By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
Sometimes home VR isn’t enough. That’s when location-based virtual reality steps in. LBVR (or LBE VR to specifically denote entertainment) is a subset of VR that offers “out-of-home” immersive experiences that range from the compact-size (arcade-style seats or cockpits, often with motion simulation), to room- or warehouse-scale, free-roaming experiences with haptic feedback, motion tracking and sensory effects. In the latter, family or friends can team up to battle aliens, immerse in movie settings, navigate escape rooms or engage in other adventures. Getting out of the house and socializing are two of the principle appeals of LBVR attractions, which are typically located in arcades, theme parks, family entertainment centers or dedicated sites. The global location-based VR market, which also includes business and education uses, is growing at a CAGR of 34.21% and is projected to reach $19.9 billion by 2028, according to Verified Market Research. In terms of gear, the LBVR market has until now been dominated by the headset manufacturers HTC (Vive), Oculus (now Meta), Valve, HP and Samsung, according to Octopod, and Sony has recently debuted its PlayStation VR2 headset.
The pandemic caused great losses for location-based entertainment centers, shutting the doors of many for good, and slowed LBVR’s momentum, but the platform is growing briskly again. LBVR’s technology is advancing, and many high-profile experiences have taken root or are arriving in 2023, such as Sony/Hologate’s Ghostbusters VR Academy and, later in the year, Netflix/ Sandbox VR’s Squid Game title.
LBVR companies like Octopod VR believe in the platform’s powerful appeal. “Virtual reality allows us to create an ultra-immersive experience that can transport players. Whether it’s in a small individual area or in large, shared spaces, there’s something for every type of customer. The most obvious difference between LBE VR games and consumer (video) games is the consideration of the needs and constraints of the end user,” says Jean-Noël Charlier, Sales & Product Manager of Octopod VR, founded in 2017 under the umbrella of Wanadev, which also formed the VR game studio WanadevStudio, based in Lyon, France. “Customers who come to a [VR] center generally want to play in a group – friends, family, team building – over a planned period of time, on games where they can have quick fun.”
Octopod VR is a “distribution ecosystem” for multiplayer virtual reality games. It offers a large catalog of games and is designed to provide services and a complete solution for LBVR, including “the installation and configuration of VR spaces on the client’s premises by our teams. Today, we have more than 80 partner centers. Historically, we have had a strong presence in France and Western Europe, but more recently we have regularly established partnerships in North America, Asia and Africa,” Charlier says.
Many LBVR titles are tied to movies and series. Sandbox VR, along with working with Netflix on Squid Game, previously developed Star Trek: Discovery – Away Mission. Dreamscape Immersive worked on a Men in Black experience as well as the Harry Potter New York flagship store’s experiences Chaos at Hogwarts and Wizards Take Flight. The last two also had the participation of Warner Bros. Studios, WEVR, Counterpunch Animation and Beyond-FX, among others.
ILMxLAB collaborated with The Void on the pioneering LBVR free-roaming adventure Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, experienced with realistic 4D effects and warehouse scale at The Void locations, running from 2017 to 2020.
Another LBVR landmark came in 2018 when Jurassic World VR Expedition debuted in over 100 Dave & Buster’s entertainment centers, making it the biggest location-based VR launch to that date, according to Universal. The ride combines seats on a motion simulation platform and utilizes HTC Vive VR headsets, allowing up to four players at a time to visit the jungles of Isla Nublar and engage in an epic rescue adventure together. Jurassic World VR Expedition was developed by Marina del Rey, California-based The Virtual Reality Company (VRC), with the collaboration of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Universal Studios, and was directed by VRC Co-Founder Robert Stromberg, an Emmy-winning visual effects artist and two-time Oscar winner for art direction.
Framestore and Thinkwell Group worked on several LBVR experiences for the Lionsgate Entertainment World theme park in Zhuhai Hengqin, China. Karl Woolley, Framestore’s Global Head of Immersive, comments, “Over the past decade, our Immersive team has seen the complexity and scale of experiences that we’re asked to partner on continue to grow. VR and LBE projects [have been] the mainstay of the Immersive team for many years since its inception, often the two areas combining for projects such as Samsung’s A Moon for All Mankind [a lunar gravity simulation VR experience, 2018], or the work done for Lionsgate Entertainment World where multiple LBE VR were delivered.”
