The second and final part of his report observing the current immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene for VRFocus. In his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams concludes his overview of the Free-Roaming VR sector in LBE, and looks at the key developments, and the next phase of investment as the market re-emerges.
Continuing the coverage of the impact that free-roaming out-of-home entertainment is having on the re-emerging market, we see that major IP and a continuation of business are driving the sector. While many tried to paint the post-COVID LBE VR market as doomed – the reality is that the market has started to re-emerge from lockdown and are seeing a return of their audience, while the operators that have survived the loss of business now look to the investment towards the next phase of establishing their prospects.
The Re-emergence of the Free-Roam Business
Establishing a full suite of VR entertainment experiences for the various needs of the entertainment venue business has been a constant challenge for many corporations. One of those that has established an important place in the market is VRstudios. Along with the company’s enclosure and free-standing VR platforms (‘ATOM’), they have also defined backpack VR arena experiences with their ‘FLEX’ VR game arena platform. Supporting from four to eight players in either small 25’x25’ to big 40’x40’ arenas, using their Attraction Management Platform (AMP) to integrate the hardware support working with the HTC Vive headset and HP backpacks.
The company before the pandemic had installed the first ‘FLEX Arena’ system in partnership with entertainment chain Dave & Buster’s demonstrating the value of adding a new attraction and revenue source to otherwise underutilized space. This level of flexibility opening the opportunity to venues of all scale to include a free-roaming arena in their offering. As with all their range, ‘FLEX’ is supported by the company’s overarching Attraction Management Platform (AMP) that handles content and operation of their systems – and also supports the VR sports competitive element of their platform, bringing an eSports capability to the ‘ATOM’ and ‘FLEX’, and free-roaming experiences, in general.
Nomadic VR – the company had initially wanted to develop their own videogame content, but after an initial process, reverted to a partnership to license a version of the popular zombie shooter from Vertigo Arcade (‘Arizona Sunshine: Contagion Z’). But soon the reality of what they offered impacted the plans of the operation. Long before the pandemic, Nomadic had closed its Orlando flagship venue (only open some eleven months) and plans for Las Vegas and Los Angeles sites were shelved. But the company has built on the valuable lessons it has learned from operating in the sector and during 2019 partnered on a major installation creating a pay-to-play LBE VR experience, Vader Immortal: Lightsaber Dojo, based on the consumer VR experience (Star Wars Lightsaber Dojo). In September it was announced that following this initial test, Nomadic and ILMxLabs would be partnering to make Lightsaber Dojo more efficient for family entertainment centres and arcades to operate in a tethered upright amusement version.
Backlight – known for their innovative VR escape game and arena-scale attraction has not been dormant during the lockdown period and are part of the new opening news. The Las Vegas-based AREA15 venue labelled as a 200,000-sq.,ft., “experiential art, retail and entertainment complex”, will be the flagship location for a brand new platform from Backlight – a 6,000sq.,ft., space that will have two groups of six play. The ‘OZ Experience’, pop-up LBE VR installation that will utilize backpack PC’s and offer a compelling attraction to support the eclectic mix of partners for this experimental entertainment venue. But Backlight has also been working on other projects launching this year based on their VR escape gaming and new innovative experience platforms. The company looking at rolling out their new innovative platform for wider deployment, most recently for their groundbreaking free-roaming experience Toyland: Crazy Monkey – combining a unique D-BOX motion seat system, married into the free-roaming experience, players take on hordes of toy enemies as they are shrunk into toyland.
While others are re-assessing their LBE VR aspirations, other new incumbents are entering the water and applying much of the lessons learned from theme park style attraction presentation. One of the veteran attraction manufacturers is Mack Ride (part of Mark International) and they have over recent years established a media-based interest. Launched in September YULLBE – Full Body Tracking Free-Roaming VR Experience, developed by new division MackNeXT in cooperation with VR Coaster and Mack Rides. Working in calibration with motion tracking specialists Vicon, the YULLBE attraction offers two unique arena-scale experiences which can accommodate up to 32 users – what could be called an “Attraction-scale Platform.” The first being a fully tracked, backpack PC experience presented through the Pimax 4K VR headsets (customised for the attraction). But this is not a one-off installation, YULLBE is part of a roll-out of a chain of LBE VR centres across Europe.
