The Virtual Arena: The Standalone LBE VR Experience! – Part 2

Continuing the overview of the immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene for VRFocus, the second part of his Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams reports on the new phase of investment in “Arena-Scale VR – Standalone” – concluding with a look of the content platforms and developers and the appearance of some amazing new VR headsets looking to muscle their way into contention, as the sector migrates towards an XR future.

A Profusion of new Developers

One of those who presented one of the first crop of Oculus Quest-based arena-scale systems during the September IAAPA in Paris was Belgium-based Pixnami (and their new division Hero Zone). The company showed the prototype platform, using Oculus Quest in an LBE configuration for a four-player VR experience. The system comprises a 13 sq.,m. foot-space enclosure (with touchscreen operation). The company has developed two videogames for the platform, including ‘Cyber Shock’ and a new title ‘Dead Ahead’ – offering a zombie blasting wave shooter. Hero Zone ran Oculus Quest headsets modified for deployment by a third party, using headphones and Power Pack. Recently Hero Zone sold its first production units, which will be installed by the end of February (as covered in a previous EAG convention feature).

Hero Zone at EAG 2020
Team of players try out the new Hero Zone game and modified Oculus Quests’. Image credit: KWP

One of the largest showings of this kind of approach was from VEX Solutions. The company has already established a large stake in the backpack PC VR room-scale business (with its VEX Adventure’ system) but has also developed a new ‘VEX Arena’ – making use initially of the Oculus Quest headset. Focused on offering a flexible game space of between 16-up-to-100 square meters – with between two or 12-players, which claims operational through-put of some 120 players-per-hour. VEX revealed its latest iteration with ‘VEX Arena V2‘, with available titles including Battle Royal, Archery, Team Deathmatch and Deathmatch, and offering more functionality from the original development.

VEX Arena
Out on test the ‘VEX Arena’, proving its flexible scope. Image credit: VEX Solutions

Another developer entering a new sector for them is MANUVR Entertainment, with its new game LAVR Tag – offering from two (up-to-100) players the chance to take part in an arena-scale laser tag experience, initially developed to support the Oculus Quest. The company proposes to allow inter-location communication with player competition based around the company’s ‘SnapMap’ infrastructure – the first installations signing on to license this experience to be announced. While ANVIO, the developer of backpack PC free-roaming experiences, has been demonstrating a standalone VR system running on the Oculus Quest, building on its experience in creating team-based co-op VR titles.

Other companies throwing their hats into the ring include TheDeep – a team with a long pedigree in facility operation of their content under a chain of sites. The company announced its new ‘Infinite’ platform as a cost-effective alternative to their already-launched PC backpack arena-scale VR experience. The system offers the ability to accommodate four, six, eight and 10-players simultaneously, using Oculus Quest. The company has been evaluating the prospects of the Oculus for Business entry into LBE and has created a cost-effective platform to accommodate those interested operators.

One of the other entrants into this sphere was Phenomena VR, the company known for its location-based entertainment centre haptic wearable, plus unique VR experiences such as ‘Horos’, and its innovative edutainment-based ‘Enter the Duat’. The company launched a brand new multi-player Oculus Quest LBE system, called ‘Phenomena Platform’, at the end of December. Comprising of four-players (available in either 2x2m, 5x5m, 6x6m and 8x8m), it is described as a “new laser tag style game”, offering frantic action between the two teams. The company has also revealed it has gone one step further and launched a large “stadium-sized” version, with six-player vs. six-player competition.

Developers who have looked at using standalone VR systems in multi-player experiences have moved beyond employing the ‘Co-Location’ systems and favoured brewing their own tracking and multi-player systems. Other modifications are also being considered to address issues with the design of the Quest. The front-heavy nature and lack of robust audio design, has seen the creation of what has been dubbed the “Franken-Quest” – obtaining the robust HTC Vive DAS (Deluxe Audio Strap) and combined to offer an aftermarket hybrid which is much more appropriate to the needs of the LBE scene.

As mentioned previously, some operators are using the VRNRGY Power Pack, offering counterbalance and longer operational life through the packs of Samsung batteries. Another modification for LBE applications is from Kabetec, with its modicap sound kit headphones. A company with extensive knowledge of aftermarket modifications for enterprise VR headsets – working previously on the Samsung GearVR used by VR Coaster, DOF Robotics for their Oculus Go, and for SPREE for its Pico headset deployment. Issues of hygiene and robustness are essential considerations for deployment in this sector.

