Loveland Living Planet Aquarium to Introduce Live-Action VR in Spring 2022

EECO Plaza night

Virtual reality (VR) has always managed to offer a new way for in-person entertainment locations like theme parks to engage with their guests, whether that’s a brand new experience or reenvisioning a preexisting attraction. This week the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah, has announced that next spring it’ll open a new VR edutainment attraction.

RED RAION-LOVELAND

Being built by Red Raion (Aztec VR and Dystopia VR), a specialist in media-based attractions, the VR experience will be part of the Ecosystem Exploration Craft & Observatory (EECO), a huge 16-stories tall structure it was originally the stage for U2’s 360° tour and now serves as a permanent art installation at the aquarium.

Red Raion’s VR experience will be housed in a 64-seat VR cinema that will rise in the round area underneath EECO. It’ll consist of two movies mixing VR and live-action, taking guests on a journey across different times, places, and dimensions to learn about diverse ecosystems.

“It is an immense honour for us to have been chosen by Loveland Living Planet to produce this amazing VR experience”, declared Valeria Rizzo, Business Development Director at Red Raion in a statement. “It’s a very ambitious project that will put together live-action and VR, an unprecedented combination that is going to make this experience as immersive, fun, and captivating as possible.”

EECO Plaza night

“This will be an exciting way to teach people about our planet and how everything is interconnected. Using this kind of technology is exciting because we’ll never run out of places to explore,” adds Aquarium Founder and CEO Brent Andersen.

Not much more is known about the VR experience other than it’ll be available in Spring 2022. For all the latest on location-based entertainment (LBE) don’t forget to read VRFocus’ The Virtual Arena.

Space Pirate Trainer & Rhythmatic Are Coming to VRsenal’s Next-Gen Arcade Platform

Location-based entertainment (LBE) has really begun to bounce back in 2021, with VRFocus’ regular The Virtual Arena feature highlighting all the work that’s been achieved. One specialist in the space is VRsenal, which makes unmanned virtual reality (VR) arcade units such as Lightsaber Dojo: A Star Wars VR Experience in collaboration with ILMxLAB and Nomadic. With the IAAPA Orlando Expo taking place this week, VRsenal has revealed.

Rhythmatic comes from British VR developer Blackwall Labs, who actually launched the multiplayer rhythm-action title back in 2020, allowing up to 6 players to compete against one another. The collaboration between both companies will see Rhythmatic released as a two-player experience on VRsenal’s new V2 hardware platform. Just like its predecessor, this new setup won’t require an arcade operator to function in a family entertainment centre (FEC).

However, the platform allows up to four cabinets to be linked together for 8 player sessions, really emphasising the competitive, multiplayer gameplay of Rythmatic.

“As a long-time fan of the rhythm game genre, it has been a dream of mine to bring a cutting edge, multiplayer, music-based experience to virtual reality,” said Sam Perrin, director of Blackwall Labs. “That we’ve been able to partner with a market leader like VRsenal to bring Rhythmatic to the FEC space as a fully unattended, multiplayer attraction is the icing on the cake.”

As for Space Pirate Trainer, this single-player shooter will be available in all its drone destroying glory, with two players able to enjoy the wave-based gameplay at the same time.

“Everybody remembers Galaga, but Space Pirate Trainer lets you climb inside a game like that and take personal control of the avatar,” said John Coleman, Vertigo Games’ CFO and Business Development Lead. “With approachable gameplay that also offers veteran players a wide range of options, Space Pirate Trainer is ideally suited for the arcade space.”

VRsenal will be showcasing its new V2 hardware platform during the IAAPA Orlando Expo this week using Rhythmatic – which will also be a launch title for the new hardware.

“Operators now have an option to create a high-throughput, affordable attraction with full-body AAA VR content, and never have to worry about staffing the game,” Ben Davenport, VRsenal CEO adds. “This is a very hard thing to pull off in VR.”

As LBE VR continues to gain ground, VRFocus will keep you updated.

The Virtual Arena: Immersive Theater Breaks New Ground

The Virtual Arena

The application of immersive technology into the attractions and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column – we visit the test project for a new kind of Immersive Theater – employing the latest technology, including Magic Leap AR headsets, making its debut in live performance.

Lost Origin
Image credit: Seamus Ryan

The diversity of location-based experiences is constantly growing, we have already covered in this column some of the related immersive presentations in the arts. And recently the team behind a new project invited the media to be the first to be immersed in a new audience experience. Called Lost Origin Experience – the endeavour has been self-styled as a boundary-breaking piece, combing performance, mixed reality to offer an “Immersive Theatre”. A fusing of technologies, including a partnership with Magic Leap to deploy their headsets as part of the performance. Allowing the audience to interact with both the physical and digital worlds.

