It was life or death. Human or dinosaur. I didn't hesitate.
I stuck out my actual, flesh-and-bone human leg, and kicked a virtual dinosaur in the face.
It was kind of dumb and kind of exhilarating at the same time. Dumb, because the dino crumpled as soon as my foot connected. Exhilarating, because I had legs.
Bear with me a sec.
Gun, knife... or your feet? Island 359, a VR dino-hunting game, lets you choose. | CloudGate Games
At best, today's best consumer-grade virtual reality headsets -- the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR -- track your head, hands, and general position in a room. You might be able to walk around, but you don't have legs. Or a body of any sort. You kind of just... float.
But at the 2017 Game Developers Conference, I found my VR legs for the first time. I tried Island 359, a "Jurassic Park"-like dino hunting game that's recently become a full-body VR experience.
CloudGate Studio co-founders Jeremy Chapman and Steve Bowler clipped three $100 HTC Vive Trackers onto my body (one onto my belt, and one onto each shoe) before handing me the Vive controllers and headset.
You need three of these pointy HTC Vive Trackers, plus a pair of Vive wands and a headset, to track your body effectively. | Josh Miller/CNET
And then, with all five of my primary body parts clearly visible to the game (thanks to spinning lasers) I looked down -- and saw a working waist, legs and feet!
As neat as it was, I didn't walk away convinced I'd invest in a Vive Tracker setup myself. Even assuming I owned an $800 HTC Vive headset to go with my homebuilt gaming PC, a set of three trackers would cost an additional $300, not counting CloudGate's shoe- and belt-friendly mounts.
I'd have to justify that price by counting on game developers creating a bunch of games with foot-mounted Vive Trackers in mind, which has rarely been a safe bet with specialized video-game peripherals in the past. (Joysticks and racing wheels being the notable exceptions.)
But as I continued my appointment with HTC at the Game Developers Conference, I discovered I might not have to. Perhaps I'd get my dino-kicking fix at a VR arcade instead.
In case you're not aware, HTC isn't just a smartphone manufacturer anymore, and its VR division doesn't only make a headset and a few accessories. It makes its own games at Vive Studios, and its Viveport Arcade initiative is helping making VR arcades a reality.
Instead of building big adventure games with long tutorials, Vive Studios is now explicitly building games for arcades initially, but that might come to "home" VR systems later. They're looking to start with experiences that might be less than an hour long but are immersive and realistic enough that you'd pay by the minute.
"You don't necessarily need to build 50 levels for a[n arcade] game," says Joel Breton, who leads Vive Studios. That might be an attractive proposition for early VR developers, since there aren't necessarily enough headsets in the market to justify investing big bucks in longer titles
Lexy tries Knockout League, with a pair of real boxing gloves. | Josh Miller/CNET
HTC is already attracting other games that might make more sense in arcades, too. At GDC, we tried Knockout League, which attaches the Vive Trackers to actual boxing gloves, for a Mike Tyson's Punch-Out-like boxing game that feels like real exercise. And VRsenal, a systems integrator for companies that want to build a VR arcade, showed us a hefty custom-built rifle that integrates the Vive Tracker for use in futuristic shooting games.
Rikard Steiber, SVP of Virtual Reality at HTC, says he expects VR arcades to be a $100 million business this year and backs it up with some math. Assuming a VR arcade has 10 Vive systems, each operating for three hours per day, 300 days a year, if you charge $30 an hour (and assuming $20 of that is profit), that's $180,000 a year -- and assuming there are 1,000 VR arcades around the world, that adds up to $180 million.
VRsenal's beefy custom blaster is built around the HTC Vive Tracker. | Josh Miller/CNET
When I point out that's an awful lot of assuming, Steiber tells me those 1,000 arcades already exist -- in China, where the concept of the "internet cafe" never really disappeared. (We recently visited an Imax arcade in Beverly Hills, too.) While some of China's arcades have as few as two Vive stations, Steiber says many also run them for longer than three hours a day.
Might VR arcades be a novelty, though, that'll fade as people either decide they've "tried VR," or realize they like it enough to buy a headset for their own home? Steiber admits it might be so, if you could afford the same exact VR in your own house. But he believes public places, like movie theaters and shopping malls, will see reason to upgrade their existing arcades (or add new ones) with opportunities and peripherals you won't find anywhere else.
Says Steiber: "Whether it's lightsabers or guns or tennis rackets or dancing shoes, it's having these multiplayer experiences that you probably couldn't at home."