Joshua Fendley is a self-described virtual-reality skeptic. But he’s also a Star Wars fanboy, so when he learned that there was a Star Wars VR experience in Las Vegas in July—the same month he had to visit the Strip for his boss’s wedding—he had to check it out.
Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire cost $36 and lasted about 15 minutes, during which Fendley visited the volcanic planet Mustafar while disguised as a stormtrooper to gather imperial intelligence. His vest, connected to a computer he carried on his back, vibrated when he was hit by enemy fire. There were special effects, like heat, wind, and a burning scent, and virtual objects mapped to real-world ones, like a blaster he could actually hold in his hands. At one point, he says, he reached out to touch a VR droid and felt it in real life. The experience blew his mind.
“I could have stayed in that little world forever,” he says. “It was really cool.”
Fendley’s virtual voyage took place inside a real-world outpost of the Void, a company based in Lindon, Utah, that’s setting up locations devoted solely to VR where groups of people can play together. Since 2016, the company has opened eight of them, mostly in the US but also in Toronto, London, and Dubai, and it has plans to open more before the year is up.
Cliff Plumer, CEO of the Void, won’t give specific details on traffic or expansion plans, but he says that at some locations on weekends and holidays, “well over” 1,000 people come through each day.
In some respects, it sounds ridiculous to organize a new business around VR, or even devote much attention or space to it in an existing theme park or arcade. Despite pushes by companies like Oculus (which is owned by Facebook), HTC, and Sony, the technology hasn’t caught on with the mass market. VR headset sales are currently grim: according to data gathered by IDC, shipments of the gadgets fell nearly 31 percent during the first three months of 2018, largely because cheap, phone-reliant ones are no longer being bundled with high-end smartphones, and new self-contained, inexpensive headsets like Oculus Go haven’t taken off (sales are expected to climb later this year, especially during the holiday season, but that remains to be seen).
Yet while most of us aren’t clamoring for VR in our living rooms, the technology is going gangbusters this summer in VR-devoted venues, as well as in arcades, amusement parks, and other family-friendly entertainment centers where people can strap on a headset before flying down a waterslide or playing a VR game. It’s even showing up in airports—in JFK’s Terminal 4 in New York, a startup called Periscape is operating a pop-up VR center, with headsets tethered to touch-screen towers, that people can use while waiting for a flight.
Greenlight Insights, a company that researches the VR and augmented-reality markets, estimates that this market will bring in $1.2 billion this year, up from $579 million last year, with about 6,000 so-called location-based entertainment VR centers globally by the end of the year (a large percentage of these are temporary, pop-up-style installations).
So what gives? Part of it is simply that people want to try the technology before investing in it—or they’re curious and willing to shell out for a novel experience.
Philip Lelyveld, who heads the Immersive Media Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Entertainment Technology Center, suspects that many people aren’t interested in buying VR headsets for home use because the technology is not yet good enough and they can’t trust there will be a constant supply of content to make it worth the cost. While an Oculus Go headset costs $199 or $249, depending on how much storage you want, you still have to pay well over $1,000 to buy a tethered, high-end consumer VR system like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift along with a PC that can run it. And that doesn’t include the price of any of the games you might want to buy to play in VR.
“Just like arcades in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s much more worthwhile to do [VR] out of the home,” Lelyveld says.
These VR diversions may also be able to fulfill one of the big promises of virtual reality—making it social—in a way that isn’t yet possible in your house.
The Void and other arenas run by companies like Zero Latency are already shifting consumer expectations for VR so that it’s thought of more as a group activity than a solo experience. Fendley and his wife, Rachel, had to work together during the Star Wars experience, one solving a puzzle while the other provided cover fire to keep them both safe. Visual cues made it clear who was who within VR, and microphones built into helmets made it easy for the players to talk to each other.
VR is also being used to create some totally new experiences you simply can’t come up with at home. At the Galaxy Erding water park inside Germany’s giant Therme Erding spa, for instance, you can strap on a water-resistant headset and choose a virtual adventure to watch while barreling down one of the slides. For example, you might simulate floating through the sky as you follow a pack of butterflies. The 35-second watery voyage uses ultrasound sensors on the slide and sensors on the headset to keep track of where you are and trigger visuals in a specially built app.
It may sound like a silly way to use technology. And Stephen Greenwood, CEO of Ballast VR, which built the headset and VR technology behind the ride, admits there is a “novelty factor” to exploring VR while sliding down a slippery chute.
But it’s popular. Galaxy Erding began charging for the VR ride option in mid-March; by late June, 36,000 people had paid two euros apiece ($2.33) to try it out, bringing in 72,000 euros (about $84,000) total.
“It’s just a really bizarre combo that ends up being really thrilling and fun,” Greenwood says.
Yet the prices for these kinds of experiences may have to come down if companies want people to try them once, let alone become repeat customers. Typically, they cost $1.50 to $2 per minute, says Kevin Vitale, CEO of VRstudios, which in June rolled out a Jurassic World–themed sit-down VR ride at over 110 Dave & Buster’s restaurants (that one costs about $5 and is four and a half minutes long).
Fendley and his wife liked the Void so much that they visited another Vegas VR attraction, an arena created by Zero Latency. There, they paid $50 apiece to play a space-station game for 30 minutes. It would cost a family of four $200 to do the same—or they could spend an afternoon at a movie with plenty of snacks, and still have money left over.
People are also unlikely to keep coming back unless venues pushing VR keep changing the kinds of content you can check out. At Galaxy Erding, Greenwood is working on this: he says the VR slide is doing so well that Ballast VR was asked to make a new jungle-themed adventure for the fall, to coincide with a re-theming of the park itself.
The Void, meanwhile, is initially trying to lure guests in with VR experiences tied to big-name film franchises—before the Star Wars one, the company offered a Ghostbusters experience in 2016. But it hopes they’ll come back for the company’s original VR content, such as a horror attraction called Nicodemus: Demon of Evanishment that rolled out in Las Vegas in June.
“Ever since we first launched Ghostbusters, the natural reaction from our guests as they come out is ‘Wow, that was awesome. What else can I do?’” Plumer says.