The Virtual Arena: HTC Vive’s Influence in Enterprise VR – Part 1

The Virtual Arena

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 Vive - LBE

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.

Valve - VR Room
The famous Valve “VR Room” in operation

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.

Jungle Book

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.

Deep Ocean Adventure from LEKE VR

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.

One of the many experiences at VIVELAND

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. 

Inside one of the first CTRL-V facilities

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.

Crisis Action
The initial design for Crisis Action

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.

Hashilus - Cannon
One of the many unusual VR experiences at the observatory

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.

HTC Vive - scares
First virtual scares for theme park guests

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.

Ski Rodeo - Tokyo VR ZoneRodeo - Tokyo VR Zone
Player on ‘Ski Rodeo’ at a Tokyo VR ZONE

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.

Dragon Quest VR
Players working as a team against the bosses in Dragon Quest VR. Image credit: KWP

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.

IMAX VR’s Death Is An Important Cautionary Tale For The Location-Based Scene

IMAX VR’s Death Is An Important Cautionary Tale For The Location-Based Scene

In August 2016 IMAX Chief B.D. Officer Rob Lister revealed an exciting forecast for the company’s VR plans. He envisioned a world in which the latest blockbusters would be accompanied by VR ‘companion pieces’, which moviegoers could see alongside the film for a slightly higher price. He name-dropped movies like Avatar 2 and directors such as Christopher Nolan, saying they would give creators VR cameras to shoot this content. Like the traditional IMAX experience, the company wanted to create high-end movies that gave you a reason to visit theaters.

Nearly two and a half years on, IMAX VR is dead.

Following a sheepish roll out in 2017, IMAX spent the latter half of 2018 slowly dismantling its handful of global locations. Despite a positive reaction from customers, the company had already expressed disappointment in the numbers of visitors it had managed to attract. By November, it was down to less than half of the centers it had initially opened. The writing had been on the wall for some time.

But how can other location-based VR businesses even hope to succeed if a giant like IMAX can fail?

To me, this is a cautionary tale in the importance of creating a focused vision for location-based VR. IMAX may have had grand plans, but a failure to deliver on them as well as some questionable partnerships, mixed messaging and an underwhelming content selection led to the death of its VR dream.

Of the 17 experiences currently listed on IMAX’s VR webpage, at least 13 can be seen at home. None of them tie into Avatar 2, none of them are directed by Christopher Nolan. The site’s featured image (seen above) teases a multiplayer lightsaber battle akin to Star Wars: The Force Awakens but the corresponding app is really the two-year-old Trials on Tatooine demo, which lasts for 10 minutes and is free to download on Steam. The sole ‘made for IMAX’ experience is a clunky Justice League game that you can also get at home.

IMAX made it clear that these initial centers were experimental launches as part of a pilot program to test the waters, but it never really backed them up with the content to support them. Over the past two years, location-based ‘competitor’ (if there is such a thing at this stage of the market) The Void created buzz with original bleeding-edge Ghostbusters, Wreck-It Ralph and, yes, Star Wars experiences that generated headlines even before they were even launched. Dave and Buster’s $5 Jurassic World experience has been a hugely successful launch for the company while Dreamscape Immersive is now rolling out an adventure-driven location with its own original content. Elsewhere, Spaces lets you paste your own face onto a virtual Terminator. IMAX, meanwhile, did run eSports-style tournaments, but these relied on the same content it was already offering.

Much of these company’s successes and hopes are down to/pinned on originality, exclusivity and IP, but hardware is a factor too. The Void’s tech allows up to four people to enter the same space, wave to each other as Stormtroopers, and then physically walk through a series of rooms. IMAX, meanwhile, never made the ‘experience’ side of its offerings clear. It initially partnered with StarVR, a company that’s run into its own troubles of late, but ended up largely favoring the HTC Vive. It offered you the same experience you can have in your home; there was no exciting glimpse of the future or major IP for fans to rally behind.

