The Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest shopping complexes, is now home to VR Park, an indoor theme park spanning two floors and over 75,000 square feet of space, offering a wide variety of VR experiences, including several physical rides. At the opening of the park we went hands-on with the main attractions, many of which utilise the high-resolution, high-FOV StarVR headset.
The entrance to the VR Park makes a stunning first impression, with a huge, inverted model of central Dubai, skyscrapers extending out of a curved screen, complete with animated traffic, and the giant ‘PVRK’ logo. The flipping letter ‘A’ is perhaps also a slight nod to the small amount of Augmented Reality on show, but clearly the focus here is full-fat VR entertainment.
Once inside, you’re able to stock up on credits to pay for rides and games individually, but at 45 AED (about $12) each for the main attractions, this is an expensive way to spend a few minutes in VR. The more cost-effective approach is to select the Gold Package for 200 AED (about $54), which gives you access to seven experiences. While there are currently 18 attractions, I’d imagine working through seven of the big-hitters might be enough VR for one day for many people, if you factor in breaks and the potential queues during busy periods.
During a press event, we were whisked around the attractions at a rapid pace; I would’ve certainly preferred to take a breather after each one had I been a paying customer.
Starbreeze Content Takes Centre Stage
As the senior partner, at least three of Starbreeze’s eight projects are in view from the entrance: The Raft, a new four-player co-op shooter set in a swamp, Geminose: The VR Carousel, a colourful ride aimed at a younger audience, and Overkill’s The Walking Dead VR Outbreak, the wheelchair-based zombie shooter that was used to introduce the StarVR headset prototype at E3 2015.
While some of Starbreeze’s experiences have been seen at other venues (John Wick Chronicles and The Mummy Prodigium Strike are currently running in IMAX VR and SEGA Japan centres), the VR Park’s heavily-themed areas look and feel like permanent installations rather than glorified demo booths.
Photo by Road to VR
Some areas were more enticing than others, but if you’re looking for one example of the ‘VR theme park’ concept done right, it’s the set decoration for The Walking Dead; easily the most striking to my eyes, with creepy rooms and corridors filled with franchise references, and the park staff also dressed the part. It felt like the most complete and elaborate installation; something that wouldn’t look out of place in any of the world’s best theme parks.
VR Park Dubai is home to what is surely the largest collection of StarVR headsets in a single venue, as the high-resolution, high-FOV headset is used on five of Starbreeze’s experiences. Geminose is the odd one out, as it uses Samsung’s Gear VR; Payday: The VR Heist and The Raft currently use Vive hardware, although there are plans to move the latter to StarVR as well; the rooms where The Raft is played are already fitted with both StarVR and Vive tracking systems.
Tracked Props Make the Difference
Starbreeze’s titles offer the most immersive experiences right now, which is probably as much to do with the unique controllers (and in some cases dedicated environment designs) as it is the quality of the StarVR headset itself. Unlike the standard motion controllers used in the Vive-based games, each Starbreeze game uses accurately tracked, correctly sized props.
For example, The Walking Dead uses a shotgun complete with pump action for reloading, and while John Wick uses the same content as the consumer game, the experience is enhanced by the combination of the wide FOV headset and holding a weighty submachine gun peripheral. The Mummy’s larger rifle model wasn’t quite as convincing as it felt too light, but the immersion was dramatically enhanced by the vibrating seat used to simulate sitting on the side of a helicopter, shooting enemies from the air.
Image courtesy VR Park
Ape-X is making its first appearance at VR Park Dubai, and I found it to be the most engaging use of the StarVR headset, again combined with unique, physical props. Wearing large, metal ‘sleeves’ complete with triggers, players assume the role of Big Mike, a giant, weaponised robot ape, standing atop a skyscraper surrounded by a somewhat-recognisable future city. The game’s skyline has been customised for Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa clearly in view; when Ape-X arrives in US venues, it will feature a New York skyline.
Photo by Road to VR
Players stand on a slightly raised platform with a central metal column, which is soon surrounded by waves of flying enemies, some of which can be grabbed and satisfyingly hurled at others. The sturdy column can be used as cover, and your heavy arms can be held up as shields to deflect incoming projectiles.
The physical platform is less than an inch above the park floor, but as it is exactly the same size and shape as the rendered ‘ledge’ in VR, there is a powerful feeling that you don’t want to ‘fall off’ the building as the action unfolds.
Shared-space VR Co-op
The Raft is the newest game in the Starbreeze lineup; so new that the company admitted that it wasn’t originally planned for the park opening, but development was accelerated after some positive early testing. It will receive further polish in the future, but it is already fun to play. Surprisingly, it’s currently the only example of VR multiplayer in a shared tracking volume at the park; I expect this will become more prevalent in the future as it works so well in this type of venue (and means more customers using less space).
