The Virtual Arena: The Changing VR Out-of-Home Landscape – Part 2

The Virtual Arena

Covering the immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene for VRFocus, in his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams reports – concluding this two-part feature. The impact of the latest trends in free-roaming VR attractions is looked at, as well as the continued success of VR enclosure business. Then the report turns its gaze to the impact of the health crisis, and what life for the VR entertainment scene could be #AfterLockdown.

Amusement Expo International
Amusement Expo International: Image credit KWP

Returning to the surprisingly crowded show floor of the influential B2B Amusement Expo International (AEI) in New Orleans, during early March. Days before the global health crisis would shut down all commerce – this show revealed the key trends and issues that would need to be reevaluated for a market in transition after lockdown.

Moving away from the approach of standalone VR amusement platforms, seen on the show floor that conformed to the more traditional pay-to-play model (covered in the first part). The amusement and entertainment facility sector had been revolutionized by the appearance and deployment of multi-player videogame experiences that offer a compelling attraction.

This approach has seen two unique categories – the first being “VR Enclosure” systems, these using frameworks to cordon off the player space. This has become a distinctive category of its own, and one of the most successful developers of this approach is Hologate. The company based in Germany has sold hundreds of their four-player systems across the market and came to AEI with an updated ‘HOLOGATE Arena’ – offering a compact two-player version of the system, to suit all sizes of location.

Hologate at EAG 2020
VR teamwork in the latest blaster from HOLOGATE. Image credit: KWP

Another developer of this kind of VR enclosure system was from Minority Media, having developed its own small foot-print enclosure, the operation was promoting its latest dedicated game system with ‘Transformers: VR Battle Arena’. Based on the popular Hasbro franchise, four players compete in a player-vs-player blaster, taking part as the famous robots in a fast base and competitive experience.

Looking at a larger enclosure offering, AEI exhibitor Inowize, in partnership with their lead distributor had their six-player enclosure system called the ‘Arkadia VR Arena’. The platform using the HTC Vive Pro headsets, tethered to the ceiling of the enclosure, offering a multiplayer immersive game experience. The flexibility of the system also offering a four-player variant.

The need to offer the latest platform that achieves the best ROI is essential in a fast-moving sector such as VR amusement and entertainment deployment. The latest variants of the VR enclosure category have started to use the new and emerging VR technology. Manufacturer Box Blaster has created a dedicated enclosure to suit the needs of the market, using the latest Valve Index high-end VR headsets for their four-player ‘Box Blaser VR’. And have focused on a family-friendly approach for their content to drive the key demographic interested in trying VR experiences.

Box Blaster VR
Box Blaster VR. Image credit: KWP

Purpose-built enclosures that allow entertainment facilities to run their own VR arcade-style operations, to compete with independent venues, was also on display. The new developer Sektor VR presented at AEI, their enclosure called the ‘Sektor 001’ that used a giant LED spectator screen to allow the audience to see the virtual environment that the players inhabit. The enclosure allowing two players at a time, both using wireless HTC Vive Pro headsets. As with all in this category, the operation is from a touch-screen kiosk, offering a selection of games provided through the popular Springboard VR content distribution platform.

One of the largest and most impressive of the enclosure systems is that offering from Virtuix – a completely enclosed environment offered by their ‘Omni Arena’. The attendant attracting players to come inside the system, prepare to enter the VR environment using the innovative omnidirectional treadmill, to physically navigate the virtual world. Virtuix has worked hard to create a competitive game environment and were running cash prize ‘VRZ Tournament’ during the show, illustrating the eSports credentials of their hardware.

As we saw leading up to the Health crisis, interest in “Arena Scale VR – Standalone” (the second leading category) has grown exponentially. These represented the deployment of the next innovation in tech, with the Standalone VR headsets such as Oculus Quest, Pico Neo2, HTC Focus Plus, and other systems offering a VR multi-player platform. That could be a cheap alternative to the more expensive and complicated backpack PC VR platforms, for area-scale (free-roaming) deployment. As covered in VRFocus recently this sector still garners much interest with developers like VirtuaActions and their ‘Cyberaction Arena’.

