Virtual Reality - May 2017

Significant advances in the quality and realism of virtual reality have industry creatives ready to capitalize

by Keith Miller

When an amusement park successfully incorporated virtual reality (VR) onto a family roller coaster in 2015, it opened the proverbial floodgates and launched a rush to marry VR headsets with existing coasters. In just a short time, VR experiences are also now appearing on attractions of all types, and it’s not happening just in amusement parks, but also wildlife parks, museums, science centers, and arcades.

Brandon Naids is the CEO of Talon Simulations in Orlando, which creates virtual reality simulators for a variety of attractions and other businesses. He says using roller coasters as some of the first attractions to integrate VR has set expectations quite high, but the result could be exhilarating.

“I expect to see more and more VR experiences pop up at different attractions all over the world,” says Naids. “They will be in amusement parks, museums, and shopping malls, and soon it will be expected that you’ll get to use some sort of VR everywhere you go.”

Certainly one factor that’s spurred the recent eruption in VR attractions has been the simultaneous drop in equipment costs and rise in the quality of imagery. “It’s pretty incredible how fast the prices are dropping, and the headsets are both less expensive and better experiences,” Naids says. “The increase in demand is allowing for mass manufacturing to be done, which is resulting in lower price points and better technical support.”

He says attractions are discovering virtual reality has three important attributes—versatility, adaptability, and updatability. Content can easily be customized to various locations and themes, multiple scenarios can be created to increase repeat visitation, and content can be completely changed and updated to keep the experiences fresh.

Figment Productions in Guildford, Surrey, England, already understands the value of updatability. The company provided the largest permanent installation of HTC Vive VR systems in the world on “Darren Brown’s Ghost Train” at Thorpe Park in Chertsey, Surrey, England. “We have over 170 headsets running simultaneously on moving vehicles as part of a dark ride experience,” says Simon Reveley, director of Figment Productions. “There’s a big update coming to that experience this season. One of the great advantages of media-based attractions is the update path.”

New Players in the VR World

In January 2017, Spaces Inc., a virtual reality/mixed reality company launched in 2016 by VR developers from DreamWorks Animation, announced it had raised $6.5 million in funding, spearheaded by China-based Songcheng Performance Development Company, Comcast Ventures, and other venture-capital groups. Combined with a $30 million Spaces Inc./Songcheng joint venture announced last year, Spaces is accelerating plans to build new VR-enabled parks and attractions.

Spaces and Songcheng plan to announce details of their theme park projects soon, but the company’s co-founders were willing to give Funworld some clues about their plans. “We’re fundamentally reimagining the theme park experience, so we have a simple vision, and we’re growing an entire industry around these concepts,” says Shiraz Akmal, CEO of Spaces Inc. “Our core is to look at what a VR park would be like if it was built from scratch leveraging this emerging technology, and then, more practically, how do we introduce it into existing parks.”

Brad Herman, co-founder of Spaces Inc. and the company’s chief technology officer, doesn’t see the specific ride venue as a limiting factor: “In any park, there are people who don’t like roller coasters. We believe there are remarkable creative experiences possible regardless of the machines themselves, be it a roller coaster, a carousel, et cetera. These experiences are in a new class—experiences you can have as you move through a space is the basis of what we’re doing. ”

Though not a Spaces project, “Ghostbusters: Dimension,” which opened in July 2016 at Madame Tussauds New York, is just such an experience. Developed through a partnership of Sony Pictures, Madame Tussauds, Ghost Corps, and The Void, guests enter the interactive attraction equipped with a VR headset, a vest with 22 points of haptic feedback, a backpack gaming computer, and a VR blaster gun. The adventure, themed after the popular “Ghostbusters” movie franchise, allows participants to engage in a ghost hunt of their own, featuring characters from the new “Ghostbusters” movie released last summer.

But unlike most VR experiences, “Ghostbusters: Dimension” doesn’t have guests sitting still and watching imagery through their headsets. Rather, they move through a physical set featuring exclusive content created for the experience, multiple scenes, real-time special effects, props, costumes, and a vehicle.

Micro Parks and Gaming Arcades
In late 2017, the first of what is planned to be a portfolio of micro-amusement parks featuring the latest virtual reality and augmented reality technologies will open in Los Angeles. The creator of these centers, Two Bit Circus, is led by CEO and co-founder Brent Bushnell, son of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s founder Nolan Bushnell. The company is looking at other locations across the United States for the 30,000- to 50,000-square-foot facilities and is eyeing Asia for international expansion.

“VR is hot right now, so we plan to have great multiperson virtual reality,” says Bushnell. “One of our big focuses is mixed reality—those that involve guests both in and out of VR—so everyone is collaborating in the same world.”

Like “Ghostbusters: Dimension,” the VR at the Two Bit Circus micro parks will involve guests moving around and interacting with real objects. However, Bushnell stresses these will not be VR arcades, but rather, showcases of cutting-edge entertainment technology and IP, with millennials as the target demographic.

Actually, one amusement operation that might be expected to be at the forefront of VR adoption is the gaming arcade. Digital imaging is at the very heart of home-based set-top gaming consoles and computer-based video games. But arcades face two big challenges. First, since VR headsets are available for home-based gaming systems, the arcades have to offer something far beyond what most home gamers can experience. Second, the pricing of such systems must be low enough for arcades to afford them in bulk and still be able to make a profit.

Both challenges are quickly being addressed by manufacturers, according to Naids at Talon Simulations: “VR experiences have been drastically reducing in price over the past few years, and it’s getting to the point where even the smallest arcades can afford to purchase the equipment and obtain a return on their investment in less than a year—even a few months in some instances. Also, they can now have games with multiple scenarios, which provide repeatability and returning guests.”

The Go Big or Go Home Entertainment gaming lounge in Syracuse, Utah, offers two virtual reality rooms in its 5,000-square-foot gaming center. Operator Kelly Moore says multiple scenarios are available, including a Grand Canyon experience, haunted house, and a zombie shooter; not surprisingly, the last is by far the most popular. The cost to players of a VR experience is $10 for about 25 minutes.

“VR is becoming the go-to choice of all gamers,” Moore asserts. “It’s cutting edge and ever evolving, but is still something of a novelty and the first thing everyone wants to try when they come to our gaming center. We need to have more stations of VR, as this is the wave of the future.”

Invigorated Learning
Virtual reality may seem to have an ideal home in thrill parks and arcades, but its game-changing significance is hardly limited to amusement attractions. Education-based venues are beginning to make exciting use of the technology to make learning more engaging.

“With regard to museums, zoos and aquariums, and science centers, the educational aspect is so good with VR because guests will remember so much from the experiences,” says Naids. “VR actually immerses the user in a realistic environment and can be more effective in teaching people about animals, marine life, or even history.”

He reveals Talon Simulations has teamed with NASA, which purchased one of the company’s simulators and is crafting a lunar rover VR experience. “They’re creating this content for people to drive a lunar rover on the moon,” he explains, “and it’s something that will be very memorable.”

In 2016, the San Diego Air & Space Museum launched the BEAM Virtual Tour Program, which allows mobility-challenged or bedridden guests to explore the museum virtually via a robot. These visitors, accompanied by a teaching guide, embark on a virtual walking-pace tour of the museum’s 100,000-square-foot exhibition area. Guests access BEAM from any PC or laptop and use arrow keys or a mouse to control its movements. The technology allows a virtual visitor to have interactive experiences with the guide.

Still Challenges to Overcome

Virtual reality may be a hot technology for attractions right now, but it still faces a few hurdles. The most visible of these involves rides featuring VR headsets. The past two years, guests who queued for VR-enabled coasters sometimes encountered significant delays as ride crews assisted guests with putting on the headsets.

Though Triotech in Montreal is involved in some currently confidential VR projects, Vice President of Marketing Christian Martin sounds a few cautionary notes about VR: “Putting on and removing cumbersome VR gear dramatically slows down capacity. In addition, the gear is expensive and fragile compared to say, 3-D glasses, so it puts pressure on the operation to be careful with the equipment. To mitigate this, ‘gearing up’ the guests in [line] would be the solution, but even this is hampered by high cost as this means doubling the number of sets. Another avenue is cheaper or even ‘disposable’ VR gear.” 

Martin also sees a much more fundamental issue facing VR at attractions, especially amusement parks: guest isolation. He notes most guests go to a park for a shared experience with another person or a group—living a common experience with friends or family. “This means eye contact, talking to each other, and being together during the experience,” he observes. “Current VR solutions tend to do the opposite, even with recent developments with avatars where you can see the other guests. They tend to isolate the guests and put them in individual experiences.”

Naids sees the compilation of these issues creating a challenge for VR developers, but still predicts a bright future for the technology: “First impressions last forever, and if a person pays to try VR and is unsatisfied, word of mouth will lead to others not wanting to adopt it. This is why it is so important for manufacturers to invest the time and money necessary to create quality content, and make sure users will be as comfortable as possible. But the difference in VR headsets five years ago and now is incredible, so the next five years should be amazing.” 

What’s Ahead for Virtual Reality

Funworld asked a few virtual reality developers what’s in store the next few years for VR:

“People who were saying 2016/2017 would see VR take a grip in the home are now saying it could be five to 10 years. That’s great news for attractions, as it means VR will stay fresh, novel, and new for several years to come. When it’s done properly, the results speak for themselves. VR has huge pulling power.”

—Simon Reveley, Figment Productions

“The improvements in resolution and field of view in VR headsets will have the biggest positive impact on these experiences. New VR headsets will be released every one or two years with these advancements, with some of them becoming wireless. The wires hinder a realistic interaction with the experience, which can take away from the immersion, so going wireless will definitely have a great impact on adoption.”

—Brandon Naids, Talon Simulations

“In the future, I believe VR experiences will have their place. We can see spaces where value-added experiences can exist. Perhaps it’s a second-gate niche attraction where capacity is not as important to the operator and guests want to live something different, something more immersive.”

—Christian Martin, Triotech




How Is 360-degree VR Imagery Captured?

One of the wonderful aspects of VR headsets is that unlike looking at a TV or cinema screen, the imagery in the headset completely envelops you, whether you look forward or backward, up or down, left or right. Brandon Naids, CEO and co-founder of Talon Simulations, explains how this is done:

“The 360-degree imagery can be done in two ways. The first uses a video camera that has the capabilities to film in 360 degrees. These recording rigs are usually made up of several cameras filming at different angles, then stitched together afterward to create a passive experience. The other method involves taking the time to 3-D model objects on a computer, integrate these in a software engine used to make video games, and then render everything using a powerful computer.”

Go Behind the Glass and Underwater with Orcas

SeaWorld San Diego will soon unveil a new virtual reality attraction in which guests “go underwater” with the park’s orca and see them in a way not otherwise possible. Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park experience design for SeaWorld Entertainment, gives Funworld a preview of the experience, which will feature video of the park’s killer whales filmed with a special state-of-the-art camera.

“We’ve developed a propriety 3-D, 360-degree underwater camera on our own—you can’t buy it,” he reveals, “and it gets our guests ‘behind the glass.’ We call it ‘Deep See VR,’ and it will manifest itself in 2017 through 2019, not to replace live animal experiences in our parks, but to widen those experiences.”

He says the experience will not be a mega-attraction, but a unique boutique-type, fee-added encounter requiring reservations. Morrow describes the experience: “Guests will be taken to a secret circular-shaped room in the park called our SIM Lab, and the group size is 12 humans with guide. They will sit down and be asked to put on a headset for the five-minute experience. There will be music, exploration, meeting our killer whales up close, having them swim overhead, and all of this is real and breathtaking—there is no contrived fictional storyline. The through-thread is the chance to get closer than you ever have before with killer whales.”

He adds that SeaWorld tested its new 360-degree camera on penguins, dolphins, cheetahs, and other animals, but chose for the first attraction to feature orcas to complement “Orca Encounter,” another new attraction opening at SeaWorld San Diego in 2017.