TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 13: Members of the media wearing HTC Corp. Vive virtual reality (VR) headsets try the Mario Kart Arcade GP VR attraction at the VR Zone Shinjuku theme park, operated by Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc., on July 13, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. The park is one of Japan's largest VR theme parks with 16 VR attractions opening to the public on July 14. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
My friend has vanished, replaced with a six-foot lime-green kitty cat, complete with a square face and claws for hands. Looking down, I see red claws where my palms should be and surmise I’m also feline-shaped, but there’s no time to dwell on this as white blocks are whizzing at my head and I have to smash them or forfeit the game. We work together, dashing to different sides of the platform to destroy the blocks, occasionally bumping knees on a quick crossover. Then my vision dims, and it’s all over. Removing my headset I blink as the gray walls of San Jose’s Eastridge Mall come into focus and the neon colors of Prism Break VR fade away. I’ve been playing in a roped off area next to Sears, jumping around on a piece of carpet. It’s not impressive to look at, but in a way that’s the point, as everything cool happens inside the headset.
This experience is run by Virtual World Arcade, a Silicon Valley based startup whose goal is to bring VR to the masses, currently $10 for 10 minutes or $20 for an unlimited month. This is their most public location (they’re also at a hackerspace and paintball park) and has a four person capacity. But this is the bottom of the barrel in terms of VRcade experiences, as there’s been a spate of souped up experiences.
In VR Park Tokyo, players are strapped into a swinging harness to play Jungle Bungee VR and placed on a teetering platform to mimic the gravity of a skyscraper escape game. Real life costumes are also provided, for full fantasy immersion.
VR gaming is predicted to reach $45.09 billion in revenue by 2025 according to Grand View Research, and entrepreneurs are setting up VRcades worldwide. In part, the growth can be attributed to the high cost of entry to VR (around $2000 a system) and the space needed to play it. Plus, even if you own one, you’re unlikely to have two systems, so forget about playing with friends, hence the entrepreneurial interest.
TOKYO, JAPAN - MAY 12: A visitor wearing a VR headset tries out the Jungle Bungee VR virtual reality attraction at the VR Park Tokyo on May 12, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. The VR Park Tokyo, a theme park with 7 VR arcade games was opened last year in the Shibuya area of Tokyo, in part, as a response to the growing market for global virtual reality gaming. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
“People are seeing the business opportunity [in virtual reality arcades],” says Frank Soqui, general manager of VR and gaming at Intel. “There are cafes in South Korea that are destinations, where teams of people will go and eat and play and socialize — arcades by definition are a social experience.”
In November 2016, HTC opened Viveland, a 330 square meter VR arcade inside Syntrend Mall in Taipei, which looks a cross between a movie set and an esports tournament. So far, visitor demographics skew male, aged 18-30 years old, according to Raymond Pao, vice president at HTC Vive, which he attributes to Syntrend Mall’s reputation for cutting-edge tech. “There are many geeks coming to the mall,” he writes via email, explaining the arcade was designed for two purposes; to showcase virtual reality and to discover the best model for a VR arcade business. So far their most popular games have been Front Defense, a first person shooter, and Plank Experience, a gravity defying balancing game.
TOKYO, JAPAN - MAY 12: Visitors wearing HTC Corp. Vive VR headsets play the Salomon's Carpet VR virtual reality video game at the VR Park Tokyo on May 12,
Currently, VR arcades proliferate throughout Asia with an estimated 3,000 venues in China in 2016, according to Vive. They’ve been slower to catch on worldwide, but that’s changing; Calgary has Level 1 VR (opened 2016) there’s VOXEL VRP in Minnesota, and VRcade in Capetown. And Canada’s CTRL V chain has three open venues, and plan to quadruple their expansion this year. Dozens of more companies are opening shop every month.
This growth has attracted investors; Washington startup VRstudios has raised $4.35 million to grow their VRcade system, and DreamWorks Animation VR startup, Spaces Inc., has raised $9.5 million according to CrunchBase. There’s even the Virtual World Arcade conference, now in its second year, a 3 day event day event dedicated to teaching industry leaders about hardware implementation and demo products to venture capitalists.
The most hyped up names in American VRcades are the Void and IMAX VR. At the Void, players move through an empty warehouse space, magically transformed when their headset is on, and at IMAX VR, players get the use of 14 pods to play. The first IMAX VR opened in Los Angeles in January 2017, and they opened an NYC location in May. They’ve been profitable too; their recentearnings call revealed around $15,000 weekly revenue at the LA location. But operators have different ideas of what a Vrcade should look like. While Viveland has opted for a traditional arcade feel and IMAX VR has a futuristic aesthetic, the Void and Virtual World Arcade aren't onlooker friendly, meaning the only enjoyment you’ll get is inside the games, — not out of them.
Back at Eastridge Mall, I’m feeling invigorated post-game — I’m no stranger to VR but I’ve never played socially with a friend before, and this experience has made love VR all over again. I smile as I watch three kids, aged five to ten, run blindly in circles, vigorously waving controllers, their eyes covered by headsets. “It’s this or an XBOX,” says their bemused father, Mr. Lee, who declined to play himself. “But here they can play with [hundreds of dollars] of equipment, and they get tired out.”