Modicap - Oculus Quest
An example of the modicap modified Quest. Image credit: Kabetec

New Zealand-based Beyond Studio is a developer of VR videogames and software which is on a mission to make content affordable for the LBE scene and players. The company had a soft launch for debut title ‘Oddball’ – described as a hilarious laser-tag 2.0, multi-player free-roaming VR videogame. This is a fun family-friendly player vs player experience, where you can blast sticky balls and powerups such as “fart bombs” at each other. It is currently on test in a popup installation at the company’s headquarters, where they have been charging an introductory price of $10(NZD) per-player for two matches (lasting five-minutes each).

Oddball - Beyond Studio
Players of the VR game Oddball at Beyond Studio. Image credit: Beyond Studio

EscapeVR is a developer of VR content based around their collaboration with Escape Games Canada (a developer of physical rooms). Building on their experience in creating compelling content, EscapeVR has moved to the next level in offering a turnkey free-roaming platform called ‘Arenaverse’. Able to accommodate from four-players to a maximum of 12, the platform has been developed to use the Oculus Quest and has several gameplay modes, including team vs team, and wave-shooter with players vs enemies. The company has been developing the project in secret, and only revealed their intentions off the show floor during the IAAPA event last November.

EscapeVR - Arenaverse
The stripped-down version of ‘Arenaverse’ at an Orlando game center. Image credit: EscapeVR

From the Asian market, Vietnamese developer Holomia Technology started testing its arena-scale VR system, running the game MissionX, facilitating four-to-six players using the Oculus Quest in both 6x6m and 6x12m spaces. The company is developing special gun-style controllers to work with the Quest’s interfaces. The final system to be launched in February with a monthly game license fee. Another new entrant to this sphere is Korean studio Finger Eyes, which has moved towards developing the zombie blaster Helios Battle, converted to the Oculus Quest and available as both a four-player system in a 5x5m enclosure and also working on a larger 15x15m 16-player version. This first title is supported by a new two-player game called ‘Death Cage: The Zombie’.

Holomia - MissionX
Prototype MissionX being put through its paces at the Infinity location. Image credit: Holomia

Well-known developer of VR arcade products, Movie Power, threw its hat into the ring with the launch of ‘VR Infinite Space’. The new release from the Chinese developer sees the deployment of a modified version of the Oculus Quest using the HTC Vive DAS, while the player, along with the headset, wears a haptic vest and battery pack. Due to the difficulty in obtaining Oculus hardware in China, the system uses Quests as a promotion point towards the final release. The arena able to accommodate from two-to-six players, in one of four videogames each offering 15-minutes in duration. The system comes in two versions, with an 8x8m and a 10x10m system, described by Movie Player as “redefining VR backpack”.

VR Infinite Space
The ‘VR Infinite Space’ arena. Image credit: Movie Power

Other Standalone Alternatives

While many may have become overly fixated on the Oculus Quest as a standalone VR headset solution for LBE, several other providers have already started the process of entering this very lucrative sector with their own standalone solutions. These alternative solutions do not come with the burden of the same restrictions, business aversions, or possible unavailability – as has been seen with the Quest in an open commercial entertainment deployment.

An early entry into the low-cost standalone approach for VR, away from cumbersome backpack PCs, came from Modal Systems. The company was initially promoting its own headset system design, but eventually relented and went with a partnership with HTC, to use the then-new Vive Focus Plus standalone, six-DoF, all in one tracking platform. HTC is even investing in Modal to be able to use the system in North America. The company is launching its game ‘PING!’ on this system, with installation at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, back in 2018, as well as at TwoBit Circus in Los Angeles.

Modal - HTC Vive
Promotion for the Modal platform in partnership with the Vive Focus. Image credit: HTC Vive

Another developer who embraced the HTC Vive Focus Plus standalone for deployment in LBE VR was Pillow’s Willows VR Studios. The company launched its four-player experience ‘Exodus Burned’ in 2018. The escape from a doomed spaceship experience lasts 15-minutes. The videogame involves players cooperating to escape using the standalone headsets, while spectators can watch and support the antics on audience screens. The platform is developed for LBE venues and popup social events, supporting in-game advertising.

One of those developers who has promoted the creation of cost-effective standalone arena-scale VR experiences is SPREE Interactive. The company has developed its own patented, unique, special tracing platform, which was first employed in 2018 with the Samsung Gear VR headset. However, the company recently partnered with Pico with their new ‘SPREE Arena’, with the company combining its full motion tracking system with the Pico G2, and so allowing multi-player VR competition. SPREE is offering a 10-player arena (10x10m) and a 20-player version (20x10m), establishing the kiosk recharging station for the headsets, and a special enclosure for the game space. Recently the company also announced a partnership with Pixomondo towards the release of ‘Mission to Mars’, a 20-player edutainment experience.