Alongside StarVR’s troubles, Google put a nail in the IMAX VR coffin when it canceled plans for a VR camera the two were developing together. That put the breaks on the cinematic VR experiences IMAX had once touted and reportedly started to pour $50 million into. I suspect it may have been a different story if, this Christmas, IMAX VR was showing tie-in experiences for Into The Spider-Verse, Mortal Engines or Creed II, but we’ll never know.

Developments like this paint a picture of a plan that perhaps jumped the gun; suddenly IMAX was left with little more than glorified arcades and none of the support that we’d previously been told would help it revolutionize the cinema experiences. IMAX launched its VR centers before the experiences to draw people in were really there, and that may have been its most fatal mistake.

I can’t help but wonder what would’ve become of IMAX VR had things gone differently. High-profile tie-ins are exciting for sure, but it’s easy to envision hiked ticket prices leading it down the path of 3D cinema. As it is, though, IMAX VR’s short life teaches us the importance of focus in the location-based VR scene. It’s not enough to just offer a HTC Vive running the same games you can play at home, at least at the scale IMAX wanted to achieve. You need to give people an experience they can’t get inside their own headsets. IMAX said it was going to do that. Perhaps if it had been a little more patient, it would have.

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IMAX Officially Closes its Pilot VR Programme

In a blow to digital out-of-home entertainment (DOE) for the virtual reality (VR) industry, it has been revealed that IMAX Entertainment will now be closing its VR programme, and with it the rest of its VR centres.

MAX VR Centre Pod Layout

This isn’t too shocking a surprise as the company has been slowly shuttering several of its centres over the last few months. IMAX began its location-based VR adventure in 2016 with the completion of a $50 million USD VR fund with several others investors, aiming to open several centres around the world featuring the latest immersive technology.

This was just a pilot programme and it first started to show signs of trouble with the closure of one of its New York locations in June, followed by its Shanghai, China facility soon after. Then in October the other New York location closed, and last month saw IMAX VR in Manchester, UK, close its doors.

Spotted by Variety, IMAX filed a report with the SEC noting its intention to end the programme: “In connection with the Company’s previously announced strategic review of its virtual reality pilot initiative, the Company has decided to close its remaining VR locations and write-off certain VR content investments.”

Imax VR

“With the launch of the IMAX VR centre pilot program our intention was to test a variety of different concepts and locations to determine which approaches work well. After a trial period with VR centres in multiplexes, we have decided to conclude the IMAX VR centre pilot program and close the remaining three locations in Q1 2019,” an IMAX spokesperson told Variety.

These final locations are in Bangkok, Los Angeles and Toronto. This continues IMAX’s VR woes as the company also halted development of a VR camera in conjunction with Google. Should things get better (or worse), VRFocus will bring you the latest announcements and updates.

IMAX to Close Down All Remaining IMAX VR Centres Soon

IMAX shut down a number of its out-of-home VR Experience Centres a few months ago with the proviso that the company wouldn’t be making further investment into VR during 2019. What wasn’t certain at the time was the fate of the rest of its VR Centres. According to a recent Imax report filed with the SEC, the company is officially stepping away from VR with the closure of its three remaining locations.

In the statement, Imax says it “has decided to close its remaining VR locations and write-off certain VR content investments.”

Speaking to an Imax spokesperson, Variety obtained this statement confirming the closures:

“With the launch of the IMAX VR centre pilot program our intention was to test a variety of different concepts and locations to determine which approaches work well. After a trial period with VR centres in multiplexes, we have decided to conclude the IMAX VR centre pilot program and close the remaining three locations in Q1 2019.”

Two short years ago, Imax garnered $50 million in VC funding for its pilot VR program with the intent to not only open VR centres worldwide, but to create “at least 25 new interactive experiences,” something Imax CEO Richard L. Gelfond at the time called “a new level of premium, high-quality content for use throughout the VR ecosystem.”