The experience was developed by studio Factory 42, presented in partnership with the Almeida Theater and Sky. The work is a UK government-funded research and development project, part of the Innovate UK to push boundaries in immersive experiences (the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s Audience of the Future initiative). Along with the whole unique aspect of this immersive theatre, is the careful attention to detail cemented using the full gambit of mixed reality (MR) applications. This is stated as being the first-ever large-scale visitor experience deployed with Magic Leap headsets. The whole project is a limited-time test run of the concept, being operational only for a one-month window, in London.

Having booked a slot, the theatre experience sees the guest recruited as a member of the organization called “Wing 7”, planning to carry out an investigation, codenamed “Operation Origin” – directed to arrive at the field base at Hoxton Docks, in London. The experience starts before arriving at the secret venue, as guests receive a mysterious video emailed to them before they arrive setting the scene, from the operations director. Upon arrival at the field base, the guest is taken into a briefing and introduced to the team and key players. Actors set the scene of a story of dark-web auctions, and secret activities unfold, and then it’s time to enter the adjoining premises and start the search for clues, and more!

Operation Origin
Image credit: Seamus Ryan

Without going into too much detail and revealing the compelling storyline and experience, we can reveal that the adventure takes the group through several rooms’ settings, though the experience is fundamentally broken into four key acts but is much more nuanced. The first offers an immersive puzzle section, then we move into an area of wonder and mystery, then a chance to wear the Magic Leap AR headsets and interact with the environment. And then finally the denouement, where the group get to decide the outcome.

As stated, Lost Origin Experience has played with all the toys in the toybox of immersive experiences. Essentially, we have at the front the use of LARP’ing. Live-action role-playing (LARP) has grown in popularity since the early murder mystery experiences, and more recently with the Secret Cinema kind of events. As we reported in our coverage of ‘The War of the Worlds’ VR experience, the use of theatrical production to drive the audience immersion and steer them through the narrative has grown in popularity combined with immersive entertainment. The Lost Origin offers a great cast, who worked hard to drive the experience for all the guests.

Lost Origin
Image credit: Seamus Ryan

Regarding the other elements, the surprising use of projection-mapping was cleverly and subtly achieved, with guests solving the puzzles and then being transported into a dream-like state. Alongside the projection mapping, the use of motion tracking allows the small audience to drive the story interacting with the narrative being revealed. The cast was ably supported by the live performances, masterfully steering the guests.

But it was the use of AR in this first of its kind immersive theatre performance that was the main area of interest. The developers had elected to use the Magic Leap One Creator Edition headsets for the performance. The group of guests on the third act of the experience are helped to put on the systems, and then navigate around a unique location, and given glimpses of spirits and even transported back in time. The Magic Leap systems were able to offer a competent AR representation, though they were limited by their performance, and it was not a seamless experience. But the developers of the AR app had managed to squeeze as much as they could out of the hardware, and it did work with the narrative presented.

Magic Leap
Image credit: Seamus Ryan

For Magic Leap, the company has pivoted from consumer-facing towards wholly commercial (enterprise) development. Having even announced their plans for a Magic Leap Two, a new interpretation of their headset, with redesigned elements, for some time in 2022. The company has had their original hardware deployed in other pop-up attractions, most notably the deployment in AT&T flagship stores in America, running an experience based on HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ universe. Following troubling financial conditions for Magic Leap, and the exodus of senior management, a new CEO has repositioned the company, and secured new investment, to hopefully allow them to grow once again. The team behind Lost Origin worked with Magic Leap as far back as 2018, at the time as one of the only systems able to acquire for the research project.

Regarding the use of AR in such “Immersive Theater” and “Artainment” – several developers have attempted to harness this technology to that end. The most ambitious of these and one of the first mainstream applications was in ‘The Unreal Garden’, which launched as part of the ill-fated Onedome facility in 2018. Employing Microsoft HoloLens AR hardware. The experience proved so compelling that it has been re-launched now as a standalone experience. ‘The Unreal Garden 2.0’ has opened in San Francisco, continuing to expand the use of physical elements and digital illusion – with updated hardware (using the HoloLens 2) and new content.

Returning to London, and Lost Origin Experience – in conclusion, this was a great example of the development in immersive performance, and the strength in bringing strangers together to experience a narrative. A mixture of immersive escape room, with mixed reality experience and live-action performance – the whole thing lasted over 60-minutes and did not drag, seamlessly orchestrated. The experience will only be open for a short period, from 21st November till the 4th December, and will cost £30.00 (and £18.00 for 14–16-year-olds) all bookings online.

This latest example of Immersive Theater offered a glimpse of how tech can play its part in the grand illusion, and we look forward to seeing this kind of application evolve and grow.      