The action takes place on a raft which moves automatically through a swamp, in which increasingly dangerous supernatural creatures try to attack from all sides. Players can see and talk to each other in VR, and have to work together to protect the raft, switching between various mounted and handheld weapons, as well as using fire extinguishers to deal with this highly flammable mode of transport.
Photo by Road to VR
Unlike the StarVR experiences, the Vive hardware is ‘untethered’ through the use of backpack PCs, which is pretty important when you’re sharing a small space with three other players. The backpacks are powerful HP Omen X units, which Starbreeze say are capable of running the StarVR headset too. In the case of the multi-weapon action of The Raft, the team will need to come up with some creative ways of dealing with physical props if they upgrade the experience to StarVR.
Payday: The VR Heist is the second Vive-based co-op experience from Starbreeze, and gets its own themed ‘bank vault’ area, but unlike The Raft, each player is assigned a different room. Using a customised branch of the existing VR beta found in Payday 2, four players work together to raid a bank, while gunning down ever-increasing waves of law enforcement. It’s an entertaining romp, and offers the longest session time in the park at 15 minutes.
With teleport locomotion and standard Vive hardware, it’s the most similar to a home VR setup out of Starbreeze’s current park attractions, so might not be first on the list for visitors already familiar with consumer-grade VR. But it’ll undoubtedly prove to be a hit for newcomers.
Roller Coaster Intensity
No theme park would be complete without a few physical rides, and these have been given UAE-themed VR makeovers by main developers Emaar Entertainment. The rides haven’t been created from scratch; VR Park is built on the site of The Dubai Mall’s previous indoor theme park called ‘SEGA Republic’, and like many other parks around the world that have introduced VR attractions, the physical rides have been repurposed for VR, and don’t feel totally cohesive as a result.
The mobile Gear VR headsets aren’t able to provide the best VR quality in the first place, and there are limitations in what software creators can do to match existing motion cues with new visuals.
Photo by Road to VR
For example, Dune Bash is described as a “UAE desert 4WD experience” and takes place on a very powerful motion platform. In VR, it appears like you’re being given a wild passenger ride in an offroad vehicle of some kind, but the virtual ‘handling’ seems so bizarre that each simulated acceleration and change of direction is unpredictable and quite unpleasant.
Photo by Road to VR
Dubai Drone on the other hand uses a proper, track-based roller coaster, so the accelerations and direction changes are very real. Being a fairly short track, the visuals need to set the scene and crescendo to a climax in an instant, and it’s all over rather too quickly. I’m glad it wasn’t longer to be honest; the visuals make it more difficult to anticipate the path of the coaster, so you can’t brace for the next turn in the same way you’d naturally do on a conventional ride.
As a result, the g-forces feel more violent and intense, which might be enjoyable for some, but it just felt disconcerting to me, and the Gear VR with extra chin strap wasn’t really secure enough on my head to deal with the forces either.
The most compelling non-Starbreeze installation was Robocom VR, a spaceship combat sim using impressively responsive motion cockpits, but unfortunately marred by the performance of their custom VR headsets. With some tweaks, it could be one of the most enjoyable attractions at the park, as it was the only combat game that actually simulates a satisfying weapon recoil due to the seated cockpit design.
I’ve developed some decent ‘VR legs’ over the years, but the impact of the physical rides meant I was feeling rather queasy by the end. The VR Park is an assault on the senses, and mostly a positive one, but switching between multiple VR hardware solutions in quick succession (StarVR, Vive, Gear VR, and Robocom’s own headset) isn’t ideal.
StarVR Headset Leaves a Mixed Impression
This was my first time with StarVR, which is now at a mature stage of its ‘first gen’ LBE hardware deployment. The 5,120 × 1,440 resolution is a clear improvement over current consumer headsets, but with such a large FOV it could benefit from being higher still; I struggled to discern individual pixels, but could still make out a diagonal linen-like pattern (similar to the Rift but with finer lines) in bright scenes.
The 210 degree horizontal FOV is an impressive glimpse into a magnificent ‘full human FOV’ future, but the almost ‘complete’ vision across the horizontal means that the limits of vertical FOV are more apparent, despite the fact that it is also better than any consumer headset in this specification too (about 130 degrees).
In motion, the StarVR’s output did not seem as smooth as consumer headsets, which is likely related to its 62Hz display, but also might be a case of inconsistent framerate or frame pacing in certain scenes. It felt solid enough, but I am sensitive to frame drops; these were subtle rather than immersion-breaking issues. The overall image could do with being brighter too; I imagine this is a limitation of applying low persistence to the current display technology (where, generally speaking, increasing the refresh rate improves brightness).
