A mind-blowing VR arcade won me over. It’ll get you too – CNET

The VR arcade could be your next hangout spot.

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Virtual reality has turned me into a globe-trotting adventurer.

I’ve scuba dived massive undersea shipwrecks, coming face to face with a blue whale as it swam by. I’ve fought off hordes of oncoming zombies with nothing but a shotgun, an ax and my wits to stay alive. And I’ve piloted a spaceship in an epic dogfight against — does it even matter?

But through every adventure, I’ve known it was fake.

Until one day, when I explored a room on the top story of some city building with VR goggles on my head, a computer strapped to my back and a flashlight in my hand.

I was walking with my real legs, but seeing a virtual world. As I moved down the corridor, I felt a gust of hot air on my left. I turned and saw a furnace. Then, to my right was a stool. I kicked it with my real foot and it moved in the game world.

Then came the moment of truth.

A voice warned me drones were invading the city, and my only hope was to grab a gun, run outside and make my way to another building to disable them.

I headed for the edge of the building where a board was waiting for me to cross. I peered down the several-story drop and felt my throat tighten. In that moment, fighting down a wave of panic, I’d totally forgotten I was safe and sound, standing on the ground in a warehouse north of San Francisco.

The experience was created by a new virtual company called Nomadic, which is mixing movie-magic sensors and VR headsets to deliver thrills I’d never before experienced in virtual reality. 

Nomadic, and its investors who just poured $6 million into the company, believe you’ll be willing to pay as much as $20 to have your stomach turn as you walk across that wobbly board while shooting down an invading army of drones. 

I think so too.

Because Nomadic may hold the secret to the question that’s dogged VR makers for the past couple years: What will it take for you and me to buy this stuff?

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VR arcades promise a different type of escapism than you get at home.

Josh Miller/CNET

Welcome to the new arcade

We can pretty much agree VR is a pretty geeky idea. You either have to have one of the few phones even capable of playing VR games (like a $750 Samsung Galaxy S8) or you have to buy an expensive computer that can power a headset like the $599 Oculus Rift from Facebook. I’m talking from $499 to more than $1,000.

And then of course, you wear a bulky headset as everyone back in the real world watches you move around excitedly, your mouth open in awe, your arms waving wildly.  

But it’s the promise of VR that’s so cool.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, believes VR will change everything from medicine to education. In the next seven years, Zuckerberg’s said he’s prepared to spend $3 billion to make it happen. And that doesn’t even include the more than $2 billion he spent to take over VR headset company Oculus three years ago.

He isn’t the only one betting that VR is going to be big.  Sony, HTC, Microsoft, Google and Apple, to name just a few tech companies, are hoping to cash in on what may be a $600 billion market in four years.

After all, pretty much everyone in Silicon Valley says the future is going to be all about artificial intelligence, social networking and VR.

“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction,” Zuckerberg wrote when Facebook bought Oculus, two years before it hit retail store shelves. He said VR had the potential to remake everything from education to medicine to communications, just like the phone and computer had done. “The future is coming.”

When VR arrived on store shelves in the past year, tech watchers said it had as much potential to transform our world as the iPhone when it was released a decade ago.  

But it’s been a slow start for VR. So far, the best-selling headset is Sony’s PlayStation VR, which has notched more than a million units at $399 apiece since its release in October. Rumors from industry executives and consultants are that competing headsets have sold a fraction as many (HTC, maker of the $799 Vive, declined to share sales figures. Oculus didn’t respond to a request for comment about how many Rift headsets it’s sold since they went on the market last March)

Time to play

Arcades aren’t new.

Forty years ago, the video game industry faced a conundrum that today seems almost laughable: Video games back then weren’t considered kids’ toys. Instead, the bulky cabinets they came in were installed in pool halls, bars and college hangouts, where people popped quarters to play titles like Pong and the racing game Moto-Cross in between swigs of beer.

But then Pac-Man came along and changed the way the world looked at entertainment — and made people rethink their perception of video games.

Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell thought kids would love games, so he launched a chain of stores called Chuck E. Cheese’s. Originally called “Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre,” it offered music, food, a cartoon mouse mascot and, of course, video games.

Now, the next generation of arcades may be on their way. But these aren’t for kids. Instead, they’re for the seemingly reluctant masses who haven’t yet bought into VR.

“VR is one of those things that’s very hard to talk to someone about, but as soon as they experience it, it sells itself,” said Frank Azor, head of Dell’s Alienware gaming division. He’s worked with VR arcade makers The Void and Zero Latency, which together have more than half a dozen locations in Australia, Japan, the UK, Spain and the US.

If game makers can show what’s possible with VR tech, he said, people will come. Toss in some food and beer, and VR arcades could make for an easy family outing.

“If you experience those things, it’s jaw-dropping and it’s unbelievable and you don’t want to leave,” Azor said.

That’s part of what’s appealed to companies like IMAX, which is building arcades in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and Los Angeles. Even major game makers like Ubisoft, whose games include popular titles like Assassin’s Creed, FarCry and Just Dance, are creating games for these centers — despite the industry’s slow start. 

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the industry’s annual hype-building event for new games and devices being held this week in Los Angeles, other game makers such as Bethesda Softworks announced plans to sell VR games by the year’s end.

“None of us believes this is going away as a form of gaming,” said Chris Early, Ubisoft’s head of digital publishing. “This is our chance to figure out how to tell stories in this new medium.”

Not everyone’s sold.

Sean Kelley, an associate at investment and advisory company The Rain Group, said while his firm has made bets on entertainment and live events, it’s not yet convinced VR arcades are going to be a big draw.

“The biggest issue with these VR arcades is not demand or content or whether the experience is cool, it’s throughput,” he said. There are already signs some arcade chains are failing, and part of that is because they just don’t make enough money, he added. “You have to put enough people through.”

Even so, Owen Mahoney, a former EA executive who’s now CEO of Japanese game maker Nexon, sees VR arcades as a potential saving grace for the industry. He’s unimpressed with VR headset sales so far and thinks arcades could at least offer a compelling experience that you might want to pay for up to an hour.

“It’s like the Segway,” he said, referring to tech that was once going to change the way we move an is most visibly used by tour guides and in malls.

But even if these arcades go bust in the next couple years, Teppei Tsutsui, managing director of Gree VR Capital, said it’s worth trying. And that’s because some VR is better than no VR. “For the moment, VR arcades are a good place for people to try VR.”

My body is ready

It’s hard to say whether VR is part of another bubble, destined for the dustbin of history next to Pets.com, or is a legitimately world-changing technology.

But as I’m standing on the wobbly board, I don’t particularly care. All I could think was how much I was fighting that part of my brain screaming “SELF-PRESERVATION!” as I looked down at the fake alleyway below.

I was a skeptic before putting on the headset to go through Nomadic’s game. Now all I wanted to do was try it again.

“You have radio, TV and film,  but this is entirely different because you’re actually in it,” said Nomadic CEO Doug Griffin. “We see this as a new medium for entertainment.”

Well, they’ve got at least one customer because I’ll be among the first in line when Nomadic’s VR arcades open later this year.

For more on E3 2017, check out complete coverage on CNET and GameSpot.  

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET’s newsstand edition.

Virtual reality 101: CNET tells you everything you need to know about VR.

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