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The Virtual Arena: The Standalone LBE VR Experience!

This new two-parter looks at the influence of standalone headsets on location-based VR.

Covering the immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene for VRFocus, in his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams reports in two parts on the new phase of investment with the growth in “Arena-Scale VR – Standalone”, This first part looking at the influence the new Oculus Quest has had on the deployment of this latest phase of location-based entertainment (LBE) VR, seeing phenomenal growth in interest.

“Arena-Scale VR” – the ability for groups of players to compete in the same virtual world has proven to be a big trend in the latest phase of commercial VR entertainment. Offering a unique element for this VR application, totally unachievable from a consumer perspective. Currently, the popular trend was for backpack PC’s to be employed to supply the virtual experience – but with the advancements in technology a new category has emerged with “Arena-Scale VR – Standalone”.

Employing standalone headsets with positional tracking, and enough processing power to create compelling content, one benefit is the ability to wirelessly communicate with each other, and in some cases additional peripherals and operator management screens; removing the cost and complexity of the backpack PC solutions.

LBE standalone VR
One of the first examples of a LBE Standalone Arena-Scale experiences. Image credit: KWP

Oculus Attempts to Enter the Arena

The first series of standalone headsets started to make an appearance in 2018, and one of those which received a special amount of attention was the Oculus Quest. However, the interest in using this kind of hardware in location-based entertainment (LBE) has not been a priority for the manufacturer, until recently.

Oculus underlined a new commitment to LBE VR when, at 2018s Oculus Connect 5 (OC5) convention, the company invited the operator and developer, The VOID, to present an example of its “Hyper-reality” VR attraction (operating in some eleven sites). Running ‘Star Wars: Secret of the Empire’, the demonstration took OC5 delegates through a special enclosure that maps real objects with the virtual world, created in partnership with Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB development studio.

The current chain of VOID locations is using a modified version of the, now discontinued, Oculus CV1 headset in its construction – developed under license. This is just one of a handful of such partnerships. However, in comparison to other VR headset developers, Oculus has been less active in establishing enterprise entertainment partnerships – previously seen as standoffish with regards to the explosion of interest in this application of the virtual hardware.

The same OC5 in San Jose revealed the Oculus Quest (evolving from the Santa Cruz prototype), as a new standalone platform. Separate of the PC offering, seeing the CV1 superseded by the Rift-S, the Quest offered a new cost-effective opportunity with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promising it would run “Rift-quality experiences”. But it was the opportunity that it represented outside of the consumer market that interested a new group of developers.

During OC5, Oculus started to reposition its sights on a possible pivot to fully support the LBE VR scene. Running alongside The VOID popup installation at the Oculus event, was a demonstration of their Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD), based on a previous popular CV1 game. ‘Dead and Buried Arena’ was a demonstration created by Oculus with support from the original videogame developers. The demonstration included a 371 square-metre arena, with two teams of three players each, wearing Oculus Quest. The demonstrations illustrated the prototype’s asymmetric “co-location” technology.

At the time of the demonstration, Oculus stated that it expected location-based entertainment (LBE) developers to benefit from the technology developed for the D&BA system. But, after the expenditure of such a complicated demonstration, all news of further investment in this direction ceased, and even the original D&BA team was disbanded internally. On the conference stage, the pivot was on par with the statement from Oculus’ head of experiences, telling the audience that the company now loved the idea of an audience being able to go to a destination and have an experience and to love that experience and continue that adventure at home.

Oculus LBE arena
The 2018 artist’s interpretation of how Oculus envisaged an LBE arena. Image credit: Oculus

Oculus Quest would go on to be launched in May of 2019, and by October of that year it was reported that sales had achieved some 500,000 units, but it soon became a very popular seller up to the Christmas period (deliveries in some areas pushed to late-February). The platform is proving to be one of the most successful for VR sales from the Facebook-owned company, since its partnership with Samsung with the Gear VR. But regarding an LBE initiative, none was forthcoming until the end of 2019.