Spree Arena
The crowded ‘SPREE Arena’ in action. Image credit: SPREE Interactive

Beyond these established standalone headsets, there is a new generation looking to surpass what has already been achieved. Examples of these systems looking to offer an alternative were seen at CES 2020, revealing the latest phase of VR headset manufacturing, towards establishing all-in-one standalone VR.

As was expected, CES’20 revealed some new concepts driving forward the VR arena, and some major opportunities for the Standalone approach. Panasonic revealed its much-anticipated new VR eyeglasses – the reference product shown incorporated micro OLED panel for the world’s first High-Dynamic Range (HDR) capable Ultra-High Definition (UHD) VR system styled as a pair of eyeglasses. Panasonic partnered with veteran component developer Kopin Corp., to create the HDR VR system in an incredibly compact and stylish package – PC tethered wirelessly via 5G. The system is Enterprise facing at this point and offers an incredibly compact and dynamic package for applications like Arena-Scale VR entertainment – a true Next-Gen approach.

Panasonic VR EyeglassesThe appearance of true competition in the Standalone VR scene continued during CES’20 with Pico revealing its new VR models called the Pico Neo 2 and the Pico Neo 2 Eye. These systems have been developed primarily for Enterprise deployment, building on what has previously been achieved (as mentioned above with such partnerships with SPREE Interactive). The Neo 2 series boasting a more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset – a 4K display resolution, but also the support of Wi-Fi 5 connectivity offering wireless PC tethering. A serious competitor to the Quest, and from a company that had already established an LBE VR presence.

We have already covered the work HTC achieved with its Vive Focus Pro in the Enterprise sector, another aspect of HTC’s entry into Standalone is the partnership with Qualcomm and the 5G Wi-Fi initiative leading towards their Beta of Viveport Streaming, (the equivalent of what the physical Link cable for Quest achieves regarding linking a mobile VR headset to play PC VR). Though HTC chose to abandon its previous announcement schedule for new hardware at the CES 2020 – teasing “a new vision for Vive” would now be revealed around Mobile World Congress (MWC) in February. Another major corporation that surprisingly decided not to bring any new Standalone VR to CES’20 was Samsung – much rumoured to be working on a successor to its million-selling VR platform, deciding instead to bide time.

Several haptic enhancements have been rolled into the mix of accessories that could be seeing deployment into the consumer, but also LBE space. bHaptics showcased during CES’20 a full-body-haptic-suit – and in support of this, partnered with both Sairento VR and Thrill of the Fight, running the haptic system on Oculus Quest. A multi-sensory kit to enhance the VR experience, bHaptics is looking at further deployment into the Enterprise entertainment arena.

bhaptics kitAnother example was from BeBop Sensors with its multiple finger actuator ‘Forte Data Glove’. Offering an enterprise-focused interface and able to accommodate multiple-users (with cleanable construction design), the glove is now Oculus Quest compatible. One feature that is going to be central to the deployment of Standalone headsets between multiple users will be hygiene – and while construction can include cleanable elements, fundamentally a dedicated process is needed.

In conclusion

It will now be up to these various manufacturers to present a workable solution to run alongside the changeable efforts of Oculus – addressing the issues of availability (at the right price), ensuring an open and appropriate Enterprise business structure (for developers and operators), and achieve a level of immersion with superior tracking and support that builds rather than hinders this opportunity of LBE VR.

So in conclusion of this recent coverage of the amazing explosion in interest towards “Arena-Scale VR – Standalone”, it is expected to not be the last on reporting this fascinating sector. As we go to the wire there are other corporations readying to throw their hat into the ring (such as news from Sony, and Samsung). Underlining this point, as this feature was being compiled the news broke of the launch of the brand new Lynx-R1. Offering a powerful new Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chipset, the system created wholly for Enterprise deployment. Designed from the start for pass-through MR applications (combining the ability to offer AR and VR performance). The system to be priced at $1,500, available in summer of 2020.

Lynx-R1It is this innovation, and a need to support what has already proven a highly anticipated phase of the Enterprise entertainment landscape, moving from just VR to a full “XR” opportunity. We will now see several other major collaborations from major players, expected to be revealed in the coming months, developers that will champion this latest phase of the new Out-of-Home XR entertainment arena. Watch this space for the latest and most in-depth coverage.