IAAPA Paris Review Part 2

Last week in part one of the IAAPA Paris VR review, I covered Spree Interactive’s kid-friendly free roam system, the latest from Hologate, motion simulation attractions from Modimage, the amazing Toyland from Illucity and Backlight, and the new Dojo from Altereyes. This week I will try to cover the best of the rest.

The biggest most significant recent development in VR technology is called “inside-out” tracking. The first VR systems used external cameras (“outside-in”) to track everything happening in the game space.  The system would translate that positioning to the player, so they always knew where they were in relation to the environment and other players. The cameras could also track physical objects, like controllers or even props in the space.  This tracking must be fast and accurate, or the player experiences lag,  or “latency,” which can cause discomfort or simulator sickness. One of the pioneers in the VR space, aspirational-named “Zero Latency” required 60 cameras and a stack of servers and switches six feet tall to pull this off.

In the last year, the largest tech companies in the space, Microsoft, Oculus (owned by Facebook) and the partnership of HTC and Valve have been working on putting the tracking cameras inside the headset. Instead of the room tracking the players, the players would track the room. This “inside-out” approach dramatically reduces the complexity and cost of a VR installation.

 

Windows Mixed Reality

There are currently two big players in the inside out space. A partnership between HP and Microsoft have a backpack system that is dominating the multiplayer free roam VR market right now. Zero Latency has ditched its home-grown system in favor of the “Windows Mixed Reality” platform. (Don’t let the name confuse you, it’s VR.)

This move has dropped the cost of a Zero Latency system by about half.  It’s made the player experience better with more comfortable gear and near-zero latency and increased Zero Latency’s ability to scale. Where they struggled to install two systems in a month with their prior tech, they are installing one a week between now and the end of the year. Expect to see them hit 50 locations soon.

Varonia brought their Virtual Games Park demo to Paris, after a debut at Bowl Expo in Las Vegas this past July.  I wrote in my recap of that show in Replay Magazine that feedback on the system has been generally negative. The founder reached out to me to say I should not review something I have not tried, so I approached them at the show.  It might be due to the language barrier, but they didn’t seem to want to let me try it.  I asked an operator with experience running VR, who was already in line to let me know what he thought.  He texted me after, “Not good, not worth your time.” This is the second show in a row I received that feedback.

A newcomer to the scene, Protocol 223 by Bigger Inside, added a body tracking suit and gloves to their Windows Mixed Reality experience. They built a playing space out of giant LEGO blocks.

They had a wastebasket full of washable gloves for sanitary purposes. Most operators will be turned off by the high labor component and the potential low reliability of a full-suit and wearables gloves. Calibration is also typically slow. Super accurate hand tracking is coming to headsets next year, and I have yet to see a compelling case for full body tracking. I’d be hesitant to jump on this application for now.

Kynoa is another company jumping on the WMR trend. They swapped out their old Oculus Rift setup for the new HP Reverb headset on their Koliseum Soccer VR foosball table. Removing the tracking cameras from the tabletop increases reliability and streamlines the unit. This game is one of the best uses of VR that I’ve seen. Too often, developers are using VR because they can, not because they should.

This game vastly improves on the game of Foosball. It adds a level of strategy, the player animations are lovely, and the size and scale of the experience are really dramatic. It’s also priced right for a 4-player system and in the right location, will make good money.

 

Oculus Quest

The other major inside-out tracking development this year was the release of Oculus Quest, an all-in-one, inside-out headset. Where the WMR setup needs a backpack computer, Quest uses a mobile processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 835).  There are no backpacks and no cables; just a headset and controllers. The downside is that the graphics are never going to keep up with what can be generated by a high-end gaming PC. Most locations won’t care, however, because hardcore gamers are not your market. Expect to see many new products based upon Quest in the coming year. It’s cheap, easy and should prove reliable.

There were three solutions at IAAPA Paris based upon Quest. They were all in various states of Beta but will be shipping by Q1 2020.

Adding to their successful backpack-based Adventure multiplayer arcade system, Vex Solutions unveiled the Vex Arena, a scalable free-roam system using Quest. From 2 to 12 players can play in arenas ranging from 4×4 up to 10×10 meters. The first game is a player-vs-player game that uses a clever combination of teleportation and free-roaming. Players “roam” on virtual platforms the size of the physical arena, and then teleport to other platforms by walking up to and scanning doors with their controller. They’ve created a flexible platform that can scale from small to large spaces.

Vex prototyped a hot-swappable battery charging system, and a mounting rack to store the headsets. Costs are expected to range from US$40K to $80K or so upon launch.

 

Pixnami unveiled its compact Hero Zone multiplayer arcade solution in Paris to great player reviews. The turnkey system takes up only 13 square meters, making it the smallest 4-player VR system I have seen. The game, a non-violent co-op shooter with a pumping music soundtrack, was fun and action-packed. It is challenging yet accessible for first-timers. They are also working on a fun, Minecraft inspired zombie shooter that should be ready at launch. Priced at under US$40K, it’s worth a look for anyone looking for a compact, easy to operate multiplayer VR system.

Scale-1 Portal was previewing its Voxel Arena Quest-based VR attraction across the road from the convention center. The makers of the Voxel mixed reality arcade system unveiled at IAAPA Orlando last year is back at it with a 4-player co-op game that seems like a mashup of an escape room and action shooter. It’s too early in development to evaluate, but expect to see them launch at Amusement Expo in March in New Orleans.

Up two weeks ago, Oculus was tight-lipped about their willingness to license Quest for multiplayer arcade games. At the Oculus Connect 6 convention in San Jose, California, this month, they removed that restriction and announced they’d be launching an official licensing program in Q4. I expect to see dozens of Quest-based VR systems come to market in the next year.

The allure of a low-priced VR system that’s easy to use will prove irresistible to developers. I know of at least 20 in development, and I am sure for each one I know about there are 2 or 3 I don’t. Watch this space, as it’s going to be exciting.

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