In the first of a two-part feature in his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams marks the six-year anniversary of HTC’s Vive platform in commercial entertainment – initially looking at the lesser reported history of the VR tech in this scene and the influence it has had on shaping the business.
While many are focused on the consumer sales of virtual reality (VR), the commercial (enterprise) aspects of the market seem to be the new recruiting sergeant for innovation and advanced design. Following a major launch of new VR hardware, HTC shines a light on this approach. But it’s the commercial entertainment deployment that also needs some perspective to better understand the thinking going forward for VR adoption.
HTC is a company that has epitomised the eventual separation of the VR community between the “Serious VR” and the “Casual VR” businesses. While many would see consumer videogames as a vital aspect of the industry, it is still a casual pursuit, and with the projection of the standalone VR scene as the focus of considerable investment this can overshadow the rest of the business. But as has been seen VR headset manufacturers now pivot towards a B2B, high-end PC-VR, approach.
– Early Period
HTC entered the VR space in 2016, being the first to field a PC-VR headset. Much of this lead was achieved by the licensing and partnership with Valve. This relationship fostered in the ashes of Valve’s abandoned involvement with Oculus. This after the controversial loaning of the famous Valve ‘VR Room’ proof of concept that defined the fundamentals of tracking, strong immersive display, and comprehensive controllers. Much of the lessons taught by the ‘VR Room’, would lead to the creation of Lighthouse tracking infrastructure, a mainstay of the platform. Allowing the HTC Vive to offer room-scale VR while others initially offered seated only VR.
Selling at first to prosumers and commercial buyers, it was obvious that VR had drawing appeal, and while complicated hardware, the interest to use Vive systems in promotional work, as Pop-Up installations, allowing an audience to experience immersion that would normally be out of their price point. HTC working with many corporations to create deployable pop-up promotional experiences, such as the 2016 ‘Fantasy Forest VR Experience’ in partnership with Walt Disney and a promotional tool for their new Jungle Book properties.
The Asian focus of the Taiwanese corporation has seen HTC partner with many companies in this territory. Regarding LBE development, HTC would sign a partnership with Chinese based LEKE VR. The company had already penetrated the VR amusement scene selling several of their unique VR platforms, and with the partnership with HTC could represent their VR headsets into the market, with LEKE VR getting early access to the new HTC VIVE Pro. This business approach would go on to feed HTC’s aspirations in this sector.
Taking the basic idea of the pop-up installation and placing experiences in a dedicated showroom environment led to HTC devising the creation of their own entertainment facility. Under the VIiveport Arcade brand, the company opened several Taiwanese based VR arcades, acting both as a showroom of HTC hardware, but also offering VR game experiences that the audience could try. The company would continue to invest in a facility style approach to the deployment of their hardware, and would even open HTC VIVELAND, with more attractions created by third-party developers on the hardware.
It was more than obvious the high price of VR technology and the skill set needed to effectively field this hardware that there would be an opportunity for commercial entertainment centres to operate as VR arcades. The hardware of choice would become the HTC Vive in the West, and one of the first to effectively roll out a chain of facilities was CTRL-V in Canada. Their first facility in 2016 would be located near the University of Waterloo campus and would set the model. With 16-stations for players to try out the latest VR experiences on the HTC Vive from a custom library of VR content. From this first facility, the company would go on to roll out a chain of some 10 facilities across the territory and be a popular model of excellence in VR arcades that others emulate. Proving the draw of a pay-to-play model for VR entertainment.
Regarding Western LBE VR applications, one of the first to gain traction in 2016 was from Virtuix, forming a joint venture with Hero Entertainment to create Crisis Action – using the Omni-directional treadmill, players could compete in the hectic shooter, that used HTC Vive headsets. This concept would solidify and be relaunched as the standalone ‘OMNI Arena’ system that has seen a strong penetration into the amusement facility scene and is supported by a thriving eSports championship business.
More unusual applications of VR hardware have been in the deployment for visitor attractions, using the immersive experience to entertain the gathered audience. One of the early examples was the Sky Circus Sunshine, located on the observation deck of the Tokyo landmark, several VR experiences simulated heart-pounding aerial exploits some 700 feet in the air from the towering structure. Including being launched from a cannon, or riding an immense swing. Deployed using the HTC headset, content developed by specialists Hashilus, who would go on to create other innovative pop-up entertainment installations in VR.
The deployment of VR as more of an attraction would not be seen until the launch by Merlin Entertainment of ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Train’ at Thorp Park. A unique attraction married VR experiences interspersed around a ghost train application. Some 14 passengers transported from a tube train through numerous environments including digital and grand scale illusions. The attraction, VR elements developed by Figment Productions, first launched in 2016 would see several revisions to address issues, and would prove a mixed bag with audiences, but paved the way for the deployment of VR, and in particularly HTC Vive headsets in large audience configurations. Opening the door to other VR attractions that would follow.
The landscape to establishing LBE VR has been littered with many failures, and projects such as the IMAX VR arcade and Hub Zero as some of the more notorious false steps, but there has also been an incredibly successful and lucrative business in supporting the LBE VR scene for HTC, an aspect of their business not only involving unit sales of the Vive but also support and maintenance and an extensive software and firmware support infrastructure.
The amusement trade would see arguably some of the greatest penetration of VR hardware in an entertainment format, with key leading developers selling in the hundreds of VR amusement variants, and establishing a new genre of product.
One of the first to investigate the possibilities of VR for amusement would be Bandai Namco, after initial investment, the corporation set up an offshoot of its amusement GM operation, to specialize in VR development called “Project-i-Can”. The group would go on to create several formative VR entertainments that were fusions of popular amusement genres married to VR hardware based on the HTC Vive. The experiences would be placed in their own unique location-based venue named VR ZONE, with several sites, including a flagship location opened. VR ZONE Portals would offer pop-up opportunities for players outside of Japan to experience the delights. And Bandai Namco would even partner with Nintendo to create a VR interpretation of Mario Kart.
Along with more conventional applications of amusement VR hybrids, Bandai Namco would also broach into the realm of free-roaming VR experiences. The company developed several attractions that looked at PC backpack Arena Scale experiences. But one of the most notable being their partnership with Square-ENIX towards creating a four-player free-roaming attraction based on the popular fantasy title with Dragon Quest VR. An innovative multi-player adaptation, with the deployment of advance haptic feedback game interfaces based on the key roles of the players’ characters.
This concludes the first part of this two-part feature on the anniversary of HTC’s investment into location-based entertainment. The second part will look at the continuing legacy and reveal some of the plans for the future of this vital entertainment sector.