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Keeping the Spirit of the Coin-Op Arcade Alive Through VR

Adopting Origin, Vicon’s Location-Based Virtual Reality System, VR Arcade is Redefining What it Means to go to the Arcade

For a child of the 1980s, spending time at the local arcade was a rite of passage. Quarters were fuel for the machine, and no couch cushion was safe from a thorough search for loose change. It was a multi-billion dollar industry and even a lifestyle for many, and remained a dominant force in entertainment until home gaming stole its thunder.

While arcades will probably never return to their glorious heights from the ’80s, they continue to find new ways to survive – and even thrive. “Barcades” have popped up around the world, attracting adults by appealing to their love of bars and nostalgia, but another more traditional form of arcade is finding a renaissance thanks to the rise of virtual reality.

Around the world, developers are looking to bring VR to the crowds, often creating VR experiences similar to those that home users shelling out for top-of-the-line equipment are using. But a few developers are going one step further and mixing those experiences with a real-world component. Rather than just putting on a headset and remaining in a contained area, players can experiment with location-based VR (LBVR), where they are able to freely roam around what looks like an empty area to observers – but to the player appears to be a true, open virtual world to explore.

The practice of incorporating LBVR into a virtual arcade is beginning to catch on around the world, and one of the pioneers in this form of gaming is VR Arcade, a young company located in the Netherlands. By combining technical expertise, game development skill, and general business acumen, the Dutch startup is hoping to expand throughout Europe with the help of Origin by Vicon, a system created specifically for LBVR.

VR Arcade began in 2016 when game developer Wilco Vos and his friend, professional piano player Sander Bos, had a minor epiphany. They were both impressed by the potential of consumer-level virtual reality, but felt that the physical limitations caused by cords and limited tracking abilities were preventing the technology from truly offering an immersive experience. With the help of their friend, professional golfer Sebastiaan de Jonge, they decided to do something about it. In March 2017, the first VR Arcade opened its doors in Amsterdam.

The idea is simple enough, even if the execution is anything but. VR Arcade accommodates teams of up to five at a time, and following a brief tutorial and a few minutes playing VR mini games (in order to introduce VR to any newcomers), they are ushered into a large, 240-square-foot empty space. There they put on a battery backpack and an Oculus headset and take possession of a plastic rifle that acts as a peripheral in the game. From there, they are transported into a different world.

VR Arcade currently offers two games – Zombie Apocalypse and Alien Defense – both of which were created in-house by Vos and a team of developers using Unity, 3ds Max and Substance Painter. The environments and gameplay differ in each game, but the goal is essentially the same: work with your team, keep moving to stay alive and shoot the monsters that stand in your way. After the 20-minute session, teams (of legal age) can relax and enjoy a drink at VR Arcade’s bar.

To create their first fully immersive and free-roaming VR world, VR Arcade created a bespoke LBVR system featuring 39 motion capture cameras and software. Each player is fitted with one active tracker on their headset and another on their peripheral that record their movements in order to send  data into the game. Players are able to see their own head and weapon movements reflected, as well as those of their teammates.

The solution continues to be used in VR Arcade’s original location, but the costs and the complexity of the technology – which often requires the system to be manually adjusted between uses – made plans for expansion tricky. Then, in August 2018, Vicon released a solution designed with virtual arcades (and similar LBVR locations) in mind.

At SIGGRAPH 2018, Vicon announced and released Origin, its LBVR system which offers a ready-to-use solution. The system featured everything VR Arcade needed to create a new VR arena. Installation was straightforward and the software took care of the rest, including automatically correcting and healing itself between user sessions. Origin not only cut the costs, but made it easier for VR Arcade staff to use and maintain. It also uses multiple trackers, expanding the number of physical movements reflected in the game.

With a new solution in hand, the VR Arcade team began to focus on expansion. In November 2018, the team opened its second location in Delft, Netherlands, with two playing fields covering 19-by-12.5 meters. With bookings starting to come in before the second location even opened, a third location measuring 17-by-17 meters located in Helmond was recently commissioned in December 2018. A fourth location is being planned for spring 2019, and expansion beyond the Netherlands and throughout Europe is being considered.

“We are now busy with expanding in the Netherlands,” said Bos. “Our first phase was to build three locations in 2018 (the first being the Delfgauw location). Then our path will take two different roads: one concentrates on the expansion in the Netherlands, while the second will start with expansion in Germany.”

While the days of dropping coins in slots and waiting for digital screens to fire up may be a thing of the past, their spirit is alive and well – and taking us places we never dreamed.

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