Image courtesy IMAXimax vr

Starting in early 2017, Imax opened a number of VR Experience Centres in major cities such as New York, L.A., Manchester, Bangkok, Shanghai, and Toronto. The ultimate aim was to bring movie-going crowds high-quality VR games and brand engagement experiences such as ILMxLab’s Star Wars: Trials on Tatoine, and showcase new VR tech such as Acer & Starbreeze’s wide field of view VR headset StarVR.

Facebook & ZeniMax Settle Major Legal Dispute Over VR Intellectual Property

Starting in June 2018, the company closed one of its premier New York locations, which was soon followed by the closure of its only China-based facility in Shanghai. In October, the company announced the closure of its last remaining New York location at AMC Kips Bay.

Only two weeks ago. Imax closed its last remaining European location in Manchester, leaving only three locations carrying the Imax VR name: Toronto, LA, and Bangkok.

All three remaining locations are due to close sometime in the first quarter of 2019.

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IMAX Closes Its Only European VR Center, Less Than Half Remain

IMAX Closes Its Only European VR Center, Less Than Half Remain

Almost a year ago to the day it opened, IMAX is closing down its only European VR center.

The UK-based center in Manchester’s Trafford Odeon cinema has now closed up shop, Variety reports. This is the latest in a long line of closures for the VR initiative, which kicked off in early 2017 with the hopes of becoming one of the definitive location-based VR experiences around the world. Adding in recent closures for centers in New York and elsewhere, IMAX is left with less than half of the locations it opened last year.

Just three centers remain open in Bangkok, Los Angeles and Toronto. IMAX previously confirmed that it has no plans to open up any new locations in 2019.

These centers were billed as ‘pilot runs’ that mainly featured VR experiences you could have at home, like timed demos of Superhot VR and Star Wars: Trials on Tattooine. The company had planned on eventually creating unique experiences that would complement current theatrical releases. Following the closure of New York and Shangai centers in mid-2018 IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said: “The consumer reaction was extremely positive, but the numbers just weren’t there.”

But trouble has been afoot for IMAX and VR for some time. Earlier this year the company also put the breaks on its work on a premium 360-degree camera being developed with Google. It also planned to partner with Acer and Starbreeze’s StarVR to launch its centers, but most of the locations ended up using an HTC Vive and now there are reports that StarVR could be on the way out too.

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IMAX Shutters VR Experience Centre in New York, No New VR Investment in 2019

Last year, IMAX opened a number of VR Experience Centres in major cities across the world with the hopes of bringing movie-going crowds high-quality VR games and brand engagement experiences such as ILMxLab’s Star Wars: Trials on Tatoine. Now, the company has shut down their last remaining New York location, and has said they won’t be investing any more into VR during 2019.

As reported by Variety, IMAX says the closure at AMC Kips Bay in New York comes as the conclusion of a pilot test. An IMAX spokesperson told Variety this:

“With the launch of the IMAX VR pilot program our intention was to test a variety of different concepts and locations to determine which approaches work well. After a trial period with VR centres in multiplexes, we have decided to conclude the AMC Kips Bay 15 IMAX VR pilot run.”

This brings the number of closed IMAX VR Centres to a total of three, two locations in New York and another in Shanghai. Only four centres remain: Toronto, LA, Bangkok and Manchester.

Photo courtesy IMAX

In IMAX’s Q3 earnings call last week, CFO Patrick McClymont said the company is “not looking for new business projects. We’re keenly focused on the core business. And that will be approach for next year as well.”

While the earnings call didn’t reveal specifically how their VR locations have performed over the course of the last two years, its ‘New Business’ sector, which includes its VR investments, posted less than half the sales numbers in 2018 in comparison to 2017. IMAX’s ‘New Business’ sector includes the company’s virtual reality initiatives, content licensing and distribution fees of original content, IMAX Home Entertainment, and other business initiatives that are in the development and/or start-up phase.

The earnings call did however reveal that the company’s cost-savings initiative will result in “continued scale-back” of VR and other ‘New Business’.

