In recent years, consumer virtual reality, or VR for short, allows users to immerse in digital environments, with tech giants like Sony, Valve and even Facebook becoming involved and investing heavily in the industry. While there’s growth and rapid advancement in the technology, with the high costs of the headsets, controllers and the powerful PCs to drive them – plus the need for a significant dedicated space to play, VR lies outside of reach for all but the most hardcore enthusiasts.

The population’s low experience with VR has also loomed over the technology like an iceberg, theorized to be the threat that could sink the renaissance of the best immersion that technology has to offer. Recently this iceberg has started to melt as entrepreneurs around the globe have begun to blend futuristic technology with restrictive price tags into the classical structure of arcades.

Jacking into VR Arcades
Walking into Sensorama VR Arcade located in the Westfield Plaza Bonita mall in San Diego, California, you’re greeted with a black room filled to the brim with a neon glow reminiscent of retro arcades. From the main entrance, the VR Arcade splits into five 7-foot-by-7-foot booths, each equipped with the immersive $800 HTC Vive, a high-end PC and eight pieces of VR software for trial. Starting at just $5 for ten minutes with discounts on longer sessions you can experience high-end VR.

Looking around the arcade you can spot a diversity of players gathering and playing, mostly male, from age 10 all the way to 50. Though there’s a clear scattering of people experiencing VR alone, you see the impression it has on people as other setups are crowded with customers returning and bringing family and friends to introduce them to VR.

High Technology Implanted in Everyday Hubs
While seeing such a futuristic VR arcade placed in an outwardly standard mall might seem bizarre, it only highlights the disparity between the high tech nature of VR and the vast majority of the world who’ve never experienced it or are even unaware of its existence. Traditional video game arcades helped to introduce children and adults around the world to games that at the time were not replicable at home. For a period, with the hardware in popular arcade cabinets too advanced to be ported and too expensive for most people to own, arcades became the hub where anyone could experience the highest tier of electronic entertainment available at the time. Could VR Arcades become the new place to experience innovation in electronic entertainment, a gateway to the future of gaming?

We need to stay two steps ahead of the game in VR,” explains Nicholas Brown, owner of Varks Virtual Reality Arcade, also located in San Diego. Varks Virtual Reality Arcade’s sessions start at $12 for the first 20 minutes with $6 for every 20 minutes after. Brown’s VR Arcade focuses on keeping the experience fresh even as the technology becomes more main stream.

In two or three years, VR won’t be as exotic as it is right now. We’ll need to offer something different from the home market if we’re going to stay in business. We’ll need to concentrate on the peripherals and experience.”

Licensing VR Arcade’s Global Scope
Special versions of hardware as well as agreements for software usage have to be arranged in order to keep the arcades operating legally. Many of the developers of VR titles offer licenses to allow VR Arcades to trial their games to customers in exchange for a monthly fee or cut. Not all VR companies are so embracing of VR Arcades. Oculus VR, owned by Facebook and the creator of the Oculus Rift VR headset and the Touch haptic controllers have included a line in their End User License Agreement not permitting the use of their headsets for commercial purposes. HTC with their VR system, the HTC Vive, have taken a very different approach, by investing in VR Arcades across the globe and providing a Vive Business Edition for $400 dollars more than the consumer price ($1,200 total) that allows for enterprise use.

While VR Arcades are rapidly growing across the US, the global footprint of VR Arcades is much larger, especially in Asian countries like China and Japan. HTC has been seen investing heavily in the Chinese market, building their own chain of Vive VR Cafes and developing their new Viveport platform. “The Viveport Arcade program is HTC’s location-based entertainment initiative where Viveport content [VR games and experiences] is provided to third-party physical locations such as arcades, internet cafes, theaters and shopping malls via an end-to-end content management and distribution platform,” Stephen Reid, an HTC Community Manager shared in a FAQ about the new program.

The Icebreaker’s Destiny
Classic arcades began to crumble in the 90s, in part, when consumers were able to experience premium arcade games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat on home consoles at near parity with the more expensive arcade machines. Though VR enthusiasts hope that VR Arcades will introduce many new people to the technology, there are still questions in the air of where VR Arcades will stand if VR headsets reach a level of affordability to become a household accessory. For now, however, there’s a plentiful stream of customers coming through Sensorama VR Arcade, eager to experience the immersion of VR.

Today, when folks ask how much the VR set up costs, they’re not interested in buying one for themselves,” concludes Brown. In the next decade as technology continues on its Moore’s Law march forward and the rigs and the hardware needed to run them drop in price, the VR Arcade could go the way of the video game arcade. But for now, VