Tower Tag, a multiplayer VR title exclusive to Centre VR in the UK

Out of the home, out of this world: life on the commercial frontier of VR

Location-based operators are now the frontline of VR adoption. We speak to one such operator, Centre VR in Bournemouth, about its learnings from running VR games day-in, day-out on the south coast.

It’s not news that VR’s penetration into the home has been slower than many had hoped. But the rollout of location-based VR services has continued to boom, with VR headsets being seen increasingly in consumer-friendly locations across the country, largely run by independent operators.

Such operators are garnering valuable insights into consumer experiences of VR usage on a day by day basis, seeing what works, what doesn’t and what kind of software pulls in the crowds. Plus they’re seeing increasing educational and corporate use.

Centre VR in Bournemouth is one such operation. MCV catches up with managing director Colin Parnell to speak about the sector.

Colin Parnell, Centre VR

Home VR seems to have stalled somewhat, while location-based experiences like Centre VR are doing well, why do you think that is?

Most people’s first VR experience is at a location-based VR centre like ours. Unless you put on a headset it’s impossible to ‘get’ VR, so no one wants to spend a ton of their hard-earned cash on something they don’t understand. In addition, it’s lonely in VR with just one headset in the home. Almost no one can afford more than one, so a family can’t experience it together, not like the Wii for example, so it hasn’t caught the attention of families.

At Centre VR, all the family can play in VR and experience it together. We are only just getting started too, with tournaments around the corner, once our customer-base has grown sufficiently.

How large is your operation currently and what hardware are you using?

We currently have two sites in Bournemouth: a smaller attention-grabbing location in the town’s most popular leisure complex with seven VR stations, and then our flagship location, with 31 VR headsets, just three minutes walk from the smaller one in a large shopping centre.

We use Vive Pro and Samsung Odyssey headsets. We use the Odysseys for driving, flying and seated experiences, and the Vive Pros for the 4mx4m play areas, some with wireless connections. We have big open areas ready for large format experiences and escape rooms.

What kind of experiences are proving most popular, and what’s coming up?

Job Simulator and Beat Saber are obviously popular, and our UK exclusive Tower Tag has proved to be a big hit, being specifically designed for the multiplayer audience we want to appeal to. It’s a laser tag style game which features haptic vests and hardware
gun accessories.

We provide an option we call ‘Your Choice’ – a menu-driven service that provides the guest with over 100 titles to choose from. We also offer driving and flying options using Project CARS 2 and Aerofly – plus coming soon, we have two Digital Combat Simulator-powered experiences: The Battle of Britain Experience and Top Gun.

Big brands are a great way to draw new users. Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs has proved popular, and we are expecting the upcoming Game of Thrones and Walking Dead titles to make us very busy. We very much hope to get John Wick Chronicles on our platform, and perhaps some Star Wars titles – plus the launch of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed escape rooms will be popular I am sure.

What kind of experiences would you like to have but can’t get hold of?

It’s the education and business side that I would really like to see more titles become available for, specifically educational titles that address the UK curriculum, and, for business, training titles for health and safety – common machines like welding and fork lift trucks, as we would be able to provide corporate organisations with a place to send their employees for specific, effective training. The future of training in VR is so amazing and exciting. The US police, UK police and fire services are all using VR to train in very specific areas. Normal businesses will eventually be able to benefit from this type of training.

What needs to be considered when addressing those education and business segments?

For education, the key is that we have 30 stations. so that we can accommodate an entire class. We have some schools that have booked to ensure every pupil attends a VR session with us this term, and others who have sent some classes, with more planned. We also hope to develop educational software with our own developers in the future.

For business users, we now have all the facilities of a conference venue and have already hosted a business networking event with more conferences booked. At these we usually find other business opportunities and are providing on-location VR gaming activities for corporates, with one due to happen in Monaco early next year.

We have teamed up with two VR software developers in the region to offer VR content creation, and we expect that to become a larger part of our business going forward. We also host many corporate meetings, parties and team building activities, as we have a board room that seats 12 and has AV facilities.

The education segment is intriguing, how big could it become?

It could be huge, we are helping to develop it in Bournemouth. But with education budgets being what they are, I don’t see it moving forward without more places like us. Schools are not going to rush out and buy the kit, they struggle to afford base computers, so VR will be the last thing on their minds, even though in the future, I am sure, this will be seen as a mistake.

Ask the children who have visited us about their time in VR with the Apollo 11 astronauts and I am sure they will astound you with their knowledge and enthusiasm for an event that happened 50 years ago. VR has that effect.

There’s a lot of games development on and around the south coast, what can developers gain from using a location such as yours? 

Many VR developers don’t have the space for more than one VR headset, so for showing clients their progress or developing in teams, I would hope that devs will take advantage of our many headsets and play areas, meeting room and corporate facilities.

We are able to offer a unique opportunity for teams and groups to play, learn, test and develop together in VR, in comfortable surroundings.

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