IMAX’s heavy-handed pay-to-play strategy may be somewhat to blame here. At between $10 – $12 for only 10 minutes of playtime per game, it’s likely not enticing enough for repeat business, as it’s only short enough for a demo of the content, and much more expensive than an IMAX film. The most extreme example: the centre’s four-player room-scale game Curse of Davy Jones costs a staggering $120 for only 30 minutes of gameplay. A $1.50 online booking fee per experience is only adds insult to injury.

Early this summer, IMAX and Google also put a hold on their joint VR camera project, which came only a few weeks after the company closed its Shanghai and second New York VR location.

Whether the cut-backs mean the remaining four locations are due to close as well, we can’t be sure. As a pilot program, it’s been a relatively small exploration into the location-based VR scene in comparison to its core business, which oversees the operation of more than a thousand IMAX theaters worldwide.

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IMAX Down To Four VR Centers With New York Closure

IMAX’s VR Centers are now down to just four locations following its most recent closure.

Variety last week confirmed that the company’s center at the AMC Kips Bay cinema in New York, which was the first location to launch inside a multiplex theater, had closed down. The location opened in June 2017 and was the second overall center to open in IMAX’s global rollout.

A statement issued to Variety reads: “With the launch of the IMAX VR pilot program our intention was to test a variety of different concepts and locations to determine which approaches work well. After a trial period with VR centers in multiplexes, we have decided to conclude the AMC Kips Bay 15 IMAX VR pilot run.”

IMAX’s VR Centers are essentially VR arcades that let people pay to experience titles like Beat Saber, Raw Data and Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine. The company had once planned to also offer cinematic VR content that would serve as companion pieces to current movie releases, though it also recently transpired that the company’s VR camera project with Google had been canceled too.

But this is far from the first closure for these VR centers. Back in August IMAX also shut down its other New York location as well as one in Shanghai, China. At the time, CEO Richard Gelfond stated that, while reaction to the centers had been positive, the “numbers just weren’t there.”

That leaves locations in Toronto, Los Angeles, Bangkok and Manchester open for now. We’ve reached out to IMAX to confirm if it intends to keep these centers open. That said, the company already shot down the possibility of opening more centers last week’s earnings call. “We’re not looking for new business projects,” said CFO Patrick McClymont. “We’re keenly focused on the core business. And that will be the approach for next year as well.”

Other location-based VR experiences are seeing some success, though. Dave and Busters recently labeled the launch of its Jurassic World VR experience as its biggest ever.

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The Virtual Arena: VR’s Bonanza for Commercial Entertainment (Part 1)

It seems that while consumer virtual reality (VR) sits at a crossroads, the digital out-of-home entertainment (DOE) sector has exploded with new developments – not one day seems to pass without major announcements, partnerships or acquisitions hits the wire. Industry specialist Kevin Williams of KWP, gives his unique perspective on the recent developments and offers some exclusive insights into some recently visited new projects.

Arizona Sunshine LB VR Edition - Live Action StillFollowing on from the developments that we covered at the first Microsoft LBE VR Summit (read part one and two here), and momentum continues to build in the commercial entertainment sector. These investments are being registered across the industry, and some of the once previous advocates for a consumer approach to this latest phase of VR adoption. This was best illustrated by Unity CEO, John Riccitiello, quoted at a recent TechCrunch Disrupt event, feeling that we have yet seen a true consumer launch of a VR or augmented reality (AR) headset; stating “AR and VR is mostly to this day been launched to developers”. But Riccitiello continued that he had been impressed by how fast enterprise had latched on to VR and AR tech, surprised that the commercial applications have preceded the consumer applications.

Though an obvious progression for those of us that work in the DOE sector, this realisation has struck most consumer-facing VR developers, and most recently we saw the pivoting of major VR success stories in the consumer sphere, build a commercial entertainment offering. This was best illustrated by Vertigo Games, developers behind the successful consumer VR title Arizona Sunshine, with an estimated $1.4 million (USD) in generated sales on the PC platform. The company has decided to spin out a unique location-based videogame division called Vertigo Arcades B.V., who has started in supporting the already popular utilisation of the title in the VR arcade scene, accounting for approximately 20% of all VR arcade minutes played in Western venues.

