Virtual reality arenas- the next big thing?

We expect that at-home virtual and augmented reality will become a major threat to location-based entertainment in the near future, as it will enhance the options, as well as the quality, of both entertainment and social experiences that people can enjoy in their homes, both with people physically present as well as people located elsewhere in the outside world. We predict that within three years, five years at the outside, consumer VR and AR will become mainstream with consumers and give people just one more reason why they won't have to leave their homes for entertainment or to socialize.

Meanwhile, we are seeing the first community-based venues emerge that are using VR in an attempt to offer a high fidelity, unachievable at home or on the mobile screen experience. Two that have gotten our attention are The Void and Zero Latency.

Zero Latency opened back in June in Melbourne, Australia and is considered the world's first VR entertainment facility. Wearing Oculus Rift DK2 headsets, six players fitted with backpacks containing a computer get to run around a 4,300-square-foot warehouse trying to kill zombies with a VR gun. Sessions are 50-minutes each and cost $63 per player. The developers claim the system is designed without any of the motion sickness typically associated with VR, with only one in 400 players having to stop playing due to motion sickness.

Here's a short video:

The Void, still under development, plans to be the next VR venue they are calling a virtual reality theme park. The beta prototype is under development in Pleasant Grove, Utah. It will be a six or eight player experience in a 60' by 60' room that seamlessly blends virtual reality experiences with physical environments, using effects like wind and water to make those virtual worlds feel even more convincing - anything from jungles to caves to fantastic environments you couldn't dream of. James Jensen, founder and chief “visionary” officer of The Void says every experience is being designed for multiplayer with a focus on cooperative gameplay. Some lucky gamers got to have a beta try out in early October. Plans are to open The Void to the public mid-2016.

Here's a promo video for The Void:

So, will VR centers be the next big thing? We don't think so. There are several reasons. One is the headset. People are still having issues with 3D glasses in movie theaters, which are light weight and don't close you off from your surroundings. Wearing a heavy headset and a computer on your back is sure to be a detriment to the experience. There is also the issue of how many people really want to be in a virtual, manufactured world versus having an experience in real reality. There is the issue of how social the experience is when you can't see your fellow players. And then again, there is the cost.

Yes, there will probably be a limited niche segment of the population that VR centers will appeal to, probably mostly the diehard massively multiplayer role-play video game (MMORPG) addicts. But to succeed, VR centers will need to have wider appeal and high repeat appeal, and that is surely not likely at the high price point Zero Latency is charging.

Will location-based VR replace laser tag in community-based leisure venues? We don't think so. Running around in real reality playing a social game with friends you can see is hard wired into our brains' programming. We evolved as a species in the real world. Running around in a virtual environment shooting virtual creatures is not. The issue is what is known as presence, the total holistic feeling that you are there in the environment. The virtual world lacks the feeling of presence in the real world, at least until technology advances to the level of the Star Trek Holodeck.

The other issue is that the number of players that both Zero Latency and The Void can accommodate in an arena is no greater than eight whereas many laser tag arenas can hold up to 40 at one time, which makes laser tag appeal to corporate team building and large parties and meetings.

Will VR centers be a flash in the pan? Probably not. But it may take some time for VR centers to find the winning formula that will help them to move beyond a novelty phase for the niche market that will find them attractive and affordable. They will more likely find a market as stand-alone regional attractions and as part of theme parks rather than be a viable community-based entertainment option.

We really think that it will be augmented reality with its friendly goggles that overlays the virtual on the real world, a much closer equivalent to full presence, that will ultimately prove to be the winning formula, both at community venues as well as at home.

P.S. Our colleague, Kevin Williams, world digital entertainment guru, founder of the Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment Association, publisher of the weekly Stinger Report enewsletter and co-author of the Out-of-Home Entertainment Frontier book, had an opportunity to visit The Void during its October beta test. He has written an article about his experience, Into The Void, that will be published on Road to VR in the near future.