Ever since developing last year’s Holographic Easter Egg Hunt with Microsoft for VRLA, I’ve been interested in creating location-based VR and AR experiences. These are cool projects to me since you can build hardware specific to the experience, design software for one fixed hardware configuration, and really go wild within the constraints of your budget, location, and audience. Plus, there’s the additional challenge of keeping the event profitable based on the number of customers you can run through the exhibit per hour.
Throughout the past year, I’ve managed to try most major location-based VR experiences. After finally trying The VOID this week at Disneyland, I figured I’d write up a quick series of impressions of all the ones I’ve tried.
The VOID / Secrets of the Empire
The newest location-based VR I’ve experienced is “Secrets of the Empire” by The VOID installed at Downtown Disney in Anaheim. Taking place before the events of Rogue One, this is a Star Wars adventure that puts you and a friend in the roles of two Rebel Alliance agents disguised as Stormtroopers who have to sneak into an Imperial base on Mustafar and retrieve critical intelligence for the Rebellion’s survival.
The VOID uses a custom headset and vest with backpack PC. The first thing I noticed is that it was really heavy–it felt like I was wearing at least 20 pounds of gear. However, the vest and headset have a lot of innovative features. My favorite is the force feedback pads placed all around your body. When you are hit by blaster fire you can feel the impact and know where it’s coming from.
The headset has image quality comparable to Oculus Rift and uses LEAP Motion so you can see your hands. This is important because you can reach out and grab real-world objects such as blaster rifles that are tracked in VR when you pick them up or even hit real buttons on virtual control panels to unlock doors. If you see a droid, reach out and touch it! It’s really there! The hands don’t quite line up with the real world position of the objects you see in VR, but it’s close enough.
The game itself is a 20 or so minute experience where you team up with another player to infiltrate an Imperial base. While sneaking around you’ll be shot at by Stormtroopers, clamber out on perilous ledges over lakes of molten lava (you can feel the heat!), and use teamwork to solve puzzles and defend against waves of enemies.
The graphics are great and tracking for both the player and your weapon is rock solid. The redirected walking and other tricks done with space and movement effectively give the sensation of exploring a small section of a large Imperial base. Everything does kind of feel cramped and constrained, but this adds to the tension of firefights when you and your partner are jammed up in a room with hordes of Stormtroopers firing through the door.
I really enjoyed Secrets of the Empire–it’s perhaps less ambitious than Zero Latency’s offering, but executed FAR better than anything else I’ve tried. At $30 a pop (not to mention merch sales), they’re supposedly doing 700-800 people a day on weekends. I’m not sure how the math works out, but this seems like a success to me.
Zero Latency / Singularity
I tried Zero Latency’s “Singularity” experience at LevelUp in the Las Vegas MGM Grand several months back. Zero Latency’s “Free Roam VR” platform shares similarities with The VOID in that it uses a backpack PC with a positionally tracked weapon. However, instead of teams of two moving around inside a constrained area that you can reach out and touch, Zero Latency accommodates up to 8 players at once in a large, empty trackable space.
The Singularity is a shooter game where your team has to exit a shuttlecraft and venture into a dangerous, killer robot-infested base ruled by a hostile AI. Armed with a gun that can be switched between various ammo types (shotgun, laser, blaster, etc.) you and your team must journey to the core and take out the AI once and for all in an epic boss battle.
The experience amounts to a lot of mindless shooting. The gameplay itself doesn’t seem very well designed as robots get stuck on parts of the scenery, different weapon types don’t seem to do much, and the visuals at times can be just downright bad. I guess it has positional audio, but it’s not very well done as I kept getting surprised by enemies firing from behind that I simply didn’t notice.
There are flashes of brilliance–and, dare I say, ambition. Zero Latency does some pretty crazy things with redirected walking and developed one particularly thrilling scenario where your party gets split in half and both groups must fend off drone attacks while carefully walking along a catwalk suspended hundreds of feet in the air. There’s even a part that does the whole 2001 thing where you walk up a wall in zero gravity. They take a lot of chances in this experience which makes those parts of Singularity very memorable.
Zero Latency’s backpack is much lighter than The VOID’s. However, they are using vastly inferior OSVR headsets with terrible positional tracking on both the player and the weapon. I’m assuming the backpack PC has a much lower spec because the visuals are quite a step down from The VOID.
Tracking is an issue. Singularity was a jittery, janky mess. Characters skidded all around while their IK made them contort in unnatural poses. The game also blares a klaxon in your ear when someone is in the wrong position or close to touching another player. This got super annoying after awhile.
After finishing the 30-minute experience, I came to the conclusion that it’s a really solid alpha. I can’t tell if the game is underwhelming because of weak game development or there isn’t enough juice in the hardware. I tend to think it’s the former, given the quality of VR I’ve experienced on far less powerful platforms. Content aside, the tracking is just so awful that I can’t imagine even a better game would fix this alone. They need to upgrade the hardware, too.
VRStudios / VR Showdown in Ghost Town
On the lower end is VR Studios’ “VR Showdown in Ghost Town” which you can currently play at Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California. This has to be judged on a different scale because it’s much smaller in scope. This game is a $6 6-minute experience using much simpler hardware in a single-room sized tracking volume. It seems much less expensive for the operator to install and maintain, and cheaper for the user to play (although the price per minute is the about same as The VOID).
It uses VRStudios’ VRCade platform which seems to be like Gear VR on steroids. You wear a somewhat unwieldy, self-contained VR headset with tracking balls on it, along with a gun that is also tracked with the same technology. Two players in the same room defend against a seemingly infinite amount of zombies attacking an old west town. You can pick up power-ups to give you more effective shots and some cool bullet-time effects, but at the end of 6 minutes, it’s over regardless.
The headset is clunky with a low refresh rate and narrow FOV, and the game itself really isn’t very good. But it’s a cheap way for people to try VR for the first time and a seemingly inexpensive way for locations to provide a VR experience. Still, you can have far better experiences at home with a game like Farpoint.
IMAX VR is perhaps the most disappointing as it has the ambiance of a dentist’s office with a bunch of VR you can largely experience at home on Rift, Vive, or PSVR. IMAX VR is notable for being one of the few places you can try the Starbreeze’s StarVR wide FOV headset. However, the John Wick StarVR game I tried isn’t even as good as Time Crisis, and that came out over 20 years ago! Honestly, they need to gut this place and start over. Doing something ambitious like what The VOID or Zero Latency has done makes more sense than a bunch of kiosks playing games you can already get at home.
Then again, maybe the economics work out–it might be easier to sell individual tickets to solo experiences than waiting to fill up an 8-player co-op session at a premium price. Last year they were bragging about how much money the site was bringing in–but $15,000 a week isn’t a lot. I bet a Starbucks at the same location would do 3 times the business. In fact, the VOID does 3 times that on any given Saturday.
The Future of Location-Based VR
I’m really encouraged by the range of experiences I’ve tried at these different VR facilities. Many of these platforms seem to boast a similar set of features–including the ability to update the physical location with a new experience in a matter of minutes. A representative from The VOID told me it would be possible to swap out Secrets of the Empire for a new game (say, Ghostbusters) in about 15 minutes.
I can’t help but think a lot of companies that build these locations will be disrupted by a new generation of developers who can use off the shelf tracking solutions and next generation backpack computers to build far more compelling experiences. With the Vive Pro including vastly improved lighthouse tracking and removing the need for cables with the Vive Wireless Adapter, we might see a generational leap in quality as experienced game developers will be able to enter the market instead of companies that managed to shoehorn in a tracking solution and stick it in a random mall storefront they have access to.