The Virtual Arena: Defining the Next Phase of Immersive LBE (Part 1.)

Covering the immersive location-based entertainment (LBE) scene for VRFocus as part of his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams returns with the first of a two-part series of observations made while many of the LBE VR venues remain in lockdown. He examines how the commercial entertainment VR scene is still at work, charting new developments in the rental of VR tech, the licensing of VR arcade content for consumer deployment, and new partnerships.

While the whole of the business sector has been on enforced lockdown globally for over nine weeks, developments both to adapt to the situation, as well as prepare for the new normal have been underway, as this considerable business adapts and evolves for life #AfterLockdown.

While some cynics attempted to paint the demise of the enterprise entertainment industry in the face of the global pandemic, the reality has been far more positive. While the industry has been bowed (as all) by the enforced voluntary closure of their operations, the interest to re-open and revigorate what has been one of the few burgeoning aspects of this latest phase of VR adoption, has not diminished.

There has even been an interest to attempt to capture in a bottle, those aspects of the location-based entertainment VR scene and recreate them for consumer adaptation – hoping that the success of LBE VR content can be made to work for the encumbered consumer userbase. One such example of this was revealed from studio Golf Scope; the AR and VR entertainment developers, in partnership with Topgolf Entertainment Group, which is widely known for its technology-driven golf entertainment venues. Together the operation launched Pro Putt by Topgolf on Oculus Quest – offering simple VR golfing action, that including a branded recreation of the popular putting action – encapsulating the venue action in one of a series of digital games. While many of the facilities may still be temporarily closed, VR allows the brand to continue.

Another such example of capturing the Out-of-Home entertainment has seen the launch from start-up Adventure Lab, a group of VR developers, who created what they have described as the “World’s first VR live hosted escape room”. The platform currently supports Oculus Quest hardware, allowing players to register online to take part in a connected 40-minute VR escape game, with a live “game master”, acting as host to help players. The first title Dr. Crumb’s School for Disobedient Pets is in early beta, charging $100 for up to four players. The commercial VR escape gaming scene has been incredibly popular before lockdown, and this move hopes to capitalize on the interest from isolated players, bring remote users together, and even supplying captured scenes to share on social media.

The VR Arcade Scene

Another developer hoping to build off of commercial VR popularity, repackaging for consumer consumption, was German-based VR Nerds – the company famous for Tower Tag, a highly competitive PvP capture-the-flag VR experience, played by over 1,000,000 players in arcades worldwide, reportedly available to some 1,300 VR arcades since its launch in 2018. Licensed by Springboard VR, along with porting to the Hologate arena and seeing success in the Japanese VR scene with CA Sega Joypolis installing several units. In May VR Nerds announced that the title would now be accessible for consumers, available on Steam and Viveport for all the leading consumer VR headsets. The ability to relieve the exciting multi-player shooter as it was released in arcades was supported with the developer providing 3D-printable STL files to recreate the gun controller from the game.

The need to feed the interest in VR to an audience that is in lockdown has been a consideration for VR arcade operators with hardware sitting unused. One remedy attempted was seen from The Park Playground. One of the first European VR arcade operations, with their sites temporarily shuttered the company decided to launch a new service. The Beta service, called ‘VR in Home’, is only currently available in the Belgium city of Antwerp – interested players use the operations web page to request loans of an Oculus Quest with appropriate game content, for a minimum four-day rental. What has been nicknamed “the Uber VR arcade!” – the use of hardware as a rental business is not an entirely new idea during the pandemic. In Spain, the Canary Virtual business started a similar service in March including a PC as well as standalone platforms for rental – and all specially cleaned and populated for this service. However, the use of the Oculus Quest in commercial applications has come with its own issues.

But there have been developments in thinking during this changeable time for the Oculus Quest – one of these has been the re-emergence of ‘Oculus for Business’. Finally unveiled with its commercial machine and supported pricing with a yearly subscription, at the same time saw the removal of any of the “Colocation” firmware facility. A facility that had been teased to so many commercial developers only to be removed some 12-months later. It is expected that many developers will continue with their standalone free-roaming release plans, but now deserting official support, (see out previous coverage if this scene). 

Another operator of VR venues, as well as a developer of hardware for this sector, has restructured its operation. European based Neurogaming has been known for the RevolVR tethered enclosure VR experience, as well for its PolygonVR free-roaming multiplayer platform, operated in several venues. During May the company announced the signing of a lucrative licensing deal that will see Estonian start-up NeverBored; who will develop a brand-new version of the four-player PvP Western shooter (RevolVR) for the location-based entertainment sector. At the same time, the new developer has started work on a special consumer version of the videogame that will be launched on the Oculus Quest later in the year, bringing the LBE action to consumer players. Additionally, NeverBored will now take on the role of European distributor for the Neurogaming range of LBE hardware including its free-roaming platform. Operations will be restructured to be ready for the reopening of these businesses internationally.

This is the end of the first part to this exclusive coverage of the developing immersive commercial entertainment industry. The second part, looking at the new trends moving into reopening and the future of the scene, follows shortly.

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