Now over 100 years old, the International Association for the Attractions Industry (everything from the major theme parks to local arcades) concluded its sprawling annual expo and conference in Orlando. This year’s edition was the largest ever, with over 26,000 registered buyers, 42,000 attendees, and 1,146 exhibitors. According to the latest IAAPA Global Theme and Amusement Park Outlook Report (2019–2023), theme and amusement parks worldwide are expected to entertain more than 1.16 billion people in 2019 and generate $52 billion in revenue.
Last year we talked about over sixty attractions, from simple driving simulators to free roam VR arenas that can command over two hundred thousand dollars. This year there was more, seventy-five at one count, and a dozen that use some other form of XR (AR, projection mapping). By way of organizing this massive number of VR experiences, we’re going to divide the pack into three groups, which we will treat in three posts: “The Best” (part one, below), “LBVR Enclosures” (part two), and “Vehicle Simulations, VR Coasters & Other XR Surprises” (part three). This last group includes vehicle and sports simulators that do not use HMDs, which begs the question: if an immersive simulation doesn’t use a headset, is it VR?
Four player enclosures dominated the VR offerings and demanded its own section (more on these tomorrow). These are small footprint systems that rely on inexpensive, tethered, cantilevered faux free roam systems. The systems consist of HMDs networked with Vive HMDS. This is the method used by two of the best enclosures, Hologate (see below) and Omni (see below). Others use the Vive Pro’s extended tracking, or full on free roaming with backpack PCs, or all-in-ones like the Quest. These are all designed to help operators reach profitability fast. They require one operator, have relatively high throughput (20+ per hour), a small footprint (12 x12–14 x 18). Most were offering very favorable financing terms.
In 2017, Hologate popularized the four player small footprint open sided VR enclosures. Content is optimized at five minutes to maximize hourly throughput. An overnight success seven years in the making, Hologate had more than a dozen fast followers at the show, some of which offer competitive pricing and products.
Of course, everyone must play to the largest audience (young men), and the game must be self explanatory (shooting, racing), so the natural default is some kind of competition. And therefore esport. And therefore repeatability and therefore profitability. It has to look cool, so all the “enclosures” are hardly enclosed. They’re all open sided, framed by steel, aluminum, or other themed framing.
“It’s getting more confusing for operators, and trying to figure out where to invest your time at a huge show is more difficult than ever,” said Bob Cooney, an XR consultant specializing in LBVR who’s been in the business long enough to be associated with the earliest Laser Tag locations in the early 90s. “There’s a false narrative we have too many zombie shooters,” says Cooney. “It’s what people seem to want to play.” This also accounts for the enduring popularity of auto simulations.
It is impossible to personally do all 75 VR rides, attractions and experiences at IAAPA, what you have here and in the subsequent two parts is a description of two dozen attractions that we sought out or found through serendipity. We believe it’s an inclusive 10,000 foot view of the location-based VR (LBVR) landscape today.
Hologate is the clear leader in the multiplayer arcade segment, with nearly 300 units sold, and over 5 million games played. This year they showcased the Hologate Tower, a two-story version of Hologate for locations that need more capacity without taking up extra floor space (but will also need to have high enough ceilings). They were also offering the Hologate Blitz, a four player seated attraction on a motion bases that makes the unit look like a four legged mechanical insect, which is irresistible to boys of all ages.
Through their financing partners, Hologate offers attractive financing for their $90,000 four player units. Theoretically, an operator should be able to pay off the unit with net revenue and never spend any money out of pocket to get a Hologate enclosure in their venue.
A note on pricing: All prices quoted are approximate, as every vendor I spoke with was offering “show pricing” with substantial discounts for those willing to make an immediate commitment. For this reason, by the second day of the show many attractions, such as Hologate, Virtuix, and VRsenal, were sporting large “sold to La Plaza Colorado, or Andretti’s” tags. Good marketing, that.
Virtuix has been making a lot of news with its eye-catching e-sports Omni Arena, which has been supported with over $100,000 in prizes from HTC and HP.
Their unique approach to VR has players wear overshoes and run on a slippery hard plastic disk. Sort of a foot powered mouse. They make it as fun to watch as it is to play.