It would not be until the Facebook Developer’s Conference (F8) 2019 that we would see a reversion in the approach to commercial entertainment, with a pivot in the approach for the ‘Oculus for Business Initiative’. This came with the introduction of a new program for the Oculus headset range, including the Quest – led internally by Facebook directly. Oculus for Business had been created as a division in 2017, focused on enterprise customers rather than entertainment.

Others’ Lead the Charge in Standalone

Though receiving very little coverage, major LBE VR deployment of the Oculus Quest was undertaken in partnership with leading Japanese video game and amusement operation, BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment. This came with the launch of their brand new MAZARIA facility in Sunshine City, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, during July 2019, when the latest investment by the corporation in a hybrid VR-amusement crossover was revealed.

This came in the form of ‘PAC-MAN Challenge VR’, a two-player experience which sees players using the Oculus Quest standalone headset to allow players to race around the iconic PAC-MAN play-space, collecting power pills and avoiding ghosts, all in 256 seconds. The title was started by the BANDAI NAMCO “Project-i-Can” team two-years ago, working in cooperation with Oculus, at that time developing the prototype Santa Cruz version that would evolve into Oculus Quest.

PAC-MAN Challenge VR
Two-players take on the ghosts in PAC-MAN Challenge VR. Image credit: MoguraVR

The second big development surrounding Oculus Quest’s usage in location-based entertainment (LBE), saw ILMxLAB announce a popup training arena based on the ‘Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series’ – in partnership with LBE developer Nomadic. The company announced it was opening at six Cinemark theatres, running ‘Lightsaber Dojo, A Star Wars Experience’ (closing in February). The ILMxLAB videogame is an arcade-style version of the consumer original, using Oculus Quest standalone headsets, players paid some $9.99 for a six-minute experience.

This the first of the main announcements of Oculus supporting the use of their standalone hardware with major IP franchises (ILMxLAB, LucasFilms’ immersive entertainment studio, has connections with the company already, having previously worked together with The VOID projects). Nomadic previously opened its free-roam venue concept under a partnership with Oculus.

Vader ImmortalMuch rumoured, Oculus eventually lifted the veil on its full pivot to support the LBE VR scene. Building on the initial Oculus for Business division’s work, and under the new direction, it was revealed during F8 that new Oculus for Business bundles would be available, supported by the needed Terms of Service (ToS) and warranties for deployment in commercial entertainment and other enterprise applications. This would be supported by a software development kit (SDK) that would allow access to a suite of tools, and most importantly the ‘Co-Location’ platform used for multi-player connectivity – unable to be achieved on the consumer Oculus Quest.

At the beginning of this year, the promise of Oculus support for a standalone VR solution for enterprise was indefinitely put on hold. After the disbanding of the 2018 Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) team, Oculus had been attempting to create a workable ‘co-location’ solution on top of the standard SDK that addressed concerns from legal, over tracking accuracy that could lead to injury. Taking much longer than hoped and leading to still being stated as “Available Soon”, months after being promised.

Attempting to stem the floodgates, Oculus for Business went ahead and released an Enterprise User Agreement addendum for the Quest, permitting “Hospitality Entertainment” deployment. But sadly, much of what the LBE sector was waiting for was still prohibited, the addendum seemed more drafted for single-site VR arcades to use the Enterprise licensed Quest but forbidding use of Oculus co-location functionality.

New stipulations saw enterprise developers forced to create their own co-location firmware, and undertake appropriate liability coverage, all to placate the concern overshadowing corporate thinking. However, this “speedbump” has not deterred the entertainment sector from embracing the opportunity, even if they may be looking at alternative VR platforms to release on.

Independent Devs stake their claim

The corporation had initiated the Oculus ISV (Independent Software Vendors) Program to accelerate customer adoption of VR solutions built for Oculus enterprise products. The first of the developers selected by Oculus to support this program was the French location-based entertainment developer, Scale-1 Portal. Earlier in 2019, the company launched its ‘VOXEL ARENA’ platform, which saw networked Oculus Quest systems for four-player competition employed in the LBE VR market. The new system will be launched in March of 2020, with its first title being ‘PANIK’, offering a fun and challenging teamwork-based virtual experience.

