It was mid-morning in America’s Dairyland when I killed my first zombie of the day.
Over the next 15 minutes I would take down a couple hundred more, working up a decent sweat in the process. When I was finished, the next group of six players filed in after me, each one paying $25 a head for the privilege.
This is The Arena, one of the very first commercial installations of Zero Latency Virtual Reality in the United States. It’s a full-body, untethered, free roaming VR system and one of the first of its kind to be deployed commercially.
Thanks to the bold initiative of the Kalahari Resorts, who carved out space for the facility here in the Wisconsin Dells and at a similar location in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, it’s now part of the great American summer vacation. After spending a day with it, I’m pretty impressed.
Kalahari doesn’t maintain The Arena by itself. The system is managed by Family Entertainment Group, a national game-room operator that also runs the massive 100,000 square foot arcade on-site here in the Dells. It’s one of the very largest arcades in the country, and includes a go-cart track, a bowling alley, a five-story ferris wheel and laser tag. The Arena is its newest and most exclusive attraction.
For most consumers, explains Zero Latency’s head of global business development Bob Cooney, this is their very first experience with virtual reality. The goal that he and his team have is to absolutely knock their socks off. After just a few months in operation, it seems to be achieving that goal.
The gentlemen that had the session before mine came out beaming.
“We’ve got to do it again before we leave,” he said, still a little breathless. “It was so cool.”
It seems that The Arena has already developed quite a reputation among the Kalahari’s guests.
“The reviews are ridiculous,” says FEG manager Mike Miller who operates the system day-to-day. “You get your scorecard at the end of the game via email, and there’s a little link at the bottom to take a quick survey. ... On a scale of 1 to 10 we're at 9.3 in the Poconos and 9.4 here.”
I’ve done my fair share of full-body, un-tethered VR over the last few years. In 2014, I was invited to visit the 101st Airborne’s Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS) at Fort Campbell Kentucky. This time last year I went to Utah to step into The Void. Zero Latency shares a lot in common with those systems. It’s completely wireless and utilizes a high-end, backpack-mounted gaming PC. But the similarities stop there.
In fact, compared to other full-body VR rigs, Zero Latency looks certifiably weird.
The Arena manager Mike Miller. / Charlie Hall/Polygon
ONE FISH, TWO FISH
The first piece of the Zero Latency solution is, of course, the head-mounted display (HMD). It makes use of a product sold by OSVR, a widely-available open source VR system, that clocks in at about 2160x1200 pixels. That’s roughly 1K per eye.
Not the highest resolution by any stretch, but it gets the job done.
It’s not the HMD itself that’s off-putting, but what’s attached to the top of it; a long plastic horn with two light-up balls on top. Powered on, it looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
But these two colored balls are all that the Zero Latency system needs to keep track of each participant. No electromagnetic compass like the DSTS and no optical motion tracking system like The Void. Zero Latency has developed its own solution, one that utilizes these colored balls and off-the-shelf cameras.
POWERED ON, IT LOOKS LIKE SOMETHING OUT OF A DR. SEUSS BOOK.
Not just any cameras, of course. Scattered around the 2,000 square foot room are more than 60 machine vision cameras, the same kind of cameras you might find monitoring a high-speed, automated factory or inside a red-light camera. They’re not cheap, but they’re far less expensive than other tracking solutions. Working together, the system at the Dells can keep track of up to six players at a time as they run, duck, twist and turn all around the stage.
The next component is the backpack, which includes a military-grade suspension system. It includes tie-offs for the HMD and the noise-canceling headset, as well as an Alienware computer in a pouch on the back. Inside, it even has removable padding that can be swapped out between sessions and laundered for the next day.
Finally, there’s the rifle. Each one is made in-house by Zero Latency. Completely wireless, they can operate for up to two days on a single charge. For tracking, each comes with two of its own glowing balls on top.
Once each player is geared up, they look pretty silly. But the image of the head-mounted horns with their oddly-colored balls fades away once the HMDs go on and the virtual reality experience begins.
A couple tackles Outbreak together for the first time. Behind them one of Family Entertainment Group’s Game Masters looks on. The system’s machine vision cameras are suspended from a simple drop ceiling. The grid painted on the floor helps to keep them calibrated. / Charlie Hall/Polygon
THE WALKING DEAD
Outbreak, which is called Zombie Survival here in the Dells, is fantastic.
Imagine the epic standoffs during the final levels in Left 4 Dead and you’ll begin to get an idea of what it’s striving for.
In the fiction of the game, players are part of a larger military element sent into an urban setting to clear out a zombie horde. But the mission quickly begins to go wrong. Teams in other parts of the city are getting overrun, and a helicopter is quickly dispatched to pull you out. You’ve got to defend the landing zone until help arrives.
Wave after wave of zombies flood into the area for more than ten whole minutes. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but I can tell you that swinging that rifle around was actually quite a workout.
THE FULL, FREE-ROAMING VR EXPERIENCE THAT REALLY SELLS THE ACTION.