The Virtual Arena: Free-Roaming VR Czech’s all the Boxes

The Virtual Arena

Reporting on the attraction and amusement landscape, industry specialist Kevin Williams’ latest Virtual Arena column sees him venture to Prague. There to experience the latest European development of free-roaming VR technology and how it aims to launch onto the wider market.

DIVR Labs

Innovation and diversity in the VR development community have proven a major driving force in the growth of the market. No more has this been seen than in the Czech Republic. The country has thrown up much innovation and business success, from the sophistication of VRgineers’ ‘XTAL’ commercial VR headset to the Beat Games studio, recently acquired by Meta (formally Facebook), the Prague based VR team have arguably created one of the most successful and definitive VR videogames with Beat Saber.

Another company in the Czech capital that is driving innovation in VR is DIVR Labs. The operation is famous for its work in the Out-of-Home entertainment deployment of VR and has started a drive towards wider European penetration. Regular readers of this column will remember our coverage from 2018 of the free-roaming game experience Golem. Based on the famous Jewish legend; the compelling LBE attraction is housed in the city’s Hamleys Prague toy store. Where it still draws strong attendance from groups of players eager to experience VR.

Golem DIVR Labs

DIVR has gathered a team of developers that have built on their formative experience in creating compelling free-roaming content. Recently the company launched another experience for their VR special-effects arena called Arachnoid VR – marrying the element of group-based play and puzzle-solving, with a sci-fi horror element. The company opened another LBE VR venue in Dubai last year, based on their exclusive platform.

Building on this proven track record, the company was commissioned to install one of its most far-reaching projects at the new Dinosauria Museum Prague as a part of the Premium Outlet Prague (POP) Airport venue. An ambitious shopping mall by the international terminal. The venue includes an amazing private collection of dinosaur fossils and ancient minerals, all presented in a new style of museum setting employing projection mapping and an open exhibition layout. The venue decided that to support this, they would incorporate the latest VR experience from DIVR Labs – Meet the Dinosaurs.

DIVR Labs

The 25-minute experience employs all the knowledge that DIVR Labs have amassed in developing and operating Free-Roam, Arena Scale VR experiences. The system employs the HP Reverb G1 Headsets, equipped with UltraLeap hand tracking. At the same time, the systems are connected to high-end HP PC backpacks. The whole operation of Onboarding is supported by Cleanbox equipment sanitization as standard, and a professional loading and unloading process.

Without giving away too many of the secrets, the actual experience proves a masterclass on how to navigate an audience for up to four players through a virtual experience, incorporating impressive visual vista’s and subtle effects (both physical and visual). While also including a new level of engagement through interactivity – the UltraLeap hand-tracking allows guests to pick up objects, and interact with actual creatures within the environment, which hold strong immersive and game narrative elements.

DIVR Labs

One of the most impressive elements of the Meet the Dinosaurs experience is the way that the groups of players are managed through the space, and how the operation has been compartmentalized to accommodate the needs of the facility as well as the needs of the game experience. The use of flying vehicles at the end of the adventure, a nice addition to the walking and hiding elements. Building on what has been achieved with other VR experiences.

The continued success of the DIVR Lab developments in free-roaming experiences has spurred on investment in growing their standalone entertainment offering. The company has plans to start the process of opening their first flagship European venue, which will incorporate a selection of VR experiences based on their foundation work. Interpreting the best elements of how to achieve the best LBE VR experience and generate recurring revenues. We look forward to reporting further developments in the New Year.

The Virtual Arena: VR Ushers in the Next Generation of Laser Tag

The Virtual Arena

The application of virtual reality (VR) into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by leading industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column, he reveals the first deployment of the HTC Focus 3 into the Out-of-Home entertainment sector, part of what will mark a revolutionary new application of VR within the proven Laser Tag scene.

Limitless VR

One of the biggest elements to the success of VR in the location-based entertainment sphere has been its utilisation of physicality. In the first phases, this was achieved with motion platforms, then with the next phase, we saw the use of free-roaming – the ability to move around a space, and in some cases very limited interaction with physical objects. But with the latest developments, we see the highest yet achieved levels of interactivity that looks to launch the medium into the next phase.

The entertainment scene has had a long love affair with what has become ubiquitously called “Laser Tag”. Since 1984, when the first arena-based laser tag facility (Photon) opened, the ability for guests of all ages to run around an arena, using walls to hide behind, while blasting fellow players with laser weapons, registering hits from their own vests through tactile feedback, has been established as a major hit. The amusement industry has seen Laser Tag arenas become a staple attraction across the entertainment venue business landscape. Even after a failed attempt to make a home entertainment alternative.  