Popular tournament titles are “Core Defense” and “Elite Force” (their PvP Call of Duty). The Austin-based company represents itself and has recently added three people to their sales staff. In addition to their Sold to Andretti sticker, there was a large map of their fast growing network of over 40 Omni Arena installations.
VR Studios Atom and Arena
VRstudios has built large-scale free roam VR arena installations for the biggest amusement parks (Universal Studios Orlando, Knott’s Berry Farm) and has sold over 100 systems around the world of varying sizes. Canada’s largest multiplex cinema owner, Cineplex, invested in the company and is rolling out VR Studios’ products in their Cinemas and Rec Room and Playdium Amusement Centers.
On the IAAPA show floor, VR Studios was demonstrating their wireless, 4-person dual ATOM configuration, whose modular design allows for additional ATOMs to be connected allowing up to 8 players to interact in a single game. The company is now using HP’s backpack system for its free roam VR installations.
About a half-mile away, at Dave & Buster’s, the largest amusement chain in the US with over 135 locations, VRstudios’ eight-player free-roam VR Arena is doing brisk business. This requires a larger footprint, but one of the benefits of VRstudios’ Arena is that it can be flexibly reconfigured to virtually any size.
Zero Latency, the first company to offer warehouse-scale free-roam VR, is one of the market leaders in this category, with 39 venues in twenty countries. The company presented a new single-player VR experience giving attendees a preview of their Gen 2 VR System. Having switched to more advanced, lower cost HP technology, ZL is now offering much more attractive deals to partners, and continues to operate its own venues in Australia.
The company has five titles, including Engineerium, a dizzying (in a good way) journey through Escher-like spaces, with moving tiles, clouds and inverted flying whales. It’s art. Fabulously impractical. Totally uncommercial. How can you not love a company that does that? Popularity is heavily skewed in the Zombie and Robot direction which leads directly to VR esports which the company is promoting, having had success with Zombie Survival leagues down under. A kid’s title based on Scary Girl will be released in January, as birthday parties are an essential part of any successful location-based VR attraction.
This single player open sided Beat Saber game from VRsenal was at the show last year. We are still expecting big things from this highly social fun machine. As you can see from the video, it draws a crowd. But. The price is forty-three thousand. There are about 100 in the field. The unit on the floor, which takes up just thirty six square feet, had a shiny new “Unit sold to Rollhouse” tag.
Given its non-stop fun to users and spectators alike, and its suitability for hotels, casinos, bars, cruise ships, bowling alleys, trampoline parks and old fashioned arcades, with high returns and attractive financing, VRsenal’s small footprint Beat Saber attraction should surely be a best seller.
“What slowed them down was the unit they showed last year was a prototype,” said Cooney. “They had six months of work to do to make it production ready. They sold 50 at the show (I have verified it). My guess is they will ship 500 next year.” Beat Saber is available at your local VRcade or on home VR systems like the Oculus Quest, which is featuring the game in prime time advertising. Interestingly, Beat Saber was just acquired by Oculus. While VRsenal does not have an exclusive they do have maybe sexiest unattended VR attraction on the market, and a good head start.
CEO Ben Davenport acknowledged the unit seems expensive compared to four player enclosures. However, because of its popularity, and the fact that it does not require an operator, “Beat Saber is generating about 3.25% of total game revenue across 12 locations in North America where both Beat Saber and Hologate have been installed, while Hologate is generating 3.58%,” Davenport asserted in an email. “These are the official numbers provided to us by the operator of these locations.” For half the price and a quarter of the footprint, VRsenal’s Beat Saber generates roughly the same revenue as a four player enclosure, Davenport said.
Koliseum Soccer VR (Kynoa)
Greg Bacorn, a former history teacher from Buffalo, NY, founded Barron Games eleven years ago. His company specializes in coin-op air hockey and foosball tables. At IAAPA Paris last Spring, he met the Swiss developer Kyona, whose Koliseum Soccer VR is a 4-player VR foosball game. Bacorn knew immediately he had found a complimentary product well suited to his clients’ needs.
“The game must be blow-you-away world-class foosball, or it will be rejected,” predicted LBVR consultant Kevin Williams of the Stinger Report. Inside the VR experience, we were amazed by the volumetric view of the players, and the anchored handle. “It’s one of the best uses of VR in a traditional arcade game I have seen,” said Cooney.
