The Promise of Location-Based Virtual Reality (VR)
Over the past four years, virtual reality (VR) has established itself in the consciousness of tech enthusiasts worldwide. Unfortunately, mainstream consumers have yet to fully embrace the wonders of VR, mainly due to pricing, content, and usability issues. The technology itself is still developing, with various form factors and features that have not been fully standardized. The variety of VR device types (mobile, tethered, PC- or PS4- connected) leaves the average consumer overwhelmed and confused. Mainstream adoption for home users will only be achieved when the available options are narrowed down, and pricing vs. content are more reasonably balanced.
Meanwhile, VR has been moving quickly in another direction. As the home market struggles to take hold with consumers, the location based entertainment (LBE) market is beginning to establish a foothold with consumers looking for more “out of home” entertainment options.
Home vs. Away
One of the main issues preventing VR’s popularity with home users is a lack of space to fully enjoy it. Although “room scale” VR is possible at home, the average consumer is constrained by their environment. Most users of high-end “tethered” devices are using their headsets in an office, family room, or other shared space in the home. It’s unlikely that they’ve cleared the room of furniture and other items to facilitate an optimal room-scale experience.
As a result, most home users are experiencing VR from a seated position, or while standing in place. This is fine for most VR content, but the true potential of VR lies in its ability to transport us to other places, and let us move freely within them. Most VR games and apps incorporate “teleportation” as a means to allow users to hop from place to place in a virtual environment. Others enable “smooth locomotion,” which is more like movement in the real world, allowing you to “slide” in different directions at walking or running speed. The latter method may result in motion sickness for some users, hence the option for teleportation as a more comfortable transport system.
Most of the above issues are not a problem with location based, or “free roam” VR. Currently available at venues such as The VOID or Dreamscape Immersive, these experiences are often presented in “warehouse-scale” environments. Participants must wear a backpack computer along with a VR headset, as well as a haptic vest or other peripheral device. Depending on the technology available, users have virtually unlimited freedom of movement, albeit in a “guided” experience that usually follows a specific narrative.
VRcades – a good idea?
Premium out-of-home VR experiences like The VOID are the exception rather than the rule. Besides these high-end venues, there are also locations where users can experience basic VR content in an arcade-like environment. These are known as “VRcades,” and usually offer content similar to what users can find at home (360 videos and other VR apps on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Oculus Go.)
Because these venues are offering content that is also available at home, it’s questionable whether they can be successful without offering some premium experiences (with “free roam” content, omni-directional treadmills, or other location specific features). Dave and Buster’s has been extremely successful with this approach, and plans to increase their deployment of VR attractions in the near future.
At best, the VRcades will help to introduce more people to VR and get them to try a headset, with the hope that they will eventually purchase their own device when it becomes affordable.
If we build it, will they come?
Even though location based VR can offer amazing experiences above and beyond what’s possible at home, will enough people be interested to try it (and pay for it)? In my opinion, yes. But there are several key factors that must be in place to ensure success:
- Effective marketing
- Reasonable pricing
- Comfortable experience
- Easy on/off process
- Efficient throughput
- Amazing content
- Testing, testing, testing!
Charlie Fink has written an excellent article covering all the current free roam VR companies, and offering further ideas for success in this emerging market.
Ultimately, VR will successfully establish a foothold with home users, as well as in the out-of-home market. However, it seems likely that “free roam” VR experiences will only be possible at outside venues for the time being. It’s possible that advanced multiplayer technology may one day allow home users to participate remotely, using teleportation or smooth locomotion to play together with users at other locations. Imagine a future VR version of World of Warcraft, where players could participate remotely from home or directly in groups at a free-roam VR location.
Five years from now, immersive technology will bring us closer to experiencing the Oasis of Ready Player One. With the continuing success of location based VR, that future may finally become a (virtual) reality.
Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.