“There is no denying that the pandemic had a negative effect on the amount of LBE and/or VR work that was happening over the past 10 years, but we are seeing a strong resurgence in both spaces and are very positive about the future of the two combining at scale again, so much so that we are actively recruiting in this space.”
—Karl Woolley, Global Head of Immersive, Framestore
In Lionsgate’s The Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride, guests sit on motorbikes that are mounted on CAVU Designwerks motion bases and use custom-designed VR headsets. The motion control is integrated seamlessly into what’s seen inside the VR experience, so when a rider pulls the throttle on their bike, they both see and feel the sensation of accelerating as they speed through the forest alongside the character Jacob – with 90fps real-time virtual media created by Framestore, according to the firm.
Meanwhile, Divergent: Dauntless Fear Simulator at Lionsgate Entertainment World is an open-world, free-roaming VR experience that invites fans of the Divergent franchise to take on their fears and see if they can become a member of the Dauntless faction, immersed in a completely CG world created by Framestore’s immersive team for Thinkwell Group. The LBVR attraction gives participants agency to progress through the world however they choose and thus can repeat the experience but get different outcomes each time.
Sandbox VR’s Squid Game virtual reality experience is set to open late 2023. “In it, players are transported to iconic Squid Game locations, where they become contestants in a variety of pulse-pounding challenges inspired by the Netflix series. They compete against each other to be the last one standing. Teams of up to six friends can freely roam and explore virtual worlds together, while relying on each other to succeed,” according to Dacyl Armendariz, a spokesperson for Sandbox VR.
Sandbox VR, founded in 2016, has attracted celebrity investors such as Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Michael Ovitz and Kevin Durant. Founded by CEO Steven Zhao, Sandbox VR has headquarters in San Francisco and Hong Kong, and over 35 venues across five countries. All are owned by Sandbox VR, except for one franchise location, located in Paramus, New Jersey, and some additional franchise-owned stores in Europe. Sandbox currently has six experiences, including Star Trek: Discovery – Away Mission and Deadwood Valley, Deadwood Mansion, Curse of Davy Jones, Amber Sky 2088 and UFL: Unbound Fighting League. Sandbox recently started a partnership with Vicon for real-time, precise motion-tracking tools for collaborative VR gaming experiences.
“The technical and technological boundaries of the sector are rapidly being pushed back, allowing LBVR to offer players a more immersive experience. A few years ago, we were forced to use complex technology to enable free roaming, but now it is quite easy thanks to the tools, technologies and products offered by the manufacturers.”
—Jean-Noël Charlier, Sales & Product Manager, Octopod VR
Sony Pictures VR, in cooperation with Ghost Corps, has published two Ghostbusters VR Academy games developed by Hologate – for the multiplayer VR platform Hologate Arena and for the VR motion simulator platform Hologate Blitz. Launched at 450+ sites, the location-based VR experiences “continue to expand the world of Ghostbusters in a way that honors the legacy of the franchise and offers something entirely new,” says Jake Zim, Senior Vice President, Virtual Reality at Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPVR). “For the first time ever, players have been able to train to be a real Ghostbuster in an amazing academy setting [Arena version] and [also] race a new prototype ECTO hovercraft using Hologate’s vehicle motion simulator [Blitz version].”
In the Ghostbusters Arena game, players are academy trainees who strap on their proton packs and work together as a team in high-risk ghost encounter scenarios. As they are guided through each challenging level, ghosts become more menacing than the last, which requires more collective skills, more strategy and more teamwork. Zim comments, “Players can create memorable moments while fulfilling longtime wishes to operate iconic Ghostbusters equipment. This fantasy-fulfilling experience is only possible in virtual reality and with Hologate’s location-based entertainment technology.”