Arizona Sunshine Vegas_SS3

At the same time other successful developers have turned towards a commercial facing opportunity in this market place. Czech-based Beat Games renowned for their phenomenally successful Beat Saber, have invested heavily in defining their game for the commercial entertainment scene – signing an official licensing agreement with key VR arcade providers such as CTRL-V (Canada), Exit Reality, IMAX VR, MK2 (France), PeriscapeVR, SpringboardVR, Private Label and SynthesisVR. Their partnership with SpringboardVR seeing a Beat Saber Global Tournament run across 50 of their supported VR arcades; emphasising an eSports element to commercial entertainment deployment of VR. In an unusual development Beat Games also officially sanctioned an amusement-based VR adaptation of their license. Originally called Beat Saber Arcade, this Korean manufactured cabinet employs the Samsung Odyssey Windows MR headset and controllers; this seen as the first of several amusement-style VR experiences crossing the divide.

Beat Saber Arcade
Line-up of Beat Saber Arcade cabinets, put through their paces at Korean VR Festival

An amusement facing approach to commercial VR entrainment was seen most recently appearing in the heart of London – at the VR ZONE Portal housed inside the Hollywood Bowl at the O2 Arena on the Greenwich Peninsula. The first VR ZONE Portal outside of Japan (we reported at their opening last year), the site is part of a special agreement between the bowling site operator and the UK division of BANDAI NAMCO Amusement. The site becoming the first Western location to install the eagerly awaited Mario Kart Arcade GP VR, based on the popular Nintendo license.

Enter London’s latest VR experience. [via KWP]
BANDAI NAMCO and Hollywood Bowl organised an exclusive media junket to promote the appearance of the game, but before-hand we were lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look at the system in operation. The Japanese “Project I Can” system only seeing translation of its game software, with the remainder of the hardware the same as operated in Japan. Players’ using HTC Vive headsets, as well as hand trackers to allow them to throw items at their opponents, players sitting in their own “Fusion Karts” motion simulator – the game able to accommodate four players in this seven-minute single circuit race.

Kevin Williams Plays Mario Kart VR
Immersed in the action on Mario Kart GP Arcade VR. (Credit: KWP)

Launched in Japan in 2017, the then titled Mario Kart VR proved an enthusiastic VR title, developed by the rebranded BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Lab Inc., as one of a number of IP based VR experiences that combined the initiative behind the “Project I Can” brand and the VR ZONE concept as a whole. Many have mistakenly thought that this game was developed by Nintendo, but in reality, BANDAI NAMCO and Nintendo have established a long reputation of cross-overs and licensed IP – the amusement division in 2005 launching the popular series with Mario Kart Arcade GP, which saw Pac Man also join the Nintendo racers – and with this background it was logical for the VR ZONE to consider developing a VR interpretation of this popular racer.

Mario Kart Arcade GP and Mario Kart Arcade GP VR
Past, Meet Future: Mario Kart Arcade GP cabinetsin the shadow of Mario Kart Arcade GP VR. (Credit: KWP)

Trying the title for myself, it proved a hectic mix of racing and throwing items, and though capturing the spirit of the Mario Kart videogame it did not offer as fulfilling a VR interpretation as one might have wanted. A great taste of what is achievable with a VR environment and a world-class property, but not a real game experience that will achieve any level of repeat visitation. The VR ZONE Portal at the O2 has the VR experiences Hospital Escape Terror and Argyle Shift, each costing £8 (GBP) and £5 respectively on launch, but now the restructured layout sees the replacement of the quirky Argyle Shift for Mario Kart Arcade GP VR and all these two games are now £7.99. Many comments on social media, who made a point of hunting down the launch of this iconic VR game property, balked at this high price.