PANIK - Scale-1 Portal
Players competing in ‘PANIK’ at one of the first tests of the platform in September. Image credit: Scale-1 Portal

Another member of the Oculus ISV program is Chicken Waffle, an independent developer with a wide track record in content development and with videogames on many of the leading platforms. The company has also partnered with CenterTec, one of the established leaders of the deployment of the concept of VR arcades, with a successful location business that has also expanded into the educational side of the market, to become a community technology centre.

Working with Chicken Waffle, CenterTec has developed its own Oculus Quest powered mobile multi-user solution and has defined several titles that will offer a cost-effective platform. For operators looking at the investment needed to operate a sensible free-roaming offering, this platform will be backed up with the experience gained from operating educational content and will use many of the unique patents held by the operation. But unlike other developers, this system is cross-platform reliant and was seen supporting several of the standalone VR headsets at CES 2020.

Concerning the availability of a software and hardware solution for the VR arcade operators was one aspect under scrutiny with a question over the Oculus Quest availability for LBE deployment. One of the leading providers of commercially licensed VR game content, and venue management solutions, is Springboard VR – an operation with some 500 companies globally deploying their solution, utilising content from all the major consumer game studios, offering suitable VR content licensing through the platform. Most recently, Beat Games (Beat Saber) and VR Nerds (Tower Tag) added their successfully licensed content to this extensive library.

Springboard VR announced during last July its LBE + Education Solution for the platform, offering a device management kit for the Oculus Quest, allowing access for LBE, training and educational content, and for operators to run the system in location-based entertainment venues. This includes the content that had been appropriately licensed with a subscription model for commercial usage. The company is supplying a beta landing page – which at this point has not been updated. Springboard VR is working to support the Oculus Quest and currently supports VR hardware from Pico, HP, and HTC.

Springboard VR Oculus Quest
The marketing campaign for the beta program for interested supporters. Image credit: Springboard VR

Fennec Labs, an augmented and virtual reality development studio with specialisation in VR arcade content, had a big hand in developing the Springboard VR management platform. The company has been privately working on its own standalone VR platform, having undertaken a detailed evaluation of the current crop of headset options, evaluating Oculus Quest and Pico Neo 2 platforms for their PvP title called ‘RE: COIL’ – offering a new multi-player arena-scale LBE VR experience (the project is not tied to the Oculus API). With the launch in early-2020, the company proposes a basic licensing model for operators to get their hands on this title initially but are intending a complete turnkey model in the future.

SynthesisVR – the developer of one of the most advanced software solutions and management programs for operators of VR arcades and LBE VR venues, has established its own considerable library of the latest commercially licensed VR game content. SynthesisVR revealed its entry into LBE standalone support, having developed a version of its premium platform to support the Oculus Quest, HTC Vive Focus Plus, and Pico, as well as other upcoming Android-based headsets. This agnostic approach will offer VR arcade operators the ability to manage multiple devices, launching content simultaneously across them, and with tools for time management and payment collection (all licensed for commercial deployment).

Studio I-Illusions recently teased us with footage of Space Pirate Arena, in what has been described as a multiplayer “hall-scale” VR game, based on the Oculus Quest, for deployment in commercial locations. It is at an early (beta) stage of development but has seen serious interest from VR arcade operators based on its IP – this is a serious addition to the ranks of content looking at this opportunity.

Space Pirate Arena
Sequence from the teaser video of the beta version of ‘Space Pirate Arena’

UK-based developer Make Real, with a background in immersive networked technology solutions for enterprise and Out-of-Home Entertainment, is another entrant working towards releasing its own Oculus Quest LBE experience. The company is working on a four-player networked VR videogame within a shared “co-location” space, whilst a “theatre-scale” AR audience, powered by 5G, mixes the realities scale. Building on a collaborative puzzle solving narrative, the title has been developed in support of the Oculus for Business LBE initiative and is expected to go live in mid-2020, for operators to franchise.

The concluding part of this feature on the Standalone LBE scene follows shortly.

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