Long before Dave & Buster’s made them a place for office bros to get sloshed and hit on Karen from accounting, or “barcades” made them a place for hipsters to fetishize the ’90s over $4 PBRs, arcades were a place to play with fun technology you simply couldn’t get at home.
In the ’60s, that meant sniping submarines in electro-mechanical shooters like Sega’s Periscope. In the ’70s, it meant batting around a steel ball with flippers in games like Fireball. By the ’80s, it meant clinging to slippery plastic superbikes in games like Hang-On.
In 2016, it might mean sliding on a brick-like pair of virtual reality goggles and pretending to flip burgers.
The first time I tried VR was almost a religious experience.
On January 25, Starbreeze Studios, one of at least a dozen major companies vying for VR supremacy this year, revealed that it would build a VR arcade in Los Angeles by this summer. Fittingly dubbed the StarCade, the brick-and-mortar location will allow anyone to try the company’s signature StarVR goggles, play Starbreeze games like John Wick: The Impossible Task, and experience VR as it was intended.
In Melbourne, the VR arcade is already a reality. A scrappy group of Aussies have retrofitted a massive warehouse to build Zero Latency, a virtual arena where four players at a time can fend off zombies as a team.
You might rightly question why you should leave the house and “pay to play” when you can already walk home with a VR headset for $100. But the whole story is a lot more complex. VR isn’t just suitable for arcades, it’s perfect for it in ways you may not have realized, and uniquely situated to revive these long-dead play places. Here’s why.
Try before you buy
The first time I tried VR was almost a religious experience. I left the Oculus Rift booth at CES reeling with the possibilities of what I had just seen — nay, experienced! I breathlessly described it to the first coworker I stumbled across … who didn’t really seem to care that much.
I don’t blame her, or my sloppy, frenzied explanation. VR is something you can imagine as much as you want, but you won’t truly appreciate until you try it. Starbreeze gets that.
“We continue to iterate the fact that VR really needs to be experienced in person to fully be able to appreciate the phenomenon,” says CTO Emmanuel Marquez.
A VR arcade is the perfect pulpit to preach the Good Word of VR. Anyone with curiosity can drop in, strap in, and get their mind blown. You could offer Mom a casual exploration game, and her teenage son a brutal shoot-’em-up, in the same VR space. They’re both nearly guaranteed to come out with dropped jaws.
VR sells itself. You just need that first taste.
We’re gonna need a bigger room
You might imagine the home VR experience playing out on the couch, or maybe reclined in some sort of futuristic dentist’s chair, but the reality of virtual reality is far more active. It takes lots of space.
You’re standing up. You’re flailing your arms around, whipping lead bullets back at terrorists, or carving your name into a wheel of virtual clay. You’re utterly blind while you’re doing all of this, potentially smacking your TV, tripping over the cat, or bashing your knees into your coffee table and screaming profanities.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to drop $20 at a VR arcade now and then?
HTC’s Vive Pre — by far the best VR currently available — takes things a step further. The demo I tried at CES 2016 required an empty 15- by 15-foot room for me to walk around, which it virtually transformed into the deck of a sunken ship, a robot repair lab, and even an office cubicle. Basically, it turns an empty room into a real-life Holodeck.
Being able to physically walk around in a virtual space was a revelation — an experience head and shoulders above what any other company is doing. I wasn’t just observing a virtual environment; I was there. I could move around with my legs and touch things with the controllers in my hands. I swatted at virtual fish, ducked under a virtual desk to plug in a virtual computer, threw a virtual mug across my virtual office, then walked over and picked it up. Beyond totally immersing me, it totally eliminated the nausea I’ve experienced sitting in a chair with goggles, because the virtual things you see perfectly align with the real-life movement you feel.
VR will not be stationary for long. It will absolutely move in this Holodeck direction moving forward, but the space constraints are daunting. In case you’re having trouble visualizing a 15-by-15 space, it’s huge. You probably have a room that big at home, but it’s also littered with a minefield of chairs, ottomans, tables, and squeaky toys. Now a VR arcade with carpet, soft walls, and a spotter doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
You can’t afford the VR you want
Samsung’s $100 Gear VR is a novel introduction to VR, and capable of impressing first timers the way Abe Lincoln might be delighted by a Kia Sorrento, but real VR, the good shit, is really expensive.
