The Virtual Arena: The Changing VR Out-of-Home Landscape – Part 1

Covering the immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene for VRFocus, in his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams reports on the last major amusement trade convention of the pre-pandemic international scene. In this first part, information on the trends that were establishing themselves, and the key developments making this market so important for the technology.

With the global business sector in near lockdown due to the international health crisis, many observers are turning their gaze to how much the business scene will have to change in the post-pandemic landscape. The speculation of the employment of the latest virtual reality (VR) technology to drive a new investment in training and entertainment has been discussed – especially seeing the importance that this technology has had with a populace in self-isolation. The possibilities of what the commercial entertainment sector will look like once the facilities re-open, has also been considered.

Amusement Expo International
Image credit: KWP

Only a matter of weeks before the chaos of the pandemic, and resulting lockdown that has seen all entertainment, cinema and leisure amusement venues temporarily closed; and the American amusement trade held their influential trade convention – Amusement Expo International (AEI) in the heart of New Orleans. On show were pivotal new developments in VR deployment for immersive Out-of-Home Entertainment. This gave a glimpse at the trends being followed, but now reveal what the post-pandemic landscape will be working with when the entertainment scene re-emerges in the West from slumber.

The application of VR tech into the commercial entertainment scene has been split into key categories, and all examples were on show at AEI – offering an excellent opportunity to explore the popularity and audience appeal. First off, we have seen the emergence of the “VR Amusement” category – best described as the adaption of VR technology into the established platform of video amusement hardware, adapting many of the characteristics into a reliable VR platform.

At the show, the amusement distributor and developer UNIS Technology presented its new VR amusement piece ‘Ultra Moto VR’. A two-player “ride-on” motorbike racer on a motion platform, with the unique element of offering conventional play through the games screen, or reverting to immersive play using the VR headsets.

Ultra Moto VR
Image credit: KWP

Ultra Moto VR’ is a Chinese developed title that had been converted for Western deployment and had already seen considerable success, with strong Return-on-Investment (ROI) when tested at several locations. For many operators still evaluating the value of VR platforms in commercial entertainment, the systems unique ability to swap between a full VR or conventional video amusement approach offered a strong incentive. And allowed operators to charge VR prices for a conventional packaged amusement piece.

Another adaptation of an amusement package with a VR element was presented from US-based Barron Games, a well-known name in the foosball and air hockey table market, the company had partnered with Swiss-based Kynoa SA, to represent their innovative ‘Koliseum’; the system, a VR based foosball tabletop platform offering four players the chance to compete in an immersive re-creation of the traditional game (called ‘Koliseum Soccer VR’). The cabinet and controllers invoking the design of a conventional foosball table.

Image credit: KWP

The need to create compelling games that still fit the limitations of the amusement entertainment and family entertainment centres has driven many of the new designs on show. The developer MajorMega had initially launched its vast four-player motion stage experience (called ‘Hyperdeck’) – but the company chose the New Orleans trade show to launch a brand-new concept. Called ‘Hyperdrive’ this two-player cooperative VR experience has one player taking the role as the driver, and another player the gunner, the whole compact experience sitting on a D-BOX motion platform.

The system was a work-in-progress with much of the feedback to this design, being taken away and applied to a final production prototype, scheduled for release (that had originally been) for later in the year. The motion simulation experience linked to a seated ride platform has been another popular element of the investment in commercial entertainment VR. One of the most successful of the initial categories has been the Virtual Ride Simulator – one of the earliest adaptations of offering VR in an amusement suitable package, this approach has gamed much momentum.

One of the first adaptations was that from LAI Games with their hundred-unit-selling ‘Virtual Rabbids: The Big Ride’ – developed in partnership with Ubisoft, creator of the cartoon ride experience based around their zany characters, and using D-BOX motion hardware. The system has found favour with operators offering what the company describes as unattended virtual reality. At the show the company presented their “Big Expansion Pack”, offering six new rides. This included their new interactive experience ‘Space Skirmish’ – a new departure for the platform, from the previous passive style of experience.

Image credit: KWP

The popularity of this category was seen with an explosion of new developments, at the show, from other developers. Canadian based TRIOTECH presented to the amusement trade their production version of STORM. Employing a similar approach, the two-rider experience, however, had started at the first with an interactive element to the ride simulator. The company mounting on their HTC Vive headsets, Ultrahaptic hand trackers so the player could grab items as their traversed the speeding coaster track, scoring points. TRIOTECH also revealed its next ride experiences in development to keep a regular supply of titles, and the company was keen to reveal it had ramped up the production line to deal with a strong initial order book.

Following along this popular category, and formula of approach, amusement powerhouse Raw Thrills, chose the amusement trade show to present their prototype interpretation of the virtual ride simulator. This version called ‘King Kong of Skull Island – placed the two riders on motion seats, and also included in this case Ultrahaptic sensors in the seat restraint to track hand movement – the players dropped into a wild ride through the mythical movie Skull Island, home to giant beasts, dinosaurs and King Kong.

Based on the movie property, the early version of the ride/game experience, placed players in a frantic jeep chase across the island, avoiding the monsters, and interacting with the game in scripted quick-time events – finally placed face to face with the legendary giant ape. Still in an early stage of development, the system followed a proven formula, but also hope to offer a cost-effective solution for operators wanting a VR platform. Raw Thrills had worked with HP to deploy the new Reverb headsets with their 5G performance.  The other example of the VR ride system at the show was a much more compact and basic offering. From Brazilian RILIX; the company presented an updated version of its non-motion pod called the ‘Rilix Coaster’. The original version of this system, first seen back in 2015.

King Kong of Skull Island
Image credit: KWP

This system offered as a low-cost solution for areas with high-foot-traffic that want to offer a VR experience in a unique package. As a low-cost system, comprises only a sub-woofer and wind-effect system, with the simple Oculus Go headset arrangement. The platform offered in three flavours as a standalone arcade piece, a system operated by rental companies, and as a self-service (vending machine style) platform for players to walk up and try. To allow this the system and headsets are ruggedized. It is this category of “Self-service VR Kiosk” approach to VR entertainment systems, which had become a new aspect of the market gaining momentum.

On the show floor were other examples of self-service VR kiosks – the first from VRsenal the company have designed a sleek upright kiosk with a tethered headset. The platform called ‘Beat Saber Arcade’ running the popular and well recognized VR music rhythm game licensed from Beat Games (recently acquired by Facebook). The system has been deployed in several entertainment facilities in the West and made unique use of the HTC Vive headset in a wireless configuration. The systems’ appearance at AEI was also to promote new partnerships with leading amusement distributors to help support sales of the platform to a wider operator-base.

The other self-service VR kiosks on display at the trade event was from VR LEO USA – the company showing their ‘LEO’ platform. Another large screen video kiosk with a tethered VR headset. This system, however, was not a single game solution but offered three VR experiences to select from, developed by the Chinese parent company. A unique element of the ‘LEO’ is its automatic retention system, that pulls the headset free of use after the game; and lowers it for the next player. While pulled into retention, the platform self-disinfects the headset with high power ultraviolet lights.

Image credit: KWP

This hygiene element has started to be seen employed across all aspects of VR entertainment system deployment. Long before the global health crisis, the LBE VR scene has been employing measures to secure the continued health and safety of the users on this medium. Now with the full glare of the Pandemic on our doorsteps, the reality of how VR will be deployed in social entertainment is being re-addressed. The question is if unattended self-service platforms such as above will need to be re-evaluated for deployment in the new market.

This concludes the first part of our report on the developments in the commercial entertainment VR arena, now we move to the second part, and looking at emerging trends and the outlook for the sectors future #AfterLockdown.