The Virtual Arena: VR in UK Amusement

Covering the immersive Out-of-Home entertainment scene for VRFocus, in his latest Virtual Arena column, industry specialist Kevin Williams reports on the amusement industry’s latest trade extravaganza in London, and the new VR platforms revealed to invited trade buyers, with his exclusive coverage revealing these new category of systems for readers. 

The amusement trade represents the pay-to-play sector and started the new decade off underlining how much virtual reality (VR) has influenced innovation in this business. The UK saw one of the largest exhibitions for the sector this month, and VR was front-and-centre. The Entertainment, Attractions and Gaming (EAG) International Expo 2020 – held in London at the beginning of the year for amusement trade professionals – has become a hotbed to demonstrate the latest VR applications in the European Enterprise entertainment sector.

The various categories of deployment in this market were on display. First was “Standalone VR Arcade” – these are VR systems applied along lines that conform to the needs for amusement deployment in leisure entertainment venues but also applying various levels of “self-service” VR deployment, looking to remove the need for an attendant to run these systems from the mix.

Many of these systems are represented by distributors, companies that place and service the hardware with venue operators for the manufacturer. On the Harry Levy Amusement booth, the VRsenal developed ‘Beat Saber Arcade’ system was presented, an upright kiosk with retractable HTC Vive headset and controllers, configured to as a standalone system running the popular music rhythm VR experience. The machine has become a popular platform with already some 100-units deployed in the Western market.

Taking on a more familiar amusement approach, UNIS presented on the Instance Automatics booth their ‘Ultra Moto VR’ – a two-player arcade-style ride-on motorcycle racing videogame, with its own motion platform. Players are able to experience the action on the big screen or immersed using the 3Glasses VR headset. The platform marketed to operators as “easy to manage” – offering a familiar package to the VR entertainment medium in amusement.

Also, on the Harry Levy Amusement booth, was another top-selling VR product, LAI Games has seen great success with its  ‘Virtual Rabbids: The Big Ride’ – with hundreds of sales of this two-seat motion ride platform already achieved. Developed in partnership with D-BOX and with content from Ubisoft, the VR ride-experience runs on HTC Vive. At the London show a new compact version of the platform was on display, (for cruise ships and smaller venues), also incorporating three new ride experiences, including a new interactive ride, with scoring elements.

The division of the Japanese amusement developer, operator and manufacturer, Bandai Namco Amusement represented the latest entry into this genre with a new two-seat VR motion ride platform from Triotech. Launching their new ‘Storm’, the company has integrated many of the popular elements seen with other systems, using the HTC Vive Pro headset incorporating Ultraleap, to track the riders’ hands. This offering an interactive game element to the roller-coaster ride experience.

Moving on from the standalone amusement deployment, also on show at EAG’20 was the “VR Enclosure” platforms that offer multiple-player VR experiences within an enclosure than as just individual machines. The market leader in this genre is HOLGATE, who came to the London show with its over 500-unit selling ‘HOLGATE Arena’. The latest version of the tethered platform offering a four-player plethora of different co-operative VR experiences, including titles licensed from Angry Birds, World of Tanks and other properties – running on the VR high-end Valve Index headset.

The VR Enclosure approach can also be deployed for the larger game experiences – such as with “Arena-Scale VR” – using backpack PC’s to allow free-roaming for multiple players co-operating in immersive shooting and escape game experiences. EAG exhibitor VEX Solutions presented ‘VEX Adventure’ that takes the Arena-Scale system and places into a flexible platform for both LBE and enclosure deployment. The company showing its system at the show as a complete turnkey solution, with player registration tablets, the onboarding infrastructure – HP backpack PC’s and HTC Vive Pro headsets (incorporating Ultraleap units), and force-feedback weapons.

A glimpse of the future of this application was seen at EAG with the latest example in “Arena-Scale VR – Standalone”, these platforms negate the need for a backpack PC and employed the all-in-one Standalone VR headsets, (a far-reaching feature on the emergence of this new aspect of the VR scene will be published soon in VRFocus). At EAG’20, the exhibitor Hero Zone demonstrated its version of this approach, with a four-player platform, employing Oculus Quest headsets, modified with the Modicap soundkit and battery extension. The pop-up enclosure running the new title ‘Dead Ahead’ – for some co-operative zombie blasting. The first installation of this platform is going live in February.

The final aspect of the diverse Out-of-Home entertainment deployment of this technology is the category of “Large VR Attractions” – turning VR tech into dedicated attractions for theme parks and LBE venues. One of the major developers in this field is Holovis, working on several attractions, but at EAG they revealed plans to develop smaller-scale applications that can suit amusement and FEC (Family Entertainment Center) deployment – offering big experiences in a small package.

Displayed for the first time, Holovis revealed their first title with ‘The Descent’, developed in partnership with D-BOX – the company created an intense alien blaster which uses the physicality of a special-effects mine-cage, descending virtually into the bowls of the Earth, battling waves of aliens on the way down. The system borrowing heavily from all the physical effects deployed in larger attractions, Holovis hoping to open a new sphere of the market with “Mid-Scale VR Attractions”, seeing their first orders at the show.

Along with the new hardware on display EAG 2020 held a seminar to present the opportunity of what immersive entertainment platforms offer the operators in this sector (ranging from seaside, leisure, amusement and FEC venues). Held in partnership with the show organizers, and industry consultancy KWP, the session brought together presenters from key executives in the field, including MeetSpace, operator of the Zero Latency arena in Wembley, the co-founder of HOLOGATE, SPREE Interactive, famous for its arena-scale family VR entertainment, and operating developer IMMOTION – who have championed a radical approach on getting “bums-on-seats” with the deployment of VR entertainment into the leisure sector. While later in the seminar the aspects of deploying VR in eSports experiences saw presentations from Virtuix and others.

This gives a snapshot of what proved a fascinating and intense three-day convention, with many orders made for the latest VR hardware. This will hopefully mean that even more of the general public will be able to get their first taste of VR entertainment at one of the many hundred entertainment venues in the UK and across Europe.

The London show will be followed by a plethora of trade events to start the year, including events in Japan and North America. But also, interest in Enterprise VR will see launches of the latest eSports and even Edutainment deployments. Watch this space for our next coverage.

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