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A Taste of the Virtual

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Experiencing virtual reality.

Virtual reality vendors are making their systems available in new and familiar entertainment venues and at lower prices, to broaden the technology's commercial appeal.

Credit: Getty

Virtual reality (VR) has moved into education, medicine, and psychotherapy, but into the living room? Not so much.

Looking for traction with consumers, VR vendors are making their systems available in new and familiar entertainment venues and at lower prices to broaden VR's commercial appeal. They also are collecting engagement and performance data for clues on what will get VR moving.

"We're making VR accessible to the mainstream community at a low price point," says Jessica Gray, marketing director for VR World, where paying customers are offered a dizzying collection of VR experiences doors down from the Empire State Building in New York City. "It's not just gaming, we have lots of content pieces," Gray says. "We showcase VR as a powerful storytelling tool."

Associates help customers with VR headsets, earphones, and handheld controllers, and provide direction or a steadying hand as needed.

Upstairs is Tilt Brush, a green-screen room where users can paint virtually with body in full motion, like Picasso, in three dimensions. Downstairs is the Flatline Emergency Room, an "immersive reality" experience in which a user is treated as a patient entering a hospital before donning a VR headset. The main level is crammed with single- and multi-player games and experiences on the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear systems. "We're technology agnostic," Gray says.

Customers can also tuck themselves into the Moveo simulator, a pod that spins and pivots in any direction. Patrons can watch other players flail, stumble, or master a VR domain from a few feet away, or follow their progress on displays showing the user's VR point of view. There are couches, a bar, and an art gallery. "We're feeling out what the audience wants," Gray says. A two-hour pass costs $39.99. The Moveo simulator adds another $15, or $25 standalone.

A few blocks away, the AMC Kips Bay 15 theaters host another commercial VR rec center, IMAX VR. Moviegoers entering the multiplex's spacious lobby pass a half-dozen bays where different single or multiplayer VR games are offered in 7 to 20 minute chunks starting at $10. At each, employees help customers with VR gear, instructions, and standby assistance. All major commercial VR brands are represented.

While VR World lends itself to competitive one-upsmanship, IMAX VR has some less intense presentations. Life of Us is a spacey wander across not-my-neighborhood landscapes populated by crawly bugs, running monkeys, snarling dinosaurs, and other creatures. And despite its premise, Space Flight: Orbital Emergency, a space shuttle flight that goes awry, is quite gentle.

Like VR World, IMAX VR offers some only-here VR experiences. The Mummy Prodigium Strike, for example, is an AMC exclusive. The game starts as a helicopter ride; the chopper takes off, follows a convoy, then lands in the middle of a zombie shoot-out. "People like shooting stuff," an IMAX VR employee says.

VR World and IMAX VR sidestep what VR Intelligence calls the two biggest barriers to consumer adoption of VR: headset costs, and lack of content. They replace costly acquisition with a cheap rental, giving consumers a shortcut to VR.  

Only two IMAX VR locations aside from Kips Bay exist at present (in Los Angeles and Shanghai), but AMC has bigger VR plans. Parent AMC Entertainment has invested $10 million in Dreamscape Immersive, and will pay Dreamscape an additional $10 million to develop original content with an eye on opening six immersive VR centers at AMC theaters or standalone locations in the U.S. and abroad by March 2019, on the way to a "rapid global expansion," Dreamscape COO Aaron Grosky told The Wall Street Journal. Ticket prices for a single VR experience at the centers are expected to be similar to those at IMAX VR centers.

Data collected by NYC's VR venues, via surveys of incoming and outgoing payees at IMAX VR, and through an RFID-enabled wristband at VR World, is passed to developers to help them refine content and systems. "As guests move from experience to experience, we're gaining real-time feedback on what they're doing and for how long," says Tommy Goodkin, VR World's head of content. Matched with demographic data, "this helps us to understand what audience is attracted to which games, as well as how to position games in our space to optimize flow and throughput." Plans call for more analytic tracking, including biometrics on enjoyment and concentration.

For example, data showed the developer of Thrill of the Fight, a VR boxing match, "where to place damage indicators that give players agency in-game," Goodkin says. The developer also streamlined the game's menu and fixed some unnoticed bugs.

"We have enough data to be valuable to our partners," Gray says. "We want them to be successful."

Data also gauges popularity. The VR content lineups at both VR World and AMC Kips Bay 15 have changed in the past month. IMAX VR dropped The Walk, a vertiginous recreation of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers, because it was too short at five minutes, an IMAX VR helper said.

Such walk-in venues whet appetites for VR at a cost far less less than that of acquiring full-blown home systems. An HTC Vive headset retails for $599, while an Oculus Rift is priced at $399. That's on top of a VR-ready computer system, gaming software, motion sensors, and adequate floorspace.  

Paying customers at VR World are tourists and locals of all ages, genders, and demographics. "We're as much a family place as a nightspot," Gray says. Some customers know the content titles; others are getting their introduction to VR. Gray says 80% to 90% of the customers are 24 to 55.

IMAX VR's crowd is more based on how many people are going to the movies than on building VR-specific foot traffic. A good majority are millennials, with families a close second. An employee observes, "People come here for movies, then they see us."

David Roman is Web Editor for Communications of the ACM.


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