Another interesting element in the handling of this property different to the Japanese approach was Hollywood Bowl having a 15 years of age restriction in playing Mario Kart VR, while in Japan’s VR ZONE operation, the age cut off is 13, with even the VR ZONE Shinjuku seeing children as young as 7 allowed through the doors. No word was given on why BANDAI NAMCO or Hollywood Bowl had picked this arbitrary cut off to play this VR experience. And as with our last visit to the VR ZONE Portal, the UK adaptation of the brand seems a little stilted compared to that achieved in Japan.

Hollywood Bowl has partnered with the UK BANDAI NAMCO Amusement operation and has seen a second VR ZONE Portal opened in Tunbridge Wells, and a planned Leeds Hollywood Bowl site schedule for a third iteration. Sources at BANDAI NAMCO’s VR Projects team confirmed that these sites would be seeing installations of their own Mario Kart VR units by the end of the year respectively – and the company promised that there would be other European and US deployments of the eagerly awaited VR racer. Speaking to the Evening Standard newspaper, Paul Brown, General Manager for HTC Vive Europe, said: “We are so excited to be working with Bandai Namco and Hollywood Bowl to bring Mario Kart VR to the UK, following its stunning launch in Shinjuku.”

The Mario Kart VR installation
The Mario Kart VR installation. (Credit: KWP)

While completing this feature, news broke that BANDAI NAMCO were about to launch yet another VR experience based on previous amusement success – with a re-creation of 1997 white-water rafting experience VR Rapid River – after extensive testing the Amusement Lab team part of the “Project I Can” VR initiative have created a two-rider motion base with yaw and heave components to offer a thrilling white-water rapids ride, with players using tracked ores to steer their craft through a wild water environment. By the time you read this article the first installations of this VR simulator planned for VR ZONES in Japan will possibly be already in venues.

These games developed by the newly reorganised BANDAI NAMCO Amusement Lab Inc., formed to increase investment in intellectual properties (IP) utilising their XR expertise (XR defined as incorporating VR, AR and MR technology). Most recently a VR experience for the VR ZONE flagship location was based on the legendary movie monster, with GODZILLA VR.

But London was not the only UK location to see a brand-new VR attraction unveiled. A quick journey down to the countries South coast and we arrive in Brighton and make our way to the iconic Brighton Palace Pier – the home of a major seaside amusement operation and the first site to run the ParadropVR attraction. The system represents a partnership between creators FrontGrid and manufacturers Simworx releasing a thrilling simulation of soaring the skies on your very own paraglider.

ParadropVR at Brighton
The ParadropVR attraction takes pride of place on Brighton’s Palace Pier. (Credit: KWP)

The attraction uses an innovative vertical heave motion system to simulate the soaring motion, while the player sits in a specially developed harness system while controlling the direction of flight using two lanyards – while wearing an Oculus Rift CV1 to see the virtual vista. The experience was developed to offer an 8-minute experience, as a separate ticket item on the pier. The machine being operated in partnership with local immersive entertainment operator and representative Immersivity Ltd. The experience was a fun one, though the game experience was slightly limited compared to the conventional VR attraction experience we have come to expect.


Reaching for the skies in ParadropVR
Reaching for the skies in ParadropVR (Credit: KWP)

FrontGrid recently announced the opening of a second installation, with Denmark’s Universe Science Park opening their first system this month. FrontGrid and Immersivity are now working on refining the platform and deploying the attraction with a number of other interested operators. Europe has seen a spate of VR attractions opening their doors – moving from Denmark to Germany and it was announced that Europa Park had partnered with VR Coaster, Mack Media and Holodeck VR to create a unique VR attraction. The system married a free-roaming experience with a ride-on coaster, with a seamless transition from one to the other. In what the operators referred to as their patent pending ‘Roam & Ride’ setup – the new attraction Eurosat Coastiality has guests putting on headsets and then walking round a pre-show area, before boarding the actual VR rollercoaster ride (employing a mobile VR headset arrangement).