The European developer DIVR Labs has proven to be a strong developer of free-roaming VR experiences, most notable for their installation at the Hamleys Toy Store in Prague in the Czech Republic. The operation reconfigured the basement of the toy store to turn it into the Golem VR attraction. An arena-scale immersive experience that was based on the 15th Century Prague folk law, where Rabbi Löw created a creature known as a Golem. The attraction employing backpack PC’s, Oculus Rift CV1 headsets and the use of Ultraleap hand tracking – players in groups of four traversing the virtually created cityscape, the environment employing physical as well as virtual effects with great results.
Building on this success and the DIVR team started to roll out several experiences at new locations but were impacted by the lockdown of business with the global situation. Now re-emerging from this lockdown and the company reveals its first new installations at the Premium Outlet Prague Airport called Meet the Dinosaurs. The free-roaming time-travelling dinosaur experience transporting groups of four players back 80 million years, in an area of 150 square meters (players using backpack PC’s and HP Reverb headsets). Quickly following on from this, and the third DIVR location opened in the UAE.
One of the European developers that has grown a strong following in the LBE VR, is Swiss-based TrueVRSystems. Having been one of the first to develop an effective free-roaming platform incorporating multi-player and physical effect immersion – the operation has gone on to license its platform across numerous sites. During last year, the company announced plans to expand the level of capacity of their virtual worlds, accommodating 10-player simulations. This was the fifth VR arena-scale experience created by the company, supporting the OptiTrack system, and running on Oculus Rift CV1 headsets – with the use of the StrikerVR weapon system. At the time leading up to lockdown, the operation had content licensed across some 13 venues, with plans for new US and EU venues.
A crowded landscape of free-roaming developers and one of the early developers is VEX Solutions – with a suite of different VR applications, the company has their VEX Adventure turnkey platform, offering 6m x 6m virtual arena for players for up to four PC backpack wearing players, using HTC Vive headsets, including the use of haptic vests. The VEX platform offers physical effects (heat, olfactory and vibration) within the arena to enhance the virtual experience – offering some six available games, on average offering 40-minutes of play from developers such as ECLIPSE and Backlight Studios.
Another backpack PC VR arena developer and operator is MASSVR – the company had established in Chicago their unique interpretation of the multiple player experience. Long before Fortnite was a thing, the company had installed an 8,000 square feet VR arena in a converted department store floor plan. This Westfield, Skokie location would be joined by a dedicated facility in Bloomington, IL – offering one of the largest mass playing experiences with some 16-players simultaneously. The game experiences are PvP style with teams battling through environments to capture the flag – but in a unique immersive element, the games incorporate virtual jetpacks and zip-lines, as well as an assortment of weaponry. The company with its emergence from lockdown announced the addition of its VR Champions high-action active game experience with a group of eight players in a “head-to-head” competition.
One of the start-ups that gained some coverage was BiggerInside – the company showed a free-roaming concept back in 2019 at the IAAPA Europe event and went on to roll out their concept called Protocol 223. It uses the Microsoft MR tracking system, with HP Reverb headset and HP-Z-VR backpack PC – the system had the additional element of full body and hand tracking through extensive “eXosuit” fully body tracking, favouring a softer style of play away from players brandishing weapons. The four-player game arena also included physical maze wall elements to marry the physical and virtual worlds together and created a unique PvP style of experience.
The VR arcade scene has striven to broaden its appeal, looking for the latest innovation to keep relevant. The ability to offer a turn-key arena-scale offering to the widest audience has seen the free-roaming genre added to the libraries of content providers. One of the established facility management and content providers to hundreds of VR arcades is Synthesis VR, and in August the company partnered with Secret Location, to launch a free-roaming, multiplayer version of their previous popular content, releasing Blasters of the Universe: Infinity Forever. This attraction takes the original wave-based shooter and brings it to the world of arena-scale.