Lasertag arena
A conventional Lasertag arena, now able to accommodate VR experiences. Image credit: Creative Works

Having carved out a reliable business in the industry, laser tag looks to be at the centre of the next major development in the phase of VR evolution. Free-roaming, backpack PC based VR has been a major phase of investment; but the need for an approach that looked at utilizing the already established arena business for laser tag was needed. An approach that could offer a package that could safely incorporate the physical obstructions found within the space. This was the opportunity that galvanised Creative Works, one of the leading builders of laser tag arenas, as well as a sales force to the industry of VR hardware from HOLOGATE and Major Mega (‘Hyperdeck’).

The fruits of this effort can now be revealed with what has been dubbed the “Next Generation of Laser Tag”. Launching Limitless VR, Creative Works has envisaged a multi-player VR experience, employing the latest Standalone VR hardware, that can be played within actual laser tag locations, without the need for the modification of the space. Offering a seamless means for VR entertainment to sit alongside the already proven physical laser tag experience.

Limitless VR
The virtual re-creation of the physical playing arena. Image credit: Creative Works

Using the latest laser scanning technology, existing laser tag arenas, including their walls and obstructions are scanned and represented exactly within the game space. The physical items are married to the virtual environment. Creative Works has partnered with a specialist in LiDAR laser imaging to be able to create an exact recreation of the area elements, through 3D laser scanning. This allows players to interact safely with physical barriers within the game space. The majority of other free-roaming virtual arena systems have negated the inclusion of physical props due to the limitations of their VR hardware.

One of the big elements of the Limitless VR experience is the use of the HTC Vive Focus 3 – the first location-based entertainment (LBE) system to field the brand new standalone headset. The Vive Focus 3 offers a powerful platform targeted wholly at the commercial business scene, powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2, which now ventures into commercial entertainment. The platform will offer the ability of up to 16 headsets at launch (with the ability to scale up to 30 in the future), to take part in multi-player experiences, embracing another vital element of laser tag, that of multiple player competition. Creative Works has been in partnership with HTC to be the first to deploy this platform into the entertainment market.

Limitless VR
The HTC Vive Focus 3, and the new StrikerVR weapon system in action. Image credit: Creative Works

In support of the headset, the players will be using the latest game interface. From StrikerVR, the experience uses the new ‘HD Haptics’, compact gun systems, which incorporates the haptic feedback technology from the range. Deployed for the first time on this attraction. So along with the latest weapon systems and VR headset, the Limitless VR platform can negate the need for cumbersome backpack PC’s. The laser tag arena now turned into a virtual game space, populated with virtual elements changed at the click of a mouse.  

Laser tag offers an important element in many entertainment facilities, offering, not only games and competitions but is also central in many of the private hire (birthday party) business that draws revenue. Being able to target these group bookings with a versatile VR platform incorporating many of the familiar elements of highly physical gameplay, now super-charged with an immersive game experience. Experiences that will be constantly changing without the operator having to totally reconstruct their arena.

Limitless VR
The Limitless VR system in action with players of all ages. Image credit: Creative Works

The ‘Limitless VR’ is the first Standalone VR experience to incorporate detailed physical object tracking and can be deployed across the numerous already established laser tag arenas in the market. Previous attempts had been made to use VR within limited physical arenas with objects, as seen with the aborted Oculus, ‘Dead & Buried Arena’ prototype teased at the Oculus Connect 5 event in 2018, (and then subsequently dropped). The need to have exact tracking of physical objects and offer multi-player experiences is essential to achieve the full potential of VR in this space. 

With the new Creative Works release, this will mark the first of a new generation of free-roaming systems that are moving away from the encumbrance of backpack PC’s and employing sophisticated standalone VR systems. We will report on the other entrants into this scene and additional technological advancements that hope to bring the high-end PC VR experience to standalone headsets, unachievable at home.

The Virtual Arena: UK’s Hyper Reality Adventure

The Virtual Arena

Exclusive coverage of all aspects of the Out-of-Home entertainment landscape, industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – reporting from a visit to the launch of a brand new Hyper Reality Adventure in the heart of Birmingham.

Atmos VR - Hyper Reality Adventure
Image credit: Atmos VR

There has been a plethora of new free-roaming LB VR proffered onto the market. The separation from the more common virtual reality (VR) deployments, against the unique VR offerings has been defined under the term “Hyper Reality”. These unique systems employing more advance physical and virtual elements that create a more compelling experience. The UK has seen the deployment of the first of these experiences coming from US and Australian developers – but recently we had the chance to try the first Hyper Reality Adventure developed wholly by a new UK studio.

Located in the popular social entertainment hub of Digbeth in the city of Birmingham is a warehouse that has been converted into the latest VR entertainment venue. Employing the latest thinking and technology towards launching a new offering in this sector. We were invited to visit the ‘In A Box’ location, the flagship site for the Hyper Reality Adventure developed and operated by Atmos VR – and in the final stages of soft-opening before its full launch in October.

