ago and seeing them reach fruition is a vindication of the investment that big IP are willing to bet on DOE VR implementation; all this, while the consumer VR scene seems to be at a major crossroad.

Dave & Buster's VR SimulatorOne of the largest social entertainment brands, caused a rash of mainstream media headlines with the announcement that they would be installing, what has been called the “World’s largest commercial multiplayer VR attraction, at over 110 Dave & Busters (D&B) locations. The attraction called Jurassic World: VR Expedition – has been developed in partnership with pioneering developer of turn-key large-scale, multiplayer, free-roaming commercial VR attraction systems, VRstudios. The four-player VR attraction incorporates a motion platform and uses HTC Vive headsets and controllers, to immerse players in the Jurassic World environment in a fast-paced virtual experience.

D&B had previously carried out several experiments with early VR technology, considering the best deployment that meets their exacting needs and audience demographics. The company having a history in incorporating VR into their mix, being one of the major supporters of the technology back in the last heyday of VR amusement in the 1990’s. This new VR attraction builds on lessons learned and incorporates what VRstudios has named their VRcade Attraction Management Platform (AMP) to operate and manage the new attraction across the D&B sites.

It was revealed that HTC is taking the new D&B project so seriously that they signed an agreement with the social entertainment venue that will see over 500 HTC Vive headsets deployed to D&B locations across the USA and Canada. This is one of the largest mass deployments of this VR headset into the Out-of-Home entertainment scene in the West; while HTC has already signed other large deployment partnerships – as we reported in our AAA’18 coverage, in affiliation with developer VR LEKE.

Beyond the motion platform approach to VR entertainment – we have seen an explosion of investment in VR free-roaming (Arena-Scale) experiences, also driven by major IP that have garnered many of the big headlines in recent weeks. One of the biggest was the announcement of Terminator Genisys – Time Machine – again based on a major cinematic universe. This Arena-Scale VR experience has been conceived by SPACES, a Californian based immersive entertainment developer, in partnership with IP holder Skydance Media.

Terminator Genisys

It is important to understand that SPACES, a relatively new operation, comprises a strong talent pool of skilled specialist in the creating of immersive attractions – the company including ex-DreamWorks executives with film and attraction experience and is supported by a major investment chain that includes the likes of Songcheng Performance Development Co., Ltd, (one of the world’s biggest theme-park and performing arts companies), Comcast Ventures and GREE, to name a few.

The first of the corporation’s immersive VR attractions sees groups take part in elements taken from the cinematic universe of Terminator – but along with more familiar game elements, there is a team interaction and puzzle solving, as well the overall experience incorporating the personalization of the experience with scanning of the players, and a repeat visitation element. The company partnering their attraction with established location-based destinations (theme parks, tourist destinations, theaters and malls).  All aspects driving the innovation of LB-VR into the mainstream.

Not all the major IP being deployed into the commercial entertainment scene comes from Hollywood – recently opened in Japan, we saw the first VR deployment of the popular consumer game brand Dragon Quest. The latest installation within BANDAI NAMCO’s VR ZONE at their Shinjuku facility, the specially developed Dragon Quest VR – that sees four players taking on the unique roles within a virtual representation of the Square Enix RPG.

This Arena-Scale experience supporting up to four players, utilizing unique interfaces such as swords, shields, and staffs, but also the ability for certain characters to cast spells with their wands. The game, concluding with a boss fight, where the party must learn to work as a team to succeed. BANDAI NAMCO have stated that they look towards leveraging more IP into their VR experiences, seeing this as a strong platform to create compelling experiences building on their amusement experience. We have already seen a previous free-roaming VR experience launched by the company based on the Ghost in The Shell anima series.

Free-roaming VR technology is not just driven from Asian and American developments – great strides in innovation have been seen in Europe, such as with Swiss based trueVRsystems announcing a few weeks ago their sixth arcade installation in Stockholm, Sweden. Installing a modular 2 x 150m² system that offers groups of players with VR backpacks the chance to explore virtual experiences. The system one of only a few that can support up to 10-players, using full bodying tracking and deploying interfaces such as the StriverVR weapon system.

Another company building on their cinematic universe, to create compelling VR attractions, recently opened the doors to their first test location. 20th Century Fox (FoxNext Destination group) partnering with iP2 and Pure Imagination Studios to develop and launched their ALIEN: DESCENT experience; opening for the first time at The Outlets, at Orange in Orange County, South California. A shopping mall retail unit converted into become a dedicated VR entertainment venue.

Alien Descent

This themed VR experience, incorporates a 2,000-sq ft. free-roam space with groups of players navigating virtually rendered darkened corridors, and blasting Xenomorphs, in a full virtual experience. The platform has been in secret test for several months as the company’s perfected their vision of the best VR experience. Using the Samsung Gear VR as their immersive platform, married to a force feedback weapon – again using the StrikerVR gun.

It is great to see StrikerVR, one of the early developers in this latest phase of the VR landscape, making headway, though aspirations in the consumer sector have pivoted to a wholly commercial entertainment business model. Some of the new projects launching in recent months deploy the StrikerVR system – which has completed an arduous evaluation and testing phase to become a dominant brand in this sector.

One of the leading lights in the deployment of Arena-Scale virtual attractions, The VOID announced nine additional locations, bringing the company’s total footprint to 18 venues. This growth marks the progression of The VOID to establish their unique “Hyper Reality” experience that launched back in 2016 with their first location at Madame Tussauds in New York (partnered with Sony Pictures and Merlin Entertainment). The process of doubling its locations comes as the company closed a very successful Series A round of investment.

THE VOID - Star Wars
“Move along…”

Las Vegas recently saw the opening of the latest VOID location (now partnered with Walt Disney), placed within the Venetian Casino Resort – the latest installation of their VR backpack experience based around the cinematic universe of Star Wars. The VOID started with another of their games based around the Ghostbusters IP – and is looking to continue this path of innovation while emerging the guest in an interactive film like narrative.

This opening in Las Vegas last month coincided with several VR openings in this entertainment capital. Several major LV casino resorts incorporating a VR offering to appeal to the “Millennial audience”, looking for a new draw beyond the gaming floors of the casinos. One such example was seen at New York-New York casino resort, who have augmented their popular rollercoaster by added VR Coaster technology. Riders wearing Samsung Gear VR headsets that supply a sweeping VR ride experience to the twists and turns of the coaster.

New York-New York Casino VR Coaster

Watch this space for the next and final part of this latest coverage into DOE, coming soon to The Virtual Arena and VRFocus.

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