At a projected price of $45,000, Koliseum Soccer VR has excellent economics to go with its tiny footprint, making it particularly attractive to operators of bars and other social venues. People know what it is and how to play. The next game to be released is Ice Hockey. A coin-op product will be introduced at Barron Games’ booth at the Amusement Expo in New Orleans in March, 2020.
Free Roam Leaders And Others Absent
The Void, Dreamscape, and Sandbox, are three of the most visible and high quality companies in LBVR. They all use free roam technology in a relatively large footprint. They all make use of haptics, props, wind, and heat. These are branded, themed attractions, backed by the top venture capitalists, movie studios, cinema chains, and celebrities like Steven Spielberg. They have raised over $150 million between them. None of these companies seems to be interested in franchising, or theme park distribution, although the Void is across town at Downtown Disney, an entertainment district adjacent to the gated Florida parks. Sadly Nomadic’s single location just down the street from the Orlando Convention Center on International Drive closed after nine months of operation. Also absent were enclosure systems Exit VR and WePlayVR by AiSolve. Last year the latter was part of Bandi Namco’s booth. This year Bandai was focused on Mario Kart simulators. “If a smaller player is absent from the place you have to be,” said Williams, “there are only two possible reasons: they’re struggling or about to be acquired.”
Four player enclosures dominated the VR offerings These are small footprint systems that rely on inexpensive tethered, cantilevered faux free roam systems, HMDs networked with the Vive Pro’s extended tracking, or full on free roaming with backpack PCs, or all-in-ones like the Quest. These are designed to help operators reach profitability fast. They require one operator, have high throughput (one as high as 36 players per hour), and a small footprint (12 x 12–20 x 20). Most were offering very favorable financing terms. While the market will decide the winners, there is plenty of business to go around. The amusement industry throws off 55 billion dollars a year in revenue.
Launched in 2016, Moscow-based Anvio is a free roam operator, developer, and franchisor with 27 locations, primarily in Eastern Europe, where they have successfully fostered VR clubs. They offer three progressively larger enclosures, the Arena, the Cube and the Park.
Anvio uses a slightly different optical tracking with their backpack-based free roam set up that eliminates the need for optical trackers and makes the enclosure size more flexible.
This 225 sf four-player open enclosure is also a tethered system. They offer five games, including Gold and Mace, which is a unique, cartoony take on a wave shooter, where you grab little attacking knights as you dodge bombs. The company is planning to upgrade to the higher end Valve Index which has a wide field of view.
The company is aggressively expanding and offering aggressive pricing and financing, on terms that are 50% of its competitors. The company says it wants to establish long-term partnerships with operators with an arrangement that includes low upfront costs, revenue sharing, and the promise of frequent hardware and software updates.
Alter Eyes, a Belgium-based company, makes this circular four player free roam enclosure, Dojo, which won a prize at IAAPA Europe earlier this year for “Best Exhibit.” Their eye-catching new enclosure screams “family fun.” The Dojo features untethered HMDs using Vive Pro tracking. “It’s a VR Playground, not an arena,” a company rep told us. They have five locations in Paris cinemas.
Dojo, both the name of the enclosure and its premiere title, Loco Dojo Fiesta, is a whimsical exuberant experience where players compete in silly, fast-paced timed mini-games. Other family friendly titles include Pointy Ends and Clash of Chefs.
The emphasis on family fun was a breath of fresh air in the miasma of testosterone friendly shooters. The unit is retailing for $120,000, about 20% higher than competing tethered systems.
This is an expensive but lavish four player haptic platform experience that was at LA’s premiere XR venue, Two Bit Circus, and is presently in two Hershey’s Parks, and at an Andretti’s location. The motion platform with wind and heat provides an unexpected thrills for this high throughput VR attraction.
The open sided motion platform allows for spectators to interact with those in the simulation by throwing bombs.
Montreal Based Minority Media was presenting a 12 foot by 12 foot four player tethered VR enclosure based on the popular Transformers franchise. The company operates twenty-eight Chaos Jump VR enclosures, some of which will be upgraded with this new four player v. player free-for-all.