VEX Arena
VEX Arena. Image credit: KWP

The March AEI show reflected the growth of popularity in this trend across the trade floor.  Those companies exhibiting with their entry into this category included VEX Solutions with its ‘VEX Arena’ representing a six-player free-roaming turn-key system. The platform building on the operations’ experience with backpack VR systems. The new ‘VEX Arena’ uses specially customised Pico Neo2 headsets. A flexible arena platform that can accommodate four, six, eight and even 10-player configurations.

Another exhibitor with this category of experience was Arenaverse – showing its ‘Arenaverse’ platform, offering a free-roaming system requiring a minimum footprint of 20ft x 30ft – a totally scalable platform ranging from two players all the way up to twelve. An operation comprising accomplished VR executives in this field, many of the lessons from previous endeavours have been applied. Recently coming out of secret development, the platform comprises a unique operator kiosk that charges the headsets and launches the experiences.

The AEI exhibitor, Scale-1 Portal, is an official Oculus IVS Partner, and presented using the Oculus Quest headset, their new ‘Voxel Arena’ – one of the first official standalone free-roaming four-player spaces, crafted to offer unique multi-player specialist experiences. One of these unique titles is the energetic rhythm music game (‘RYTM’), played as a group in a highly frenetic immersive music experience.

Voxel Arena
Voxel Arena. Image credit: KWP

This is a snapshot of the considerable impact that VR had on the last major amusement and entertainment trade event of the post-pandemic market. The March Amusement Expo was driven by the innovation that VR was having on the industry, seeing 10% of the exhibitors on the show floor offering a VR solution of some kind.

VR Entertainment’s Future

From all the developments that were presented at the beginning of March, the then Out-of-Home entertainment sector looked to be continuing its rapid growth in market dominance. But this advance would be placed on hold as global commerce was impacted by the ravages of the COVID-19 epidemic. With all Western VR arcades and location-based entertainment centres shuttered, the industry has been placed in hibernation, eager to re-emerge.

VR Arcade
One of the many shuttered location-based entertainment facilities. Image credit: KWP

Going into these latest weeks of lockdown for the entertainment, hospitality and non-essential businesses, across the West; there is a mood towards attempting to understand what the #AfterLockdown future business for location-based entertainment (LBE) VR will look like. Many operators drawing up plans on how they will welcome their guests to the new landscape of social entertainment in an evolving landscape.

The consumer VR scene while in lockdown has proven that the interest in this technology has not diminished, and with the successful launch of Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx, there has been a desire for more. Not every one of the record number of watchers of the streamed “lets-play” of the videogame has access to the VR hardware or intend to buy it, but this does not mean they would not pay heavily to be able to experience the title. And already plans are in place to support VR arcades to run this title as an option to their clientele.

Hygiene and safe operation of their experiences are a constant for the Out-of-Home entertainment sector long before we entered the grip of the pandemic. Numerous developers have added extensive cleaning and guest operation procedures to ensure that as with the 3D cinema sector (with 3D glasses), bowling sector (with shoes and socks), paintball sector (with goggles and masks) and even the Go-kart sector (with helmets and race suits), the guests experience is a clean and comfortable one. Many operators of VR hardware have deployed “Ninja Masks” (disposable paper liners for VR headsets) to customers using their hardware.

VR Ninja MaskManufacturers are also looking to incorporate dedicated self-disinfection systems to their hardware, similar to that seen with VR LEO USA’s platform (covered in the previous part) – as well as emulating the work that CleanBox Technology has been developing with their UV-C disinfection stations for VR deployment in enterprise. Companies also like VR Cover have supplied specialist versions of their system for use on most VR amusement platforms.

Operators of large numbers of VR headsets ensuring the manufacturers accommodate the needs of resilience and durability regarding deployment in entertainment. The extra development time that has been afforded to the industry during this hiatus will inevitably result in major development work, and increased ingenuity in the deployment of this technology into the market.

Once the restrictions of isolation are eventually lifted and the population is allowed once again to enjoy themselves, there will be no doubt that VR entertainment will continue to play its part in the vast variety of offerings from the Out-of-Home entertainment landscape. But with increased burden on disposable incomes and concerns of venues operating under restrictions from local government, that the “new normal” for the sector will take some time to be defined with undefined new elements added to the mix. We await, with interest, to report on these new developments.