Back in 2011, before the now infamous Oculus Kickstarter thrust VR back into the spotlight, Jamie Kelly became fascinated by a related idea. What if, he wondered, there could be a wireless virtual reality system that breathed new life into the physical arcade concept?
“As the world’s only platform for wide-area, immersive, wireless, multiplayer gaming, the VRcade locations would host tournaments and other events, which would encourage participants to play, and get good at, sports that could not exist in the real world,” says the co-founder of VRcade, recalling his then unrealised dream.
It has become fairly common to hear people propose the notion that modern VR could see a return of the arcade. It’s a beguiling idea, but is there really a chance that VR, arcades and e-sports could come together and prompt a return to visiting dedicated venues to play games? Kelly believes so. So much so, in fact, that he took his 2011 concept and ran with it, quickly realising his idea as a combined hardware platform and service.
VRcade today exists as part of the wider VRstudios company, which offers the same wireless system for simulation and enterprise uses. He also co-founded VR studios and clearly has a sincere affection for what arcades mean to gaming.
I would like to coin the phrase vSports. I think it will hit a whole new level when a player’s athleticism includes their bodies.
Ivan Blaustein, VRcade
THE LIVINGROOM UNLEASHED
Having built his VR arcade concept into a commercial operation, Kelly clearly believes in the potential of the concept. What is interesting, though, is the conviction that this is not about a return to players hunched at cabinets, but a chance to reinvent eSports, where games are played at ‘warehouse- scale’ between teams employing real- world athleticism. But before getting to that, it’s worth looking at the logic behind the VR arcade concept.
“There is amazing growth happening in VR technology,” Ivan Blaustein, VRcade’s director of product integration offers. “With the three major consumer platforms – Oculus, Vive and PSVR – now shipping, anyone can purchase a VR platform, set it up in their living room, and have an exciting VR experience. But there are major barriers to entry for at-home platforms including cost, space, setup time, complexity, and content.”
The logic, then, is that when VRcade install their wireless, motion capture based system – whether in a bar or amusement park – they are providing a high-end VR experience free from the limitations headsets made for the home market impose.
“There are also big benefits to experience design when targeting out- of-home installations,” Blaustein continues. “When designing for a living room, you must design for the minimum viable hardware configuration to not limit your user base. For example, although the Vive can track four metre-by- four metre space, I have not seen a game truly take advantage of that space because most users don’t have that much space in their set-ups. Developers also do not know what kind of graphics card users will be using and must design for a more modest PC configuration.”
The VRcade hardware, meanwhile, offers users the chance to play with a range of motion-tracked props, can be customised to serve individual locations, and can offer capacity up to 11,000-square feet; which is where eSports comes in.
“I am extremely excited for eSports in VR,” Blaustein asserts, before a playful suggestion. “I would like to coin the phrase vSports. I love that eSports is finally starting to take off in the US, getting more mainstream attention, but I think it will hit a whole new level when a player’s athleticism includes their bodies, not just their fingers.”
He’s certainly not alone in his unbridled enthusiasm for that idea.
“Within each piece of content, there is room for tournaments, micro- transactions, high-scores, and at-home tie-ins,” Kelly adds, proposing his concept for an empire to rival those courted by many real world sports. “This gives the user incentive to come back to their favourite titles, practice at home, and invest in their character.”
What that means for developers, who can harness a VRcade SDK for Unreal and Unity, is a new platform for their content. While the current spread of installed VR arcades is modest compared to VRcade’s ambition, they are quick to point out the opportunity to promote or even test content using VRcade.
“With the VRstudios system, we have the opportunity to show content in its best form,” Blaustein concludes. “Many developer teams want multiple users in the experience together, want to crank up the graphics and effects, or even just more exposure for their experience. Our arcade, theme park and family entertainment centre customers want a wide variety of experiences from hardcore, intense gameplay, to beautiful narrative experiences, and we are actively looking for developer partners to build out our content library.”