Michael Zaidan, VP of business development and sales at the Montreal company told us their new Transformers enclosure sold on the first day of the show to the Kalahari Resort and Conference Center in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
Bavarian VR company Spree, formerly known as Holodeck VR, has five units in Germany and one in the US. They’re already using the new the all-in-one Pico headset in a four player, larger footprint 30x30 enclosure. The attraction has superior throughput as players ten players can participate. Spree emphasizses family-friendly content, like Anteater.
Spree Interactive, and I.E. Park, who manufactures and supplies rollercoasters and bumper cars now has a system which networks multiplayer bumper cars. While operations are more complex and expensive after a VR upgrade like it is, it is not nearly as expensive as building or rebuilding a physical ride.
There are ten free roam Vertigo locations of varying sizes in Russia. They use the same free roam HP backpack system that established companies like Zero Latency and VR Studios are using. The founders have a background in game design. They were exhibiting Zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine and the pirate-themed VR escape room Corsair’s Curse.
This four player VR escape room opened to positive reviews a year ago in the heart of Hollywood, CA. The game originated in France, Paris-based Monsieur K which uses a free roaming HTC Vive setup.
VR Room features several time travel games and a new Zombie game where, instead of shooting the Zombies, you are the Zombie. Games run 30–40 minutes depending on your ending.
VRLO (VR LEO)
This small (4 sf plus playing space) unattended single player cabinet with a card reader has 500 units in the field in China. The HMD retracts into an infrared cleaner. The “Leo” unit, as the company calls it, retails for $28,880.
Their company offers a limited number of games at this point. The most popular title is BlackShield, but Guardians of the Crystal, BlockTown, and Battle of the Monsters are also available. Company representative Christopher Morales told me in an email that “We are working alongside with Hollywood Producers to get New IP and different software developers for larger titles like Beat Saber, and Fruit Ninja. These games are cloud based and we can hope to have over 10 titles available beginning January 10th.”
Ten units are going into different locations in California, including two in the “indoor theme park,” Two Bit Circus in downtown LA. There are also units shipping to South America.
VRquest Arena offers four to Six player arenas, open sided 6 player wireless no backpack PC. They have six titles that appeal to different demographics, but Attek and Sea Bandits are their premier titles. The simple enclosures are 14.8 ft x 18.8 ft to 14.8 x 14.8.
Cleanbox is a hygienic and eco-friendly plug-and-play decontamination and drying system for VR and AR HMDs, controllers and other shared haptic devices.
Designed for use in every category of industry (enterprise, hospitals and other medical and mental healthcare facilities, universities, government and private training facilities, automotive, entertainment, etc.), Cleanbox is able to treat 100 or more devices at a time, definitively addressing the cleaning, drying, decontamination and odor issues that occur when multiple people use the same shared hardware on their face, eyes and head.
“When mom sees this,” Laurie Kaman, Cleanbox’s CMO said, “she feels a whole lot better about location based VR.”
“IAAPA this year was a show not about the technology but about the ROI that VR can achieve for the entertainment facility operators — the fancy promises and expensive hardware having to now prove its worth in order to survive,” Said Kevin Williams, location-based entertainment consultant, and veteran of Disney Imagineering.
Vehicle Simulations, VR Coasters & Other XR Surprises
There’s been a debate since the beginning of the industry about the definition of VR, and if a vehicle simulation using screens instead of headsets should be included. If players are immersed in a shared, dimensional virtual world, so the argument goes, where they have freedom of movement and interaction, are they not in virtual reality? Definitions notwithstanding, Vehicle Simulation is an important part of Location Based Entertainment and cannot be dismissed.
Bandi-Namco Mario Kart (Arcade Cabinet)
Bandi has several VR Mario Kart locations in Tokyo and the US. Last year, the company touted its partner AiSolve’s WePlayVR. Neither attraction was in their IAAPA booth this year. Instead, the company was promoting a two and four player networked vehicle simulation, also based on the Nintendo franchise title, for the relatively low cost of $10,500.
A sales representative said that while Bandi is still bullish on VR, neither Mario VR nor WePlayVR was selling as strongly as the cabinets. “We’re focused on bestsellers this year.” He put the number of Mario Kart cabinets around the world in the thousands, making it far more popular than the most popular VR systems.
Monetize your pool with this waterproof VR system for waterparks, and other public aquatic attractions. Their tethered system makes you feel like you are swimming with dolphins or on a spacewalk.