The zombies in Outbreak aren’t the most elaborate of well-animated creatures you’ll ever see. Far from it, in fact. They would barely pass muster as background extras in a Saturday morning cartoon version of The Walking Dead. But it’s the full, free-roaming VR experience that really sells the action.
For most of the encounter I was posted up about ten feet away from a breach in the wall, dutifully emptying and reloading an assault rifle into the mass of undead that came my way. But, at a certain point, one of the players behind me went down. As they called for help I turned on my heel, switched to a pump-action shotgun and advanced, step-by-step, into a seething pile of undead. Loading and firing, again and again I was able to clear a path to the wounded man. Working together, my team was able to push the undead back and secure our flank.
It was one of the most exhilarating moments that I’ve had in VR, not because of what I was seeing but because of what I was physically doing.
But Outbreak isn’t the only VR experience available in The Arena.
HANGING OUT YOUR SHINGLE
Kalahari Resorts is well known for elaborate waterparks, and the facility at the Wisconsin Dells is no exception. It’s the main attraction.
But guests leaving one of the hotel’s 750 rooms to reach that waterpark have to walk right past the massive, floor-to-ceiling viewing wall outside The Arena. People end up gathered there gawking almost all day long.
That’s where staff are waiting to interpret what they’re seeing. Up on the wall is a live feed from inside The Arena. On one screen is the view of the players in-game, and on the other a view of them moving around in real life. A complete Zero Latency rig (minus the silly plastic horn) is sitting on display nearby.
During my visit, it’s the games of Outbreak that drew the biggest crowds.
“That's what everybody seems to gravitate toward,” said Zero Latency’s Bob Cooney. “Their first experience is this. And everybody loves to shoot zombies, so it's natural to build a zombie game in VR. But we're really proud of our other game because we think it shows what's possible.”
That other experience is called Engineerium.
“When our team was building it,” Cooney said, “they were thinking about things like how to create joy. How do you create wonder? How do you create awe? How do you create the other emotions besides fear in virtual reality?”
In Engineerium there are no guns. Players move through a virtual space populated by flying whales and stingrays, moving from node to node in order to alter the world around them and unlock new pathways. It is movement itself that becomes the challenge. Players are asked to walk around the outside of a sphere, down a winding helix and across a chasm of floating tiles. The experience left me feeling giddy and, because it was completely untethered, not the least bit motion sick.
While magical, it did feel somewhat incomplete. Outbreak left me exhausted, but Engineerium left me wanting more.
Cooney tells me that there’s another experience coming soon, called Singularity. Set inside a space station, it combines some of the locomotion from Engineerium with the shooting in Outbreak to create a much longer experience of 30 to 45 minutes.
Before long, he says, Zero Latency hopes to have branded experiences as well.
“The big movie studios are all over us,” he said. “And they've approached us. We're not hunting them down. I think there's some concerns within the movie community. They're worried this could be a disruptive technology. They want to get ahead of it. There are definitely storytellers, guys like J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, who want to use it to tell better stories, more immersive stories.”
Cooney is right, to an extent. So far VR systems have only been used in creating movies. Rogue One, for instance, made use of the HTC Vive. But so far no one like a Spielberg has stepped up to make the next great American film in VR.
I can’t help but think that maybe Zero Latency is going about this all the wrong way. The system makes use of open source hardware, and the games are built on the popular Unity platform. Rather than getting big name movie studios involved, it would be amazing to see them working with indie developers instead. I can only imagine the mind-bending architectural puzzles of Manifold Garden, or the somber walkabout that is What Remains of Edith Finch, built for full-body VR.
But for Cooney and his team, it’s all about getting as many people into The Arena as possible. They may have been first to market, but they’re still nowhere near meeting the demand.
“The challenge for us is determining if big-name games are going to sell more tickets, or are they just going to allow us to charge more per ticket,” Cooney said. “Because somebody's got to pay for the intellectual property, and that IP isn't cheap.
“In a lot of our locations, we're already operating at 90-plus percent capacity. It's hard to see being able to pay for that type of a license unless we charge more. As we get into more locations — more rural locations or more tourist-based locations where we have to cut through the noise — it might make sense then to wrap an IP around it to try to drive more ticket sales.”
The view from the second-floor bar inside the Kalahari’s 100,000 square foot arcade. The facility is managed and maintained by Family Entertainment Group and open to the public. / Charlie Hall/Polygon
One of the most exciting things for everyone involved in the project, including Kalahari and Family Entertainment Group, is the demographic of the people attracted to Zero Latency VR. In the laser tag arena at the other end of the hotel the average player is about 17. In The Arena, the average player is 30 years old.
“It's attracting an older, more high-end, more affluent audience within the entertainment center that then could potentially trickle down into other attractions,” Cooney said.
VR, in this context, is the luxury experience that’s bringing new visitors to the resort from all over. In fact, as the representatives from Family Entertainment Group repeatedly remind me, you don’t even need to stay at the hotel to use it. Anyone off the street, or staying in one of the dozen or more nearby hotels, can sign up for a slot.