Hologate, founded in 2013, has 450+ installations across 42 countries and more than 16 million players, and is “the largest VR network worldwide and the worldwide leader in compact location-based virtual reality entertainment,” according to CEO & Founder Leif Arne Petersen. “The lion’s share of this milestone figure is provided by our pioneering multiplayer turnkey VR platform Hologate Arena, which is not only our best-selling product, [but] also happens to be the most successful turnkey multiplayer VR system in the world,” Petersen adds.
Also, a new Hologate X platform promises to stream high-resolution, wireless VR worlds directly into headsets, has full-body tracking and offers 4D effects such as scent and wind, THX 5.1 surround sound, physical props and full-body haptics, according to Petersen.
Octopod is also transitioning from backpack PCs to Wi-Fi streaming. Charlier explains, “Our decision to move away from recommending a PC backpack was driven by supply issues, limitations of the PC backpack – weight, battery changing, design issues. It was Wi-Fi 6 and the ability to stream from a PC to standalone headsets, such as the HTC Vive Focus 3, that led us to make this change.” He adds, “Wi-Fi streaming has many advantages, including the fact that it requires no cables, making it easier to move around the dedicated space. It’s a small revolution in the industry that will allow studios to be more creative with fewer technical constraints.”
“The success of LBE’s VR games has to do with the technology,” says Charlier. “The sector has been able to grow rapidly thanks to the constant improvements offered by helmet, hardware and technology manufacturers, as well as independent studios specializing in this field. The technical and technological boundaries of the sector are rapidly being pushed back, allowing LBVR to offer players a more immersive experience. A few years ago, we were forced to use complex technology to enable free roaming, but now it is quite easy thanks to the tools, technologies and products offered by the manufacturers.”
Dreamscape Immersive uses VR headsets, full-body mapping and motion capture technology to place six to eight users at a time in full-roam virtual reality experiences with haptics and physical effects in a room-scale set. Current adventures include Alien Zoo, The Blu: Deep Rescue and Men in Black: First Assignment, appearing at Dreamscape locations in Los Angeles, Columbus, Paramus, Dubai, Riyadh and Geneva. Dreamscape seeks to engage its players with “emotional cinematic narrative in our content. Yes, there are elements of gameplay, but our audience’s reaction to our experience tends to be equally emotional and visceral,” says Dreamscape Immersive Chairman and Co-Founder Walter Parkes. Vertigo Games is a multi-platform VR entertainment company with offices in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. In 2021 it acquired SpringboardVR, the leading provider of VR venue management software and the largest content marketplace for LBE, according to the firm. Vertigo’s VR experiences are available in more than 700 sites through SpringboardVR, Vertigo’s HAZE VR distribution platform and other services. Its games include the perennial arcade hit Arizona Sunshine.
Zero Latency VR pioneered the first free-roam VR entertainment venue in 2015 in Melbourne, Australia, according to the firm, and now has 45 venues in 22 countries. Its latest platform, developed in partnership with HTC, streams to up to eight players simultaneously with 6E wireless technology and a HTC Vive Focus 3 headset, dispensing with a backpack computer, according to the firm. Zero Latency VR teamed with Ubisoft on the title Far Cry VR: Dive into Insanity, debuting the title in 2021 at the former’s 4,200-square-meter arena in Melbourne.
Other key LBVR firms include gaming company Survios (now creating an Aliens video game that will include a VR version), VRstudios (free-roaming, multiplayer LBVR systems and attractions), Tyffon (developer and management of location-based VR/ AR/MR content) and Neurogaming (a developer of VR content and technology). There are LBVR attractions at theme parks, including roller coaster add-ons, at indoor zones (such as Play DXB in Dubai Mall and the Nanchang VR Theme Park in China), and in the expansive VR Star Theme Park (formerly Oriental Science Fiction Valley), located in Guiyang in Guizhou province, China. The virtual reality theme park offers 35 VR attractions on 330 acres and cost an estimated $1.5 billion to construct.
“There is no denying that the pandemic had a negative effect on the amount of LBE and/or VR work that was happening over the past 10 years, but we are seeing a strong resurgence in both spaces and are very positive about the future of the two combining at scale again, so much so that we are actively recruiting in this space,” Framestore’s Woolley concludes.