Their DIVR uses a combination snorkeling mask and headset to provide two underwater VR experience. There’s a free floating experience, where you snorkel through a reef or float over earth by the spade station. The company just announced DIVR+, which is a wall mounted thruster that give you the sensation you’re driving an undersea or outer space scooter.
Tawian-based Brogent systems, known for building ride attractions aroundthe world, including for the Masters of Flight ride at Legoalnd Florida. Director of Innovation Andy Kiang reported at a news conference held during IAAPA that five additional flying rides are planned around the world in 2020, along with an indoor car race track in the heart of Times Square.
CXC Simulations once again brought its eight networked race car simulators on motion bases to the floor of IAAPA and drew huge crowds to its installation to watch the action. Drivers wore HMDs or used the panoramic screens in front of the cockpit.
The company was founded in 2012 by Chris Considine, a former race car driver with a background in technology and engineering. The CXC Simulations Motion Pro II was initially designed as a simulator for personal use at home, but now has thirty commercial installations around the world.
The largest, Megapolis, in Puerto Rico, has ten networked simulators in their location
The Motion Pro II does convert very easily to a flight simulator — ten minutes with hand tools is what is required to add the flight controls. As you can see from these photos, the elaborate installation isn’t cheap. An eight cockpit system costs $726,000. With 20% utilization estimated revenue per year is 1,051,142, based on $20 for a ten minute experience.
DOF Robotics is a motion simulator company out of Istanbul, Turkey. They specialize in large custom simulator rides but recently have been combining simulators and free roam/shooting games. Two in-development titles, Dark Matter and Light of Hope, mix motion simulation thrill rides with interactive shooting gameplay.
LA Photo Party (Mobile AR)
Catching us unaware as we walked down to the aisles of IAAPA was photo capture kiosk specialist LA Party Photo. Using technology similar to that of a Snap filter, the company has been augmenting photos at theme parks, concerts, and sporting events around the world. We were offered several choices (ours above), which were sent to me via email, ready for sharing. The system is capable of capturing and masking multiple people simultaneously.
The best parachute VR we’ve ever done! The paradrop harness is attached to a lift, so you’re really several feet in the air, feet off the floor, lifted and dropped as flying. Players score by points by maneuvering through way points on the mountains. The direction of the the wind on your face will shift as you do. The company says city fly-throughs, like the one they have in Singapore, add a different dimension to the attraction, and open up a big market.
The unit is in the $100,000 range, and it’s an eye-catcher. They have five titles including the Singapore city exploration. There’s an international leaderboard users can access from the QR Code on their receipt.
A potential high flyer we hope to see at IAAPA next year.
Skytech Ski Simulators
This skiing simulator can be calibrated to your skills from beginner to World Cup levels. Skytech was formed by avid pro skiers in 2010 to produce ski simulators of varying size (and price) to Olympic teams all over the world. Worldwide sales now exceed 1,000 installs. “We started getting orders from parks and family entertainment centers from around the world and recognized the entertainment value of the product,” said Alex Golunov, Head of the US Office and co-founder of Skytech.
Simulators cost anywhere $30,000–130,000 depending on the size and power of the platform and complexity of the virtual reality system. Golunov admitted they’ve been experimenting with VR HMDs but because of logistical problems posed by weight, heat, sweat, and the stress of prolonged physical activity, they don’t think it would add to their best-selling system that is already thoroughly immersive and beloved by many of its users. The company says GPS-scouting drones capture new ski areas all the time
Triotech launched the Storm™ at IAAPA. This fifty square foot coin-op combines VR, a D-box motion base, wind effects, and attractive cabinet featuring a 50-inch screen TV. The player with the most points at the end of the ride wins, which the company hope will foster repeat play of this $50,000 ride. Comes with three games. “They call us the rebels of the industry. And, quite frankly, we take it as a compliment,” said founder and CEO Ernest Yale.
This company had no demo at IAAPA because what they do is retrofit coasters and bumper cars with VR. To date they’ve converted 60 parks and 70 attractions. It takes two more employees to manage up to three hundred all-in-one Pico Goblin HMD. The way it works is that the ride has been downloaded to each headset, which transmits its position throughout the ride.