Europa-Park – The first Roam & Ride system to be deployed


The UK has seen one of the first floatation’s on the London Stock Exchange, of a company dedicated to location-based VR entertainment deployment – the Immotion Group PLC has already started a dedicated roll out of venues employing their Immotion branded offering – the company signing a important agreement with UK shopping center operator intu. Following the opening of a new Immotion VR center in Cardiff, the agreement sees a further three sites at intu Derby, Newcastle and Uxbridge. Immotion not just focused on opening venues, but also driving development, seeing AAA content creation for their sites as essential, has recently announced the launch of their wholly developed space-themed VR ride experience Delta Zero.

The company has also worked to ensure a lead in the deployment of the latest VR experiences and announced the extension of their exclusive distribution agreement with leading Chinese manufacturer LEKE VR Technology. A company that has established major advancements in the VR arcade hardware scene, and in 2016 formed a strategic partnership with HTC Corporation towards utilising the latest technology married to VR entertainment for commercial application (at that time for the Viveport Arcades support of the LEKE VR’s VRLe platform). Now with a US sales operation Immotion is seen to be one of the fastest developing companies championing this sector.

Leke VR
(Credit: KWP)

The concluding part of this coverage will follow next week.

Nickelodeon Brings Kid-friendly Multiplayer VR Experience ‘SlimeZone’ to IMAX VR Centers Worldwide

Nickelodeon and IMAX Corporation have partnered to bring SlimeZone, a new multiplayer social VR experience, to IMAX VR centers globally. Allowing up to six players to step inside a cartoon-filled virtual world, SlimeZone features games, the ability to ‘slime’ friends, and what else – plenty of recognizable cartoons such as Sponge Bob Squarepants.

SlimeZone lets kids and families interact in a Nickelodeon-designed virtual world; each player selects an avatar, and is then given free rein to blast virtual slime, play simple games such as ping pong and basketball, create Tilt Brush-style works of art using the 3D paintbrush, and watch fan-favorite Nickelodeon cartoons.

SlimeZone is now available at IMAX VR centers in Los Angeles, New York City and Toronto, and is scheduled to launch at centers in Shanghai, Bangkok and Manchester (UK) soon.

Bandai Namco’s VR Zone Arcade Lowers Age Restriction to 7 Years Old

For friends and family looking to join in from outside a VR headset, there’s also a non-VR spectator mode that lets you watch all the action while flying a virtual drone that can slime players too. For children under 18, a parent or guardian needs to sign a waiver (either online or in-person). Children between 7 and 12 years also require a parent or guardian present prior to participating in an IMAX VR Experience. IMAX VR doesn’t admit kids under 7.

SlimeZone was created by the recently launched Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab, the company’s long-range R&D wing that focuses on VR/AR and AI. Nickelodeon also recently announced a financial investment in Dreamscape Immersive, the location-based VR startup known for their recent hit Alien Zooa limited-time pop-up that sold out nearly immediately.

IMAX VR also hosts a number of other VR experiences including Star Wars: Droid Repair, Justice League VR, and Eagle Flight multiplayer. Check out the full listing here.


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IMAX VR’s New York Center Launches With Star Wars Experiences

IMAX VR’s New York Center Launches With Star Wars Experiences

IMAX’s latest VR center just opened in New York, just in time for Star Wars fans to jump into their favorite universe.

The New York center is located at the Regal E-Walk Stadium 13 & RPX in Times Square and features two pods where moviegoers can take part in single and multiplayer experiences. Right now there are just three VR experiences to choose from (other centers have many more). Two of these are Star Wars themed; there’s the lightsaber-wielding Trials on Tatooine and the just-launched Droid Repair Bay. We’re fans of both experiences and they’d be perfect for anyone taking a trip to see The Last Jedi over the next few weeks..

For groups of four friends, there’s also a multiplayer escape room experience called Deadwood Mansion. This sees you cast as a group of special force agents locked in an abandoned mansion and trying to get out. You can reserve tickets for any of these experiences over on an official website.

IMAX also just opened its first location in the UK, which again caters to multiplayer experiences.

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