Location-based entertainment - It’s not a game 1

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Location-based entertainment providers such as VRstudios and Zero Latency are at the top of their games, while AR is far from the underdog in this competitive space

Quick read

➨ The global location-based VR entertainment market is expected to be worth $11.8 billion by 2023

➨ The key ingredients for a successful experience are top-of-the-line hardware and attractive content

➨ Location-based AR also has massive potential

The story

Immersive technology is tricky. Users are unlikely to know whether it fits until they try a headset on for the first time. If its uncomfortable, awkward, unappealing or unattractive, then it’ll be discarded and replaced with something that’s more comfortable.

The slow uptake of virtual reality (VR) gaming is indicative of this trend. Players haven’t taken to VR like many believed they would. Law firm Perkins Coie surveyed 200 executives for its annual VR and augmented reality (AR) study earlier this year, and while 54% of respondents said gaming is where they expect to see the most investment in the next 12 months, negative user experience, through bulky hardware or technical glitches, along with a lack of content, were considered major barriers to mass adoption.

Where immersive tech for consumers is really taking off is location-based entertainment. Market intelligence firm Greenlight Insights expects the global market to be worth $3.6 billion by the end of 2019, and $11.8 billion by 2023. And the market is gaining traction, with Marvel Studios recently teaming up with VR studio The VOID’s ILMxLAB to launch a compelling new, limited-run experience for the millions of Marvel Cinematic Universe and comics fans around the world called Avengers: Damage Control.

The location-based VR entertainment experience features elements such as heat and wind to create a more immersive experience. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said: “We’re always looking for new stories and corners of the universe for our characters to explore. Now, after more than a decade of amazing support, we are excited to give fans the same opportunity: to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

“Expanding how people can experience the MCU is something we’re always trying to do, and in Avengers: Damage Control, we wanted to give fans the chance to suit up alongside some of their favourite heroes for the first time ever.”

“The opportunity to bring such a beloved universe alive through immersive storytelling has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” added Shereif Fattouh, senior producer at ILMxLAB. “Avengers: Damage Control lets you feel what it’s like to shoot repulsor blasts with your own two hands, suited up in Shuri’s latest technology. This original adventure allows you to go beyond the screen, and become a character in the story itself.”

Sixense Studios president Joel Breton, a veteran video game developer with 20 platinum-selling titles to his name, says the real success stories in the location-based entertainment sector started “from the ground up, and played to the strengths of what an immersive experience can really mean”.

The key ingredients for Breton are top-of-the-line hardware and attractive content. He says: “Someone with a VR headset at home is unable to experience what a lot of location-based providers are capable of.”

“Hardware such as haptic vests let you feel like you are actually inside of the game and offers some of the most immersive experiences. All of the best providers in location-based right now are using those extra peripherals for more immersive experiences. They have also focused on the content from the beginning, too. The content is what draws people in and has them talking about it.”

The best location-based entertainment providers are successfully integrating these two components, according to Breton. He says: “Take, for example, Namco-Bandai’s VR Zone franchise.

Mario Kart VR is one of the best that anyone has created. That content is partnered with robotic karts that add that extra bit of immersion. When you go over a bump in the game, you feel that bump in real life. It’s on a motion platform as well, so you’re able to feel when you go around a corner.”

“It’s that level of immersion that most people can’t replicate at home.”

VRstudios

One location-based entertainment provider enjoying significant success right now is US-based VRstudios, whose most notable partnership is with Dave & Buster’s, which has 125 restaurant and entertainment complexes throughout North America.

VRstudios and Dave & Buster’s began offering VRcade Arena experiences, including ‘eSports’ experience PowerPlay and Barking Irons Gunslinger, at the Dave & Buster’s location in Tampa, Florida.

Guests have the choice of multiple types of VR attractions, both on Dave & Buster’s popular proprietary multiplayer simulator, and the free-roaming environment of VRcade Arena.

VRcade Arena is a free-roaming warehouse-scale environment in which up to eight players can participate in ‘eSports’ such as PowerPlay and high-end content such as Terminal 17. This is the kind of offering that Breton described as among the most successful right now, but providers such as VRstudios are keeping their products and services flexible to suit the requirements of their customers.

