Virtual Arena: Immersive Freestyle


Virtual Arena: Immersive Freestyle

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The Application of XR into the attractions and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – looking at the explosion in VR arena-based entertainment systems for the Out-of-Home landscape, and the future of free-roam VR in this changing scene.

In this latest column for MIXED, we appraise the development of what are called VR Arena platforms – this following on from our previous coverage of the scene, the market has continued to grow, and new applications and technologies hope to profit in this landscape.

As previously covered, the Multiplayer immersive venue business offers an aspect of the VR scene that is unachievable currently at home with consumer VR headsets. While consumer systems can be linked in multiplayer games via network, they are not capable of free-roaming multiplayer experiences off the shelf. An aspect of the LBE (location-based entertainment) is its ability to use the latest technology unachievable for consumer application, but the cost of scale allows this to be deployed into the commercial entertainment environment.

Free-Roam Origins

The speed of technology deployment has been amazing, with the levels of immersion accelerated to new levels. However, this advancement comes with many obstacles, and some operations have fallen by the wayside. One of the most prominent collapses was that of tech poster boy, TheVOID. The company had offered an early interpretation of the best way to present a multiplayer immersive environment experience – and thanks to support from Walt Disney Company and their Industrial Light & Magic VR creation studio (ILMxLAB). Seeing a speculative $20m cash injection in 2019 from supporters.

The high expectations of TheVOID, linked to access to major Intellectual Properties (IP) such as ‘Star Wars: Secret of the Empire’, ‘Wreck it Ralph’, and ‘Ghostbusters Dimensions’, could not negate the hemorrhaging of capital, from operation, management and licensing fees. The need to keep relevant with this ever-evolving technology proved difficult. Plans to create their own VR headset were abandoned for a collaboration with Oculus. And the use of temperamental and expensive PC backpacks and tracking systems limited the operation.

Mounting financial issues, a failed acquisition, and the collapse of revenue, accelerated by the Global Lockdown, would see the operation shuttered and default on loans. Sinking plans for a 30-site monopolistic empire. Though there have been suggestions of a $20m raise to see the company attempt a comeback in some shape or other. But not all LBE VR operations would suffer such fates.

One of the veteran leading lights in multiplayer arena-based entertainment has been Zero Latency. The pioneer of much of the practical applications of this technology in an entertainment space, now with some 70 venues operating their hardware and properties. The company has recently invested in additional technological advancement, seeing the ditching of the backpack PC for a new VR streamed system to their eight player environments. The company licensed their own content, such as the with Ubisoft to create ‘Far Cry VR’, dropping players into the heart of the ‘FarCry 3’ universe, (developed by nDreams). Having also announced plans to launch a licensed ‘Warhammer 4000’ VR experience.

The Land Grab

The Chinese VR scene since its inception has seen a continued investment in VR systems for multiple players, early applications using cumbersome VR headsets from local providers and the equally unwieldy VR backpack PC, all supported by tracking systems. One of the early developers was Hong Kong based Glo, Inc., who, in 2016, started operating early free-roam sites. But it would take major investment support of their brainchild, and rebranding to Sandbox VR, to accelerate their trajectory.

The operation has seen considerable investment towards driving to establish the market – initial investment of some $68m in 2019 also saw support from Alibaba Group Holdings and other prominent investors in the then six facility operation. While in 2021 further investment, including a $37m, from high-profile celebrity investors, adding to a total pot of some $122m received – a move to establish over 30 venues globally of the VR chain, establishing both operated and franchise sites.

Most recently, Sandbox VR has followed other prominent VR arena scale corporations in embracing high-profile properties. Originally seen with their ‘Star Trek: Discovery Away Mission’ content, and more recently in licensing from Netflix their latest property with ‘Squid Games: Virtuals’. The operation is still using at some sites backpack PC’s and physical markers, running on PICO headsets. The company has been gradually updating their technology offering, as their coverage of venues increases, with plans to have a total of some 40 venues in the coming months.

Attempts by other developers of LBE venues have been more modest. Operation Dreamscape Immersive has been much more subdued. The company with venues in Los Angeles, Riyadh, and Geneva have also received considerable investment from high-profile investors and celebrities, achieving a $71m raise. And has allowed them to look at a longer business plan. The corporation has migrated from backpack PCs and has embraced high profile licensed properties. The company is rolling out ‘Men In Black: First Assignment’ and ‘Dreamworks Dragons Flight Academy’.

Dreamscape has also pivoted into other areas of location-based entertainment, education and promotion; with their technology used to create a sophisticated marketing promotion for luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet. As well as creating a pop-up installation for the Harry Potter New York store – placing ‘Harry Potter: Wizards Take Flight’ and ‘Harry Potter: Chaos at Hogwarts’. It is within this climate that technological advancements have allowed other developers to enter the arena with their own  multiplayer free-roam adventures looking to join the fray.

Dedicated Adventures

The latest VR streamed technology building off the advancements of Wi-Fi 6e has seen the retirement of the backpack PC – though many of the new applications use haptic vests along with physical effects to achieve an immersive experience. These new generations of systems are looking to be deployed within existing sites, while still developing standalone locations.

One of those developers is The Park Playground – with several European venues offering VR experience packages including free-roaming adventures, in what some have come to call an IKEA-style VR arcade. The airy venues supporting group hire, and social entertainment, as well as a drop in traffic. The company has been working to franchise their venue offering, but also announced the launch of ‘The Park VR System’, a standalone free-roam turnkey arena that can be dropped into existing entertainment spaces.

