"Survival" puts you inside the zombie apocalypse. It's not like being inside a movie; it's like being inside high end arcade game. It's not a particularly pleasant place to spend your time, unless of course you like killing zombies in a high end arcade. (Credit: Zero Latency)
Free Roam VR IS the Future of Entertainment —Part 3 of a 3-part series on VR hitting the mainstream. (See Part 1: Why 'Ghostbusters' Is The Virtual Reality Experience You've Been Waiting For, and Part 2: The Future Of Virtual Reality Isn’t Your Living Room – It’s The Mall)
This series would not be complete without experiencing Zero Latency VR. So on Sunday my friend Sean and I rented a car and drove 90 miles from New York City to the massive Kalahari resort and convention center in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, where Zero Latency opened February 3. The Africa-themed resort, which just added 560 rooms (bringing the total to 1,000), is home of the world's largest indoor water park. The feel is downscale Disney, in part because adjacent to the Waterpark's hotel entrance, there's huge arcade. And deep within that arcade is "The Arena," powered by Zero Latency. You get the idea that Kalahari didn't think an attraction called "Zero Latency" would sell a lot of tickets.
Two experiences are offered at "The Arena," a zombie shooter called "Survival," in which you and five other players are part of an Army fire team trapped in the zombie apocalypse, and "Engineerium," which sends you on an Easter egg hunt in a floating Aztec temple designed by M.C. Escher. We pony up $25 each for a 15-minute experience.
"Engnerrium" allows you to walk sideways and upside down. (Credit: Zero Latency)
The atmosphere is a safe and suburban. Our "Game Master," Garrett Voorhees conducts the perfunctory pre-show with good humor, using a slideshow to illustrate how to kill zombies. Head shots get the most points. You get an email with your score later. Voorhees gets everyone suited up in a couple of minutes. Behind him, I notice one of the other employees wiping down the gear the last group used.
Donning a backpack PC and a headset similar to PlaystationVR, our group of six is guided into a 2,000 square foot room that's painted black. There's a grid on the floor, and several painted circles. We each stand on a circle. Darkess. Then, the adventure begins. After a few moments to orient ourselves, I see Sean and the other guys' avatars. They look like green Army men. Instructions cackle over our intercoms. The low-resolution optics of the consumer grade headset means you see pixels, creating VR's nefarious "screen door," which throws images into soft focus. The headset is hot. At times there is some slightly uncomfortable latency. I pull off my headset at one point and see my squad in real life, their backs to a invisible wall, holding off a ravenous gang of monsters no one else can see.
“People who experience VR as a group have the highest satisfaction,” said Tim Ruse, cofounder and CEO of Zero Latency, when we spoke at the end of January. “Seeing your friend as an avatar is a profound experience.” Zero Latency’s headquarters in Melbourne is adjacent to its pilot center. “If we hear people screaming,” says Ruse, “we know we’re making money.”
Tim Ruse, CEO and Co-Founder, Zero Latency, wants to re-create The Holodeck from Star Trek. (Credit: Zero Latency)
Sean and I ask to sign up for the other experience, "Engineerium." The Game Master's eyes light up. "You guys are in for a treat! It's the best one. You don't shoot anything. I can't explain it to you." After experiencing "Engineerium," and then writing this, I can tell you it is hard to explain. You jump on floating platforms, you walk upside down, you're above - or is it below - the ocean and the sky. Though our avatars were crude, Sean and I together explore this surreal world as Voorhees shouts tips to ensure we don't miss anything. It occurred to me that someone, someday, is going to make a transformative work of art using this medium.
Trailer for Engineerium by Zero Latency
Founder Tim Ruse and his partners have come remarkably close to realizing their ambition to create the Holodek the crew uses on Star Trek to relieve the monotony of space travel. What was once science fiction is now possible, if not in the home, then in a retail destinations best described as futuristic theaters. All the elements are in place. Low cost headsets. Check. Backpack PC. Check. Motion capture system. Check. Remote host infrastructure residing in the cloud. Check. All you need is a huge space, and customers with a lot of money.
The following day, Bob Cooney, Zero Latency's Head of Global Business Development, told me he thought "free roam VR is a luxury product for millenials. Only 24 people an hour go through The Arena. There are hundreds of people in a movie theater." The Paradiso theater-cum-escape room location in Manhattan charges $50 for a one-hour experience. People buy tickets weeks in advance. It is a thriving business.
Bob Cooney, Zero Latency's Head of Global Business Development, was one of the of the creators of Lazer Tag. (Credit: Bob Cooney)
To date, Zero Latency has raised $10 million. The flexible business model allows the company to operate their own centers, sell technology and manage infrastructure, and enlist "area development partners" to open multiple destinations in major markets. Cooney says the company will make an announcement about U.S. development partners in the next several weeks.
Zero Latency is also developing training simulations for the Australian military. Defense could turn out to be their most lucrative line of business, but it will take time. "The consumer market is there today, and we can do it quickly," Ruse explained.
In the end, Ruse says, "it's going to be a content game, just like computer games today. You have to develop hits. These are the killer apps for VR." Everyone is searching the D.W. Griffith of VR, who will invent a new visual language for full immersion experiences, and the first bona-fide hits. It could be the Zero Latency team, if they can exploit their first mover advantage and scale quickly. "Real estate development" and "quickly" don't really belong in the same sentence, as it tends to move at the speed of the Department of Motor Vehicles. $10 million is going to go fast. Chop chop, fellas. The world is waiting. Your competitors are not.
Charlie Fink is a former Disney, AOL and AG Interactive executive who writes about VR, AR and new media. In the 90s he was EVP & COO of VR pioneer Virtual World Entertainment.