Most recently they created a Roam & Ride, which combines free-roaming virtual reality with a VR thrill ride. They are also working on a water diving attraction.
Wave Formula 1 Driving Simulator
Italy’s Wave places guests into the realistic fiberglass cockpit of a formula one racer. Though not an HMD VR experience, the simulation is fully immersive, with three screens that wrap around the driver. There are eight high end simulation centers in Italy. In terms of wicked coolness, these guys are probably the best. But that Italian styling don’t come cheap. Each simulator is over $50,000.
VR systems today have frame rates over 90 fps, so motion sickness should be a thing of the past. BUT the proliferation of low cost motion bases for VR simulators has brought it back. Yes, the motion base looks better on the floor, and you’re giving the customer something they’re not going to get from the best home system, including a stomach churning feeling you get when things are out of sync just the tiniest bit.
After some misguided soul (name withheld on request) told us it was good, we set out to try the only AR HMD system at the show. It was certainly ambitious. And it was backed by the established attractions producer Sartori. It was a dark ride of sorts, a cabin in which you sit. It rolls forward. We’re wearing a custom (hacked together) HMD with a wide field of view. We flew around a projected mountain landscape while shooting. Everything was out of sync from the beginning, resulting in motion sickness
Xtrematic’s an interesting and original take on haptics. They’re matching an HTC Vive with two machines, one a kind of rocking motorcycle seat, for racing and flying, and another for running. The standing unit is $13,500 and has ten titles. We straddled the ATV to race over the sand dunes, instantly lost the trail and had a dizzying ride over the dunes. Oops. Note to self: motion bases & VR = no fly zone.
We also tried a player vs. player Mech battle. Each player was in their own motion cabinet. The field of play was a cityscape. You could crush some but not all obstacles. You could turn at the waist, or turn your vehicle. There were heads up displays everywhere. It’s possible someone who is more of a gamer would like this, someone who could tolerate a bigger cognitive load. We tore off the HMD and crawled out of that suck panting for breath.
Finally, there is Rabbids VR from Ubisoft and LAI Games. This is an attendantless motion base (also from D-box) with two HMDs. It’s based on Ubisoft’s pop culture characters Raving Rabbids, which are wild rabbit-like creatures who like to cause havoc and mischief, and speak gibberish, like Minions. They are the stars of the show you ride though, screaming in your ear the whole way. There are six five minute adventures to choose from. We picked Coaster Calamity and lasted about ninety seconds before tearing the headset from our eyes. Apparently few others have this experience as, according to Bob Cooney, LAI has shipped 500 units with no end in sight.
Alexis Macklin Wraps It Up
“Virtual reality’s emerging prominence in the out of home landscape was on full display at IAAPA in 2019. We saw more vendors than ever before exhibiting solutions designed to be integrated into venues. Competition in the sector seems to be intensifying, and we expect lots of movement in 2020,” said Alexis Macklin of Greenlight Insights. “We expect to see some consolidation in the coming years, as competitive solutions drive costs down and force weak competitors out. Vendors such as Hologate, Virtuix Inc, and VRStudios are doing their part to innovate and gain a competitive edge.
“5G is a major tailwind for the Location-Based VR market as more bandwidth and cloud computing is brought closer to the network’s edge. 5G’s effect will create the opportunity for technology vendors to cut the cord and bring new free-roam systems to the market, in most cases eliminating the need for costly PC backpacks and motion-tracking technology. By 2023, Greenlight Insights expects VR systems incorporating standalone headsets will represent a majority share of the HMD used in the out-of-home market.
“A noticeable technology missing from the IAAPA floor was augmented reality. There was only a handful of companies exhibiting AR solutions on the floor, most of which showcasing AR projected on climbing walls. Venue operators, especially at museums, tourist destinations, and other edu-tainment centers, are looking at augmented reality to better engage with their patrons and target audience. Greenlight Insights expects this trend to accelerate as Web AR deployments become more commonplace. As it was with VR, the use of AR in the out-of-home entertainment sector will be first championed by content developers and software tools rather than system vendors, so it could be an emerging trend to watch at IAAPA 2020.”
Many thanks for the kind assistance of my colleagues Bob Cooney, Kevin Williams, and Alexis Mackin of Greenlight Insights, in the preparation of this series.