Atmos VR - Hyper Reality Adventure
Image credit: KWP

The ‘In A Box’ location has taken a vacant warehouse and themed it inside to represent a techno-punk apocalyptic setting. Along with this, a great bar atmosphere has been created, with a unique cocktail and beverage offering; supported with a partnership with the popular brand Brewdog.

But the main draw to the facility is their Hyper Reality Adventure Chernobyl: Hidden Depths. The first in a series of adventures planned for the platform, the multi-player game experience has been written by a Hollywood screenwriter, offering a dystopian environment set beneath the doomed nuclear reactor. The players take on the role of special operatives on a clandestine mission to retrieve secrets and discover the cause of the calamity. Clearly inspired by the HBO drama based on the disaster, but also offering a unique “Retro-Soviet” styling laden with spies and secrets.  

Players don the latest HP backpack PCs and heavily customised HP Reverb G2 headsets that also combine accessories of UltraLeap hand tracking, and a special Olfactory platform from OVR Technology. These mounted effects systems are supported by a host of wind, heat and vibration effects littering the adventure arena. This being one of the most advanced free-roaming (Arena Scape) environments. Atmos VR has installed two arenas side-by-side mirroring the operation to allow for expansion and additional adventures.

Atmos VR - Hyper Reality Adventure
Image credit: Atmos VR

The operation is in the final stages of completing development on the VR adventure, and we were able to play the current build. The experience combining elements of teamwork, hidden mystery and jump scares. It was impressive to see such attention to detail by the development team – marking the UK’s entry into the Hyper Reality adventure scene. The Digbeth district of Birmingham has become a Mecca for social entertainment with several bowling, mini-golf, and retro amusement bars. ‘In A Box’ is a perfect addition to the mix, and hopes to offer a repeat visitation element, with future iterations of the VR adventure hoping to expand the universe attracting players to upgrade their characters’ skills.

The VR venue will have its official opening on the 6th of October, and attendees will be able to get their chance to virtually survive the hidden depths of Chernobyl for £35-pp with an experience that lasts up to 60-minutes. The developers are looking to develop additional elements to the experience to build a community and drive repeat visitation. The Floodgate location for the facility is next to where Steven Spielberg filmed elements of the Ready Player One movie, and it is hoped that the new Hyper Reality Adventure at ‘In A Box’ will offer an equally compelling entertainment experience.

This is the latest of a number of new Hyper Reality venues scheduled to open or are operational in the UK – as previously covered plans for a new Sandbox VR venue for London have been revealed. Along with news that the original The VOID hyper-reality brand may be returning to the market after its initial collapse. We will be reporting soon on other developments in this growing sector of the LB VR scene.

Sandbox VR is Coming to the UK in 2022, Robotic Bartenders & HoloDecks Included

Sandbox VR

As lockdowns begin to ease, location-based entertainment (LBE) is back on the march as people want to get out of their homes and do something different. There’s been an uptick of virtual reality (VR) focused locations either reopening or launching brand new experiences, allowing players to dive into movie and videogame franchises for the first time. Prior to the pandemic Sandbox VR was one operator that went from doing very well to declaring bankruptcy and then bouncing back by the end of 2020. It’s been expanding ever since and soon it’ll make its way to UK shores thanks to franchisee Andy Scanlon. VRFocus sat down with Andy to find out why he’s so excited about the industry’s future.

Sandbox VR Amber Sky
Amber Sky. Image credit Sandbox VR

Unlike some VR arcades that use generic platform management systems to offer players immersive titles from a range of developers, Sandbox VR is one of the few operators that has its own exclusive titles like Amber Sky and Deadwood Mansion. They’re all designed in-house so visitors are getting a VR experience that’s unique and can’t be found anywhere else, one of the reasons why the company was doing so well pre-Covid.

Even so, starting up a new franchise is no small task, especially when you consider Scanlon plans on opening multiple locations across the UK starting with London. Cities including Birmingham, Manchester and more are all on the cards. Initially, London will see 2-3 sites open during 2021 before moving further afield.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

So how did you get into VR in the first place?

“Working in technology investment which I loved, that brought me to Singapore where I was working with entrepreneurs and investors, really supporting them by finding investment companies that were at the forefront of their particular industries, sorting out business models and their strategic direction.

“And quite serendipitously I found myself in a Sandbox VR venue, the one in Singapore, one of their longest-standing venues. I just remember taking off that headset for the first time after that 35 minute experience and that light bulb just being switched on. It changed the way I saw entertainment, it changed the way I saw social leisure. I’d been looking at VR for some time and to invest in a couple of companies in the UK and Singapore but I hadn’t looked at the location-based VR space at that time.