It was effective however, with no noticeable smearing or ghosting, and I didn’t notice any flicker or strobing either, which was a pleasant surprise, considering how far the displays extend into your peripheral vision. In terms of a pure headset showcase, the short film Construct is the best way to enjoy the technology at the park, as its volumetric video rendering technique achieves the highest visual fidelity I’ve seen in VR.
StarVR’s optics is where I struggled the most. Perhaps it was my familiarity with the optical properties of consumer headsets, but StarVR’s giant lenses felt somewhat uncomfortable during the first couple of tries. There is no physical IPD dial, but the lenses are shaped in a way that compensates for a smaller or larger IPD depending on their vertical position relative to the eyes. I spent some time fiddling with vertical positioning which helped at little, but I never felt fully happy with the optics.
There was a small but noticeable distortion across the horizontal plane, and it felt like my eyes were having to fight a slightly different ‘vergence conflict’ in the region of binocular overlap compared to what I’m used to in consumer headsets. By the last few sessions with StarVR, it did seem to be clicking with me a little more, so it might be more of a case of my eyesight requiring a period of internal recalibration to feel comfortable. These kind of issues should improve significantly with eye tracking technology, which is said to be in development for StarVR.
Where the park might be able to improve in the short term is moving more experiences to untethered backpack PC setups, or at least to better cable bungee solutions. For now, all the StarVR stations use a chunky cable connected to a hidden PC, and in experiences that promote a significant amount of movement like Ape-X, The Mummy Prodigium Strike and John Wick Chronicles, I was constantly aware of the suspended cable tugging at my head, which reduced immersion to some degree. The seated experience of The Walking Dead VR Outbreak meant that cable management wasn’t a problem.
Despite coming away with severe ‘FOV envy’, my personal presence level throughout the sessions was only occasionally higher than that of consumer headsets, and it’s difficult to say how much of these positive sensations were influenced by the physical props rather than the headset itself.
A Bright Future for VR Attractions
Discussing the park’s conception with Starbreeze CEO Bo Andersson Klint, he noted how Starbreeze were in a unique position to supply hardware and software content but also engage in many aspects of the design of the physical space.
“[Location-based entertainment] has been our thing since the very beginning,” he said. “We wanted to push our content but also our StarVR headset into that environment first and foremost. The real customer to us is the one with the huge footprint: amusement parks. We identified Emaar to be that partner fairly quickly; they had the same idea for an extravagant, over-the-top ‘new thing’ in the mall. They approached us and we jumped on that, so we sat down with them early in the process to help design the whole park, from the moment you enter to to the moment you exit. It has been a fantastic collaboration that I think is unprecedented so far in the industry. It’s quite a challenge for a games company to evolve into this.”
With regards to StarVR’s roadmap, the development has formed an interesting parallel path between LBE and the even-more-high-end enterprise version. “We’ve delivered the first iteration of the LBE headset here; the enterprise version is still in development,” says Andersson Klint. “We have two parallel tracks, and future generations of LBE headsets will derive from the enterprise space.”
LBE hardware specifications are locked down for now, but improvements such as eye tracking, which is being tested in the enterprise headset, should find its way to the LBE version in due course.
“If you say to (the novice user) ‘you will have eye tracking’, they will have no clue,” says Starbreeze CTO Emmanuel Marquez. “In the B2B space it’s easy; you talk to tech people and they understand the benefits. In LBE, it should be a fully transparent feature, that might enable more presence through higher quality rendering or better eye contact with other human avatars.”
Photo by Road to VR
I asked Andersson Klint where he sees LBE offerings heading in the next few years. “We’ve come from idea to this in five years,” he says. “If we continue here with this as a flagship (park), I think what you will see is larger-scale experiences like 10 or 20 people interacting in the same volume or even having 50 people playing against each other.
Also more experiences that are tactile, where you use the environment as you play, and still somewhere around a 10 minute format. From a headset perspective, there is a lot of talk about AR, but VR will evolve just as fast.” “We are going to cut the cable within five years,” notes Marquez. “We’ll be lighter, higher resolution, and wireless.”
Starbreeze believes LBE VR technology will continue to remain relevant even when consumer hardware improves, as it can always offer something bigger and better.
“When do you invite 20 of your friends into your living room to have a pirate battle?” muses Andersson Klint. “This entertainment format is a given, it’s already here in theme parks and sports arenas, it’s just that gaming hasn’t really adapted yet.”
He believes the VR Park Dubai project is doing the VR industry a “big favour” in using the accessibility and familiarity of a theme park setting to introduce VR to a wider audience. While generic ‘VR arcade’ venues (offering consumer-grade hardware and experiences in a pay-to-play setting) will continue to grow, the theme park approach is the more exciting one.
“You’re smiling from the moment to step through the door; it’s not just the VR, it’s the whole presentation. I think this is much better,” he says. “A little more costly (to build), but this place you’ll have for years and years. And the beautiful thing about our digital content is that we can keep updating and tweaking it.”