Oculus recently made headlines (and infuriated early backers) when it announced it would sell the much-anticipated Rift for $600. That’s as expensive as a new iPhone. Or a laptop. Or a round-trip ticket from LA to Tokyo. And you can’t even do anything with it, without spending almost another $1,000.
That’s right, you need a titan of a gaming PC to even use the Rift — we’re talking hardware that makes the Xbox One and PS4 look like a graphing calculator. The cheapest Oculus-approved PC you can buy goes for $950 — without a mouse, keyboard, or monitor. Factor in all of those costs, plus a few games, and $2,000 to invest in state-of-the-art VR doesn’t look unrealistic. And like all technology, especially in new fields, it will be obsolete in a year or two.
Yes, some hardcore PC gamers might happen to already own the exact configuration necessary, and use the rig enough for other stuff to make it a wise investment. But if you just want VR, as a lot of people will after falling hard for it, that price is a sharp polygon to swallow. It’s more than most people spend on TVs that they practically live in front of.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to drop $20 at a VR arcade now and then?
You can’t do that at home
Even presuming you have a massive, finished basement with a $1,000 gaming rig waiting to be harnessed by an Oculus Rift, the best VR experiences will require much more than headsets.
Have you seen the Virtuix Omni? It’s basically a VR treadmill that lets you walk in place so that you can explore game environments without ever meeting a wall. It’s also $700, takes up more space than even the most deluxe Ikea coffee table you already don’t have room for, and requires special shoes.
And leave room for the controllers! Custom controllers add a tactile component to VR that brings an entirely new layer of believability. A cheap plastic wand can be made to look like a gun in VR, sure, but wielding a heavy, life-like replica feels legit. Oh, but that’s going to cost you $350. And you’ll need a sword controller for that RPG, a guitar controller for that rhythm game, and a joystick and throttle for that space simulator.
None of that even begins to unlock the unreal sensory trickery that can be accomplished with even more complex rigs.
A team at the German Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics built a cable-powered chair that can subject riders to up to 1.5 Gs of acceleration, for mimicking everything from a ride in an F1 race car to a rollercoaster. Researchers at the University of Bristol, UK have developed “haptic holograms” that mimic the touch of virtual objects with special speakers. Dolby rejiggered its insane Atmos surround speakers to provide the most outrageously immersive VR sound we’ve heard yet, without headphones.
Now imagine using refrigeration to feign winter. Fans to feign wind. Gravel underfoot to feign, well, gravel underfoot.
Michael Jackson couldn’t have fit all this gear on the Neverland Ranch. If you want to experience the most insane scenarios VR is going to untap, it’s not going to be in your house.
The more the merrier
There’s one more attraction to the VR arcade that has absolutely nothing to do with hardware, cost or technological limitations: It’s just more fun to leave the house and play with other people. This is because, you know, we’re humans.
Make no mistake: VR arcades can potentially deliver a lot more than your living room.
Critics are already dismissing VR as one more technological innovation that socially isolates us, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine going to a VR arcade with three friends, donning headsets, then descending into a subterranean cavern for a couple hours, slaying monsters, skirting lakes of lava, and working your way to a final boss that appears to tower 200 feet over you. The experience would be utterly unlike what you might experience at home, on the couch, by yourself.
There is, after all, a reason people spend $5 to drink a beer at a bar that they could buy for $1 in a bottle and drink at home. It’s more fun. It gets you out of your house. You meet people. An arcade atmosphere would do the same for gaming, even disregarding all the obvious technical advantages over your house.
I’ve pumped $20 worth of quarters into a decades-old House of the Dead machine to finish the game with one of my best friends. We could have downloaded it and played it at home with light guns. Would it be the same? Nope.
Prepare to play
Consumer VR is coming. You can buy a Samsung Gear at Best Buy, the Oculus will shift soon, and with any luck, HTC will begin pushing the Vive before the end of year.
I’m not suggesting VR arcades will oust any of these home devices. In fact, they’ll probably use the same hardware. But make no mistake: VR arcades can potentially deliver a lot more than your living room. Start saving your quarters.