VRstudios chief executive officer Kevin Vitale commented: “VRstudios’ Arena products are part of a larger portfolio of systems that are available in multiple configurations to flexibly meet the needs of location-based entertainment operators. While our systems are available turnkey, we also offer unmatched flexibility to create configurations to accommodate each location. And all of the VRcade systems and the proprietary Dave & Buster’s simulator are run from the same easy-to-use operating software, which is our AMP—Attraction Management Platform.”

He continues: “Our systems, including the VRcade Arena, are popular because of the unique, highly interactive, multiplayer experiences available through multiple content titles that are purpose-built for commercial VR. They are amazing, fun, competitive and social in ways that can’t be experienced at home or through other systems.”

“For example, our VRcade PowerPlay is the only true VR ‘eSport’, or ‘VRsport’, that is a highly athletic, match-play, team competition and almost as fun to watch as it is to play. Players are immediately immersed in a competitive, futuristic arena that integrates the dynamics of laser tag and dodgeball in exciting, fast-paced matches that are never the same game twice.”

Content is king, too. Vitale says: “No other provider has delivered as many ‘Big IP’ commercial VR titles as VRstudios.”

It takes a unique technical and creative skill set to produce super high quality immersive experiences in VR that are accessible and played millions of times (literally), while at the same time preserving the character of the brand and staying true to the storyline. We make it possible for players to go inside to experience and interact with the movie or game IP unlike anything else.”

“When done correctly, licensed content can create additional pull. That said, Big IP won’t make up for a poorly developed experience, and there is very much room for high-quality original content. VRstudios has produced successful titles in both categories for Dave & Buster’s and others.”

The long-standing partnership between VRstudios and Dave & Buster’s is a good example of how the location-based entertainment provider-operator relationship can be successful and extract significant value from immersive tech.

Vitale comments: “VRstudios very much values our longstanding relationship with Dave & Buster’s. They are smart and calculated in their approach to rolling out VR attractions that fit their business model and customer demographics. As demonstrated with their highly successful VR simulator, they are a true enterprise operator that thinks and works in scale across every store location around the country.”

“Our technology and products are excellent as they are architected and built for enterprise operation and scale. In the case of the VRcade Arena, we also offer an unmatched level of flexibility to place and operate the system on the store floor to maximise the return on investment, including otherwise underutilised space, that’s incremental to their existing attractions.”

Integral to the VRstudios strategy and value proposition is to deliver VR solutions to its partners “that are complementary and incremental to their core existing business”.

“We are not creating our own competitive destinations or building out our own facilities,” Vitale explains. “We understand that the operators have invested heavily in their facilities and building a customer base that is the heart of their business. Our goal is to enable them to deliver new, immersive experiences to delight their customers and add new sources of revenue.”

He adds: “VR is the enabling technology and has some appeal, but it’s not enough on its own and it won’t sell itself. Just like everything else, the higher the quality and the better the experience, combined with an exciting presentation and promotion, will yield the highest dividends for the operator.”

“The most effective operators realise that when presented properly, commercial VR can be fun for the spectators as well as the players. There are numerous benefits in addition to being a new source of direct player revenue, including pulling additional revenue from people spending more time in the facility purchasing food and beverages, and additional play time, along with the potential for a ‘thought leadership’ image uplift in the commercial and financial market.”

Zero Latency

Another location-based entertainment provider attracting attention is Zero Latency, which aims to have at least 100 VR multiplayer arena sites opened before the end of 2020.

In August, Zero Latency opened in Dallas, Texas, thereby securing its 33rd location globally and its ninth in the US. The venue was also the first in North America to operate Zero Latency’s Generation 2 VR System, developed in partnership with HP, Intel and Microsoft.

Discussing the success that Zero Latency—launched in 2013 and headquartered in Melbourne, Australia—has so far enjoyed, chief technology officer Scott Vandonkelaar says: “Zero Latency has now experimented in a wide variety of environments and settings, and the great news is that we have seen all of the formats work well.”