“That first experience I was with my partner and her three friends for her birthday, and it was just that moment where I saw what entertainment could be. I took that headset off and thought “this is it”, I can just see the industry evolving into something that hasn’t really been considered by 99.9% of people on the planet.

“There are around six LBE VR brands in Singapore so instantly the next day I booked to go see the other ones, went to Zero Latency went back to Sandbox and it was then that I thought “this is what I need to do“.

So how did that lead on to being a Sandbox VR franchisee?

“I reached out to Sandbox and reached out to Steve (Zhao, CEO) in Hong Kong and gave my back story and said have you thought about esports and this and this, it could be bigger than 3D that IMAX always promised, a true innovation step in leisure.

“So I probably spoke at him for 20 minutes before he said ‘have you thought about being a franchise?’ and I said no but the moment he said it I knew I would 100% do it. A couple of weeks later [after looking at the market] I said I think this could be huge in the UK, I’ve lived in London for a few years, I know what it’s like to do corporate events and beers after work with your team. If you look at the UK as a whole in terms of leisure density it’s got the highest [outside of China] leisure density – so that’s the highest number of venues per capita in the world.  

“And so I thought Sandbox is the leading player in the space, it’s been highlighted by the amount of money they’ve been able to raise but also the direction under Steve. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the best experience that I had out of every VR experience I’d played to date.”  

That deal was struck in 2020, mid-pandemic, mid-lockdown, you obviously had a very positive industry outlook for the future.

“To be honest, the way I think about it is that technology as a whole has been great during the pandemic to keep us connected but at the end of the day that’s always been a remote connection. This is why phrases such as ‘zoom fatigue’ have begun cropping up, people are just fed up with doing their weekly team meetings over Zoom. So the way I see it from a sociological perspective is the demand for shared group activities has only increased during the pandemic as we’ve been torn away from each other. I feel, personally – and everyone I speak to – is that when we’re in lockdown all you really want to do is go to the pub with your mates or do something with your mates and colleagues. And so we haven’t been too concerned about the sociological impact from the pandemic, we don’t think it’s going to impact social leisure shared experiences over the long term.

“Obviously we are concerned about future lockdowns, if we can’t be open that’s a concern. I don’t think that Covid will disappear at the end of this year or even next year but I think it’s an easy to overcome hurdle. Firstly due to Sandbox, as it has demonstrated across its network that most of the venues that Sandbox has they’re actually trading above pre-pandemic levels. Secondly, the actual experience or customer journey that Sandbox offers is very geared towards maintaining and adhering to safety standards when it comes to Covid-19.

“The demand for shared experience has only increased during the pandemic and we are looking to provide customers with an experience that they can enjoy with their friends and family. For us a real passion project behind the company, to build a business that can see people remind themselves why they like to go out and organise things with their friends. Because what we’re offering is better than anything on the market at the moment.”

Sandbox VR Deadwood Mansion
Deadwood Mansion. Image credit: Sandbox VR

So how will the UK roll out work and what can customers expect?

“So the VR rooms are called Holodecks like Star Trek and are about a quarter of the size of a Zero Latency room [for reference]. What Sandbox does really well is it uses the gameplay and the map to walk over your [previous] steps so it feels like a different room. So it’s a smaller room but what that allows us to do is really bring this technology to city centres, focusing on where the masses are, whether that’s shopping centres or actual city centres, something most of our competitors can’t do.

“We obtained the UK franchise that gives us exclusive rights to bring Sandbox VR to this market. We’re looking to launch a large number of venues across a pretty short timeframe, across five years, starting with London but we’re looking at the whole country. Following one to two locations in London, we’ll then be looking to go to Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, all kinds of large cities where we think the technology will do well.

“We’re looking at city-centre locations at around 6000 to 10,000 sq ft, we’d like to have around four to five Holodecks in each venue. That allows us to offer multiple start times, we’re not just reliant on one or two Holodecks, people can arrive and leave pretty quickly. What we’re looking for is to build this social environment where people are coming and going, there to enjoy the VR. In addition to the VR, something that’s not being done across any Sandbox venue in the world, none of them currently offer food and beverage. We will be the first Sandbox venue to offer food and beverage, to not offer that I think would be a misstep. So we’re looking to develop a really futuristic venue with a robotic bartender, we want people to feel like they’re entering London 2068, so very cool, very futuristic.”

VR has that futuristic vibe but how do you get around the general public’s uncertainty regarding the tech?

“As long as you’re aware of that you can focus and design your marketing campaigns around that, you have to make sure you spend more time on the education piece rather than the “come to Sandbox VR”, it needs to be “what is location-based VR?” What I really like about it, and I don’t know whether it is because I’m an optimist, is that the lack of awareness of it ensures that the gap between post-experience and pre-experience is greater because people don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.

“You can only do that with a high degree of confidence that the product and the experience are good enough. You don’t need to educate everyone to the nth degree that they know exactly what they’re going into but know that just through word of mouth, that once people do it once they’re going to tell all their friends and post on social media.”

With 14 Sandbox VR locations open worldwide when will the UK venue debut?

“That’s the big question. We’re targeting Q1 2022, likely a soft launch gearing up to a hard launch at the end of Easter. Then site number two during the summer and possibly squeezing in a third by the end of the year.”

Feeling the VR Arcade Fever in Viva Las Vengeance

Viva Las Vengence

Zombies, ugly, snarling corpses of rotting flesh that have managed to ingrain themselves in popular culture over the last few decades to such an extent that we’ve all played a videogame or watched a movie with one in. The most recent was director Zack Snyder’s Netflix collaboration Army of the Dead, dropping folks into a ravaged Las Vegas for some wall-to-wall action. And if you loved the movie then you’ll probably want to check out Viva Las Vengeance, the virtual reality (VR) experience tied to the film.

Army of the Dead - Viva Las Vengeance: A VR Experience
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JULY 28: Grand opening of Army of the Dead – Viva Las Vengeance: A VR Experience at Westfield Century City in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Netflix)

Just like its cinematic cousin Viva Las Vengeance is all about that wild (theme park-style) ride, where explosions and rampaging hordes of the undead fill in those annoying gaps left by a lack of plot. But in a VR experience that lasts around 30 minutes is that necessarily a concern? For the most part not at all, as long as you know what you’re in for.

The location-based entertainment (LBE) industry was hit hard by the pandemic as it was really starting to shine beforehand, attracting VR studios who were looking for alternative revenue streams. With things now settling and getting back to normal, everyone’s interested in getting out again making VR arcades an attractive escape for those after a modern entertainment experience.

And that’s really what you do get with Army of the Dead: Viva Las Vengeance, plenty of tech and an all-encompassing journey that does try to ground you in the whole setup; even if it is somewhat cheesy at points.

Viva Las Vengence

Up to six players can enjoy the VR experience at once, with the core gameplay section held within a modified taco truck with bars on the windows for your protection. In actuality, this is one of those 4D, hyper-reality simulators with wind, heat and rumbling floor effects for that truly immersive setup.

Before you get anywhere near the taco truck you’ve got to jump through a few setup hoops first, some more unusual than others. For instance, it’s not often that these kinds of LBE titles will give you a gun selection, let alone accessories. But in Viva Las Vengeance you get to select between a shotgun for close-range power or an assault rifle that’s great for popping heads at a distance or exploding a few barrels. This is where teamwork already comes into play. For this early test, there was only two of us, one on either side of the truck. Armed with the rifle it didn’t need reloading but there were points where it seemingly overheated and stopped, so a teammate with a shotgun next to me would’ve been really nice.

After the loadout selection comes the cheesy military briefing, telling you why you’re there and what you need to accomplish. It really was just background noise as we attached a couple of OptiTrack sensors to our hands. That was all that was required as there’s no running around a big space. In actuality the taco truck setup meant four were employed at the same time, allowing for an efficient rotation of guests at the Westfield London location.

Army of the Dead - Viva Las Vengeance: A VR Experience

Inside the truck, there were Valve Index headsets and StrikerVR guns to give that nice recoil effect. Alas, the build-up of excitement didn’t quite match the gameplay experience on offer. Because as you might expect from a taco truck driving through a zombie-filled Las Vegas, its point, shoot and repeat for about 10-15 minutes.  

If this were a VR videogame at home you’d play it once, get bored and want a refund. However, this being a VR arcade experience it needs to be viewed as a whole, combining those additional effects, the gun and the physicality of it all. In which case Viva Las Vengeance is a short, sharp dose of exciting VR you can’t get elsewhere.

When there are zombies climbing all over the truck, reaching through the bars which I’m trying to shoot but made all the more difficult because the floor is rumbling away putting my balance off it, quickly becomes very engrossing. And it should for that time duration, intense yet fulfilling enough that everyone leaves with a grin. Plus you can all compare your scores afterwards as well as pose for the obligatory group shot with a superimposed Army of the Dead background for good measure.

I’d class Viva Las Vengeance as an above-average LBE VR experience but certainly not one of the best. It’s ideal for those new to VR as the coordination required is minimal, you stand or sit in one spot shooting zombies out the window with an occasional waft of wind to the face. Those more experienced in VR who’ve tried the free-roaming options available at other locations may find this a little limited in scope. Don’t set your expectations too high and bring some mates to enjoy Army of the Dead in VR.

Zero Latency Sees Ticket Sales Increase 40% Thanks to Far Cry VR

Far Cry VR

After a very tough year, the location-based entertainment (LBE) is starting to bounce back with new venues and attractions opening up including some major videogame IP’s landing. One of which was Far Cry VR: Dive Into Insanity, a collaborative effort between Ubisoft, Zero Latency and nDreams. Today, the LBE company has revealed ticket sales have spiked thanks to the videogame as well as announcing a new investor to aid expansion plans.

Zero Latency
Image credit: KWP

Far Cry VR: Dive Into Insanity arrived at Zero Latency locations in June with the company seeing a 40% rise into new customer ticket sales purely down to the new title. Bringing Ubisoft’s popular Far Cry franchise into virtual reality (VR) for the first time, the multiplayer experience takes up to eight players to the Rook Islands, the setting for Far Cry 3. Battling through henchmen with haptic-enabled guns they’ll eventually confront the main villain himself, Vaas.

As for the investment details, the Australian private equity firm Advent Partners has become a partner and majority shareholder in Zero Latency for an undisclosed sum. The company’s founders will remain key shareholders as it continues to expand in the free-roaming (FRVR) industry. Zero Latency will soon have 55 venues open in 24 countries with more planned for 2022.

“Zero Latency VR will remain the global leader in FRVR. This new funding will accelerate our strategy, allowing us to expand aggressively into new markets and increase our support to existing locations,” explained Tim Ruse, Zero Latency VR CEO in a statement. “We welcome our new strategic partner, Advent, whose professionalism, experience in technology and investment, will help us meet our goals.”

Far Cry VR

“It is the ideal time to get into the location-based VR sector, with consumers increasingly seeking new experiences, creating a large opportunity for Zero Latency VR, which is one of the fastest-growing, and the most disruptive players in this space,” said Symon Vegter from Advent Partners. “We are thrilled to be partnering with the team and to provide them with support as they seek to establish FRVR as the new medium in leisure and entertainment.”   

As mentioned, the LBE VR industry is coming back in full force with plenty of exciting additions available now and in the near future. Apart from Far Cry VR, LBE specialist Hologate is due to launch Hologate World in September in Germany, offering a new hyper-reality experience called Sigvried: Escape from Valhalla. Or if you’re a fan of shooting zombies there’s always Viva Las Vengence: A VR Experience that takes place inside its very own taco truck. Set in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, the multiplayer experience opened in Los Angeles and New York City in July, with the London, UK event starting next month.

For continued updates from Zero Latency, keep reading VRFocus.

Hologate X Next-Gen Free Roam Platform to Debut in September at Hologate World

Hologate - SigVRied

Earlier this year, location-based entertainment (LBE) specialist Hologate announced it would be launching a flagship location in Germany called Hologate World. This week, the company has revealed its next-generation platform Hologate X will make its debut at the facility as well as introducing a new hyper-reality experience, Sigvried: Escape from Valhalla.

Hologate - SigVRied

While Hologate’s product portfolio has mainly focused on providing a scalable, free-roaming platform for entertainment venues, Hologate X aims to completely enhance the VR experience for players. It’ll feature HXR (Hologate Xperience Reality), the company’s proprietary hyper-reality technology which offers full-body tracking and 4D physical effects – like wind or temperature changes. While this has been seen in places like (now-defunct) The VOID, Hologate X does one thing differently, all the content is streamed to the headsets.

Most hyper-reality venues utilise backpack PC’s to provide their free-roaming experiences. These are costly, cumbersome and require a lot more time to set up and maintain. Because Hologate X will steam all of its content, this should reduce the friction when it comes to playing LBE VR, plus guests are no longer weighed down by a whole PC on their backs.

“Our formula of the latest in VR technology with high-fidelity VR streaming, perfectly staged 4D effects such as scents and wind, THX 5.1 surround within the platform and positional inside of the headset audio mix, and fantastical lifelike adventures will catapult players directly into the action,” said Leif Petersen, CEO, and Founder of HOLOGATE in a statement. “All senses are further activated by tactile props and full-body haptics which will further convince the players they have been truly transported into another dimension.”

Hologate - SigVRied

As part of Hologate X’s debut at Hologate World in September, the team has fully developed, in-house, Sigvried: Escape from Valhalla to showcase the new platform. Combining Norse mythology with a sci-fi twist, the narrative is set after Ragnarök has taken place, with players taking on the roles of adventurers who are exploring the destroyed fortress of Valhalla. Wandering through its many halls, corridors, and chambers players need to complete puzzles, avoid traps, and battle monsters and dragons to succeed.

If you want to check Sigvried: Escape from Valhalla out then you’ll want to head to FLAIR Fürth, a big shopping complex that is slated to open on 16th September 2021. Hologate X will be coming to other locations worldwide at a later date, when that happens VRFocus will let you know.