As previously reported other developers have started to offer free-roaming plug and play solutions for operators wanting to add this level of entertainment to their facility. As we covered in the first of our venue visits after lockdown, the escape room scene has embraced VR – and we had seen that Vertigo Arcades, along with an arena-scale version of their popular Arizona Sunshine, had released the brand new title Ghost Patrol VR, also for four players and also as a simple turn-key VR arcade addition. Vertigo Arcades had worked closely with Nomadic on a unique version of their popular title, creating Arizona Sunshine: Contagion Z as an exclusive version only for their LBE venues. Charting the major movements in the LBE sector of late, and just as we went to the wire news came from the Dutch game’s parent. It was announced that Vertigo Games Holding had had 100-per-cent of their shares acquired by Koch Media GmbH Austria – a wholly-owned subsidiary of Embracer Group AB, (more commonly known as THQ Nordic), for $59.3m.
Other major developments continue to underpin the more positive nature of this sphere of immersive tech following the upheaval. SPREE Interactive – despite COVID-19, major venue openings have been taking place. In August SPREE Interactive in partnership with Pixomondo (Hollywood FX house) and broadcaster giant ProSieben launched Mission to Mars attraction at Forum Schwanthalerhöhe, Germany. An example of a pop-up retail unit installation for an immersive 10-player free-roaming VR experience. ProSieben’s popular Galileo television program is recreated immersively with a 15-minute VR experience, having guests take on an adventure to investigate humanity’s possible survival on the red planet. The attraction employing Pico standalone VR headsets and SPREE’s unique architecture that alleviated the need for backpack PC’s. Opened in August as the European LBE VR scene re-emerged from lockdown, an extremely popular attraction with audiences seeing over 60-per-cent capacity which has led the mall owner HBB to expend the attraction until the end of November.
Hyperverse – had heavily promoted their interpretation of what was needed, with their “full-immersion free-roam VR park” concept. The company had achieved initial success with installations as part of existing entertainment venues in Moscow, Chelyabinsk, New York, and Samara, the operation had initially raised some $1.5m in investment. Their hopes of being a turn-key solution was difficult as the water became crowded with more start-ups entering the free-roaming arena. Offering three free-roaming experience for between two and six players over 25-minutes, at venues such as Moscow’s ArenaScape.
While most arena-scale investment has been for LBE VR as seen in these reports, there are new applications for free-roaming experiences being developed for the arts. It was revealed recently that in London, The Royal Opera House (ROH) has been developing the first “hyper-reality opera” in partnership with Figment Productions (known for their work in theme parks and attractions). The free-roaming VR experience will place the user in the heart of an original operatic, artistic creation (inspired by the freeing of Ariel from The Tempest). The arena-scale application incorporating 4D effects married to the immersive experience, is called Current, Rising. It is scheduled to open later this year in the Linbury Theatre, part of the Opera House in Covent Garden, London. In what has been described as “historic stagecraft and cutting-edge technology”.
The Road Ahead
One of the key aspects of the latest phase of development in LBE VR has been the adoption of free-roaming applications. What industry specialist KWP has dubbed “Phase Five” of the latest adoption of VR into the commercial entertainment landscape, where vast cumbersome and technologically complicated free-roam arenas were deployed. In many cases employing camera-based mapping and tracking of objects in a complicated ballet usually referred to as SLAM (Simultaneous Localization Mapping). With advancements in technology and the simplification of the process the ability to track multiple users within an arena has been achieved, and the cost reductions are being applied towards creating cost-effective solutions.
The new generation of FAM (Flexible Arena Mapping) platforms will drive the investment in more free-roaming installations. No matter the consumer VR scene hopes to encroach on the experiences achievable with free-roaming, such as with “Co-Location” – the unique entertainment offering from this installation in a commercial setting, is still highly compelling, and unbeatable.