“At a cursory glance, there isn’t even much similarity between our top venues; what really makes them perform well is a consistently fantastic customer experience both in and out of the game, as well as their strategy for finding new customers. ”

The majority of players come in by referral from another player, so the player experience is always key. You have to exceed expectations. But you can’t rely on word-of-mouth alone, and it’s going to depend on where you are as to how you can tackle that challenge.”

For Zero Latency, the combination and successful integration of technology and content are important to an experience that users will not only enjoy but discuss. Yet three basic ingredients have contributed significantly to Zero Latency’s own success.

Vandokelaar comments: “We have really focused on making experiences with as much player interaction as possible, and making sure we are getting the most out of the technology we have.”

“The critical components to a VR experience are your visuals in the HMD, how you interact, and what you hear. Everything after that will build on the experience, but if you have those pieces nailed, then you will have happy customers,” he says.

“If you don’t get those pieces right then it won’t matter what else you do with your experience; it won’t feel good. None of those three things needs to be complex or expensive, they just need to feel right to the user. When someone is in your experience they need that world to behave, look and sound like they would expect or better. If it doesn’t, then it essentially feels ‘worse’ than reality, which doesn’t entice people to come back and do it again, or to tell other people about it.”

Interestingly, Zero Latency has focused on original content for its location-based entertainment experiences. Vandokelaar says: “Our experience so far, and more broadly in location-based entertainment VR in general, is showing that there is a lot of room for both original content and licensed products.”

“To date, Zero Latency has grown purely on original content and we are extremely proud of that. It has given us the flexibility to experiment in ways that an IP holder might not be comfortable with, and to try out some new ideas without having to worry about minimum guarantees.

With all the knowledge we have about what makes a great game, as well as having the scale and reach to get content in front of a lot of customers, we are now in the process of licensing AAA IP for our platform and we’ll have something coming out in 2020. We aren’t switching over to licensed products entirely, though. It’s still very early days for VR, and there is still a lot to learn and experiment with.”

NexTech and AR Studios

It’s easy to get caught up in the potential of location-based VR entertainment and forget what other areas of immersive tech have to offer. Canada-headquartered NexTech AR is moving ahead with the production of immersive AR content at its new Hollywood studios.

Dr Barry Sandrew, who was recently appointed as chief operating officer and executive producer at AR Studios, is working with NexTech president Paul Duffy to develop the new venture and Presence, a proprietary location-based entertainment venue.

According to Sandrew, AR “has the potential to change our lives in many ways, especially when spatial computing becomes a common feature on smartphones”.

He explains: “To date, I cannot point to one non-gaming VR title that has generated sufficient revenue to achieve a return on investment. Nor do I see any VR content on the horizon that would be any more successful. AR, on the other hand, has the potential to change our lives in many ways, especially when spatial computing becomes a common feature on smartphones.”

“Many proponents of VR can’t grasp the immersive quality of AR, particularly via a smartphone as a display device. They consider anything less than complete isolation a non-immersive experience. However, to the average consumer, the smartphone has become an extension of themselves. The average person surfs the web, communicates, executes financial transactions and even watches full-length movies on their smartphones.”

“When you view a 360 experience in VR, it’s admittedly immersive, but to the viewer wearing a VR HMD, it’s also anticipated to be exactly what it is—there are no surprises. However, if you place that 360 experience inside a CGI portal that’s positioned inside your actual living room, viewed as AR via a smartphone, that same 360 experience becomes magic. If you then enter the portal so that you’re surrounded by the 360 experience, it becomes very immersive.”

“Unlike VR, it also becomes social and collaborative because others can view your smartphone display at the same time, you’re viewing it.”

AR Studios “is expanding the potential of AR via its proprietary Presence venue, which is an innovative, high-tech form of location-based AR (LBAR)”, he says.

“Presence removes the bandwidth and volumetric display barriers that have prevented AR from gaining broad acceptance.”

“Couple Presence with AR Studios’ uniquely engaging storytelling and performance content, and you have what we expect to be a winning formula for attracting mass adoption.”

Image credits: VRstudios and Zero Latency

This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of VRWorldTech Magazine