Many of the VR arcades running free-roaming arenas depend on licensed content, and the zombie hoard shooter has been a strong genre. Vertigo Games, and their VR arcade content distribution group Springboard VR known for their popular ‘Arizona Sunshine’ VR hoard shooter. The game was licensed and redeveloped by failed free-roaming venue operator Nomadic – who tried to launch their chain of centers running ‘Arizona Sunshine: Rampage’ but failed to gain market traction less than 24-months after opening, following a $6m seed investment.

The development of a LBE VR installation has proven attractive to retail venues and malls as a drop-in entertainment anchor. Developer and operator DIVR Labs has run their own venues, including sites in London and Stockholm within the Westfield shopping center chain. The company has developed their own adventures, including their latest zombie horde shooter ‘Last Stand’. Adventures that see groups of guests navigate a virtual space with physical walls and effects for adventurers to navigate.

Netherlands-based Lightning VR has successfully opened two operated, and other licensed venues based on their free-roaming VR streamed platform. The company has now started to move towards a franchise model for other operators. Having developed their own PVP content for their immersive platform with the new game ‘Close Combat’ employing a unique gaming element for intense combat — staircases.

VEX Solutions is an established name in the free-roaming VR scene, the company fielding their dedicated ‘VEX Adventure’ – comprising special effects within the enclosure, as a turnkey operation. The company has also developed a more cost-effective platform with their ‘VEX Arena’ – offering a flexible VR arena for operators of all sizes, and now supporting kid-friendly content to appeal to all audiences.

Standalone Arenas

The more standalone mid-scale area installation offers a lower-cost installation able to be placed in entertainment venues looking to have a VR element.

Lasertag has proven an incredible attraction for many family entertainment and amusement venues in the States and wider a field, and the ability to offer the appeal and operational simplicity of lasertag in a VR format has seen greater levels of investment. This has also seen the interest in greater numbers of players supported in real time.

Creative Works, specialists in developing lasertag arenas used their experience to create the ‘Limitless VR’ one of the few free-roaming standalone platforms that includes physical obstacles mapped into the virtual world to add to the player engagement. A turnkey operation with HTC Focus 3 headset and weapon charger station and kiosk operation, Creative Works have partnered with StrikerVR to deploy their new ‘Mavrik-Pro’ weapons interface with realistic recoil and haptics.

Developer Cross Reality International, has released their ‘CRES’ Cross Reality Entertainment System, able to accommodate 10-players at a time. Another system that offers flexibility of size to suit different operators. The company has even worked with VR headset manufacturer PICO to develop a version of their hardware to support hot-swapping of batteries, an essential for facilities running these platforms.

Offering a competition-based VR arena experience has been developed by some manufacturers. One of the established providers in this sphere is Phenomena and their ‘VR Esports Arena’ – the latest version of this system promoting the PVP ‘Omega Protocol’. Team based combative action for top scores. Able to support cross facility competition. Other developers include Octopod VR with their ‘Octo:Gone’ modular VR arena platform – supporting up to 8-players and a selection of VR content for all types of audience.

Dedicated enclosures created to be dropped into venues, offering unique immersive experiences, have seen VR free-roam applied liberally. Developer Exploring Digital have released their ‘Megaverse VR’ arena able to accommodate from six up to 12-players, in a flexible footprint to suit all sizes of venues. While developers like Holomia Technologies and their ‘Mission X’ hope to create simple VR turn-key experiences from four to 10-players, turning available space into VR combat arenas.

Company SPREE Entertainment has made a name for itself, selling numerous of their arena aimed at a family-friendly atmosphere (for younger players), the company has also upscaled their game offering with titles like ‘VR CyberRealm’ offering a more intense adventure for older players, offering operators a cost-effective solution. Configurable and attractive VR Arenas are now seeing much investment, companies like Hero Zone VR, who have created a flexible area model to suit all pockets, with the company launching their new zombie-blaster ‘Dead Ahead’.

Many of these VR arenas listed employ either the HTC Focus 3 or the PICO range of headsets, seen as the most practical for this kind of enterprise application. The need for the right headset, able to survive the robust conditions of deployed in free-roam entertainment arenas, has proven a hard crucible for this nascent technology. Likewise, operators are looking for simple turn-key applications of free-roam, and want to avoid excessive license fees, staffing overheads and temperamental hardware.

Future Options

Just as we report the advancements in this scene, and a new technological advancement is announced. HTC revealed the launch of their ‘VIVE Ultimate Trackers’ – negating the need for the bulky Valve Lighthouse systems. These have been developed for Enterprise application of full-body XR experiences – along with military training, this technology facilitates a new generation of free-roam applications.

With the announcement of the launch of the new technology, HOLOGATE through their HGXR simulation and training division will be ushering in utilization of this new technology through their collaboration with HTC. It will see the technology enabling their full-body XR experiences and is expected to play a part5 in HOLOGATE’s entertainment projects – with this small and lightweight alternative.

We have mentioned in previous features the application of free-roaming VR, and the appearance of Mixed Reality (MR) experiences using See-through and Pass-through MR headsets. It is expected that there will be a flourish of MR-style lasertag experiences, allowing players to run around real environments, with superimposed obstacles and opponents. The launch of MR equipped consumer headsets from Meta, Apple, and Samsung obviously encouraged this development.

But as many previous game studios have learned, the issues of player liability outside a dedicated entertainment space can easily put pay to development of these kinds of consumer multiplayer experiences. We will have to wait and see if these new MR experiences will find a home in Location-Based entertainment venues, alongside previously mentioned platforms, from meleap (‘HADO’ – competitive eSports) and Enklu (‘Verse Holographic Theater’ – immersive gallery).

This concludes the snapshot of the VR free-roaming sector. We will return shortly with the next immersive technology application that is looking to draw new audiences into the LBE arena, and possibly drive new applications for consumer adoption.

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