Location Based VR World Tour or THE VOID VS ZERO LATENCY VS VRCADE VS IMAX VR

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.

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Mission complete!

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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The sterile, featureless waiting room at IMAX VR

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.

VR with a Gamepad Sucks

I was kind of bummed my first day of Oculus Connect 2.

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Last year’s Oculus Connect was revelatory to me. Despite having worked on two different Gear VR titles at the time, the Crescent Bay demo was incredible in comparison. From Oculus’ own vignette demos to Epic’s Showdown sequence–the leap in quality from DK2 to Crescent Bay was astounding. Everyone walked out of that demo with a huge simile on their faces.

The first demos I tried at OC2 were the Gamepad demos. Oculus spent an absurd amount of time at their E3 keynote talking about how amazing it was that they were launching with the XBox 360 controller as the input device. At Oculus Connect, I put this claim to the test.

Every game from EVE Valkyrie to Edge of Nowhere seemed like playing a regular video game strapped to my face. I felt like I was playing an XBOX One through binoculars. In fact, a few of the games made me a little queasy–which I’m usually not susceptible to.

Maybe I’m just jaded having been developing gamepad VR experiences on Gear VR for a while, I thought.

Later on I tried Toybox which is a cool tech demo but doesn’t really illustrate how you’d play an actual game for any length of time with the Touch controllers. In fact, I found the controllers a little hard to use compared to the Vive. They have tons of confusing buttons and getting the finger gestures right seemed to take a little bit of work.

I was leaving the demo area and getting ready to head home when a friend of mine who works for Oculus stopped to ask what I thought. I told him honestly that I felt last year’s demos were better–they were more immersive and interesting. Although a little taken aback at my impressions, he strongly suggested I come by tomorrow for the next set of demos. He couldn’t tell me what they were, but promised they’d be awesome.

The Oculus Connect app sent a notification alerting me that new demo registrations would be available at 8 AM. I set my alarm and woke up the next morning to register for the Touch demos via my iPhone. I promptly slept through the keynote and arrived on the scene at noon for my demo.

We were only allowed to try two games, and it was heavily suggested I try Epic’s “Bullet Train” experience. Having not seen the keynote, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Bullet Train is mind blowing.

Bullet Train is essentially Time Crisis in VR. When I saw the Showdown demo last year I thought a game like this in VR would be a killer app. One of my favorite coin-ops of all time is Police 911–which motion tracks your body with a pair of cameras to duck behind obstacles. I thought doing this in VR would be amazing. However, last year there were no hand tracking controls–it was just a vague idea.

Here, Epic took the Touch controllers and made an incredible arcade shooter experience that should be a killer app should Epic choose to develop this further. Oculus really needs to do everything in their power to get Epic to produce this as a launch title for the Touch controllers.

The touch controls make all the difference. From handling weapons and grenades to plucking bullets out of the air in slow motion, Bullet Train really drives home how flexible the Touch controls are. Unlike Vive which is like holding a set of tools, these let you reach out and grab stuff–Even pump a shotgun.

The combination of standing in a motion tracked volume and visceral interaction with the world using your hands–even with Touch’s primitive finger gesture technology–really immerses you in an experience way beyond what’s possible sitting in a chair with an XBox controller.

It’s disappointing that Touch won’t launch with Oculus’ headset. Hand tracking is absolutely required for a truly immersive experience. Developing games that support both Gamepad and Touch control is going to be difficult without diluting features for one or the other. I’ve experienced a similar issues developing games that work with Gear VR’s touchpad and Bluetooth gamepad.

I left Oculus Connect 2 I reinvigorated with the feeling that VR with hand tracking is the One True VR Experience. Gamepad is fine for mobile VR at the moment, but all of my PC and Console VR projects are now being designed around Touch and hand tracked input. It’s the only way!

Why I’m All In On Mobile VR

Last month I released Caldera Defense, a Virtual Reality tower defense game on Gear VR. This is the second Gear VR title I’ve worked on, and the first I’ve built and published from the ground up. (Not including my Oculus Mobile VR Jam submission) Caldera Defense is a free early access demo–basically a proof of concept of the full game–and the reaction has been great. Thousands of people have downloaded, rated, and given us valuable feedback. We’re busy incorporating it into the first update.

Caldera Defense featured on the Gear VR store

Originally I planned to use this as a demo to fund an expanded PC and Morpheus launch version of the game with greatly improved graphics, hours of gameplay, and additional features such as multiplayer and second-screen options.

However, pitching even a modestly budgeted console and PC VR game experience to publishers, or even the platforms themselves, is a tough sell. I’m sure at E3 next month we will see all sorts of AAA VR announcements. Yet, many traditional funding avenues for games remain skeptical of the opportunity VR presents.

Since the Caldera project began last year, mobile VR has morphed into a unique opportunity. With over a million Google Cardboards in the wild and new versions of the Gear VR headset in retail stores worldwide, there will be millions of mobile VR users before there’s comparable numbers on Oculus desktop, Vive, and Morpheus.

Is it possible that mobile VR will be a viable business before it is on PC and consoles? Most of my colleagues are skeptical. I’m not.

The economics work out. Due to the mobile nature of the experience, games and apps for these platforms tend towards the bite-sized. This greatly reduces the risk of mobile VR since assets optimized for mobile are simpler and casual VR experiences require less content to be built overall.

I can make a dozen mobile VR minimum viable products for the same budget of one modestly scoped Morpheus experience. From these MVPs I can determine what types of content gains the most traction with VR users and move in that direction. I can even use this data to guide development of larger AAA VR experiences later.

By this time next year it will be possible to monetize these users significantly, whether through premium content or advertising. It may be more valuable to collect a lot of eyeballs in mobile VR than breaking even on a multi-million dollar AAA launch tile. As we’ve seen in the past, acquiring a huge audience of mobile players can lead to tremendous revenue streams.

Being on the Oculus desktop, Vive, or Sony’s Morpheus deck at launch is an enormous opportunity. In fact, I’m still searching for ways to produce the console and desktop version of Caldera Defense. However, if you lack the capital to produce at that scale, smaller mobile projects are much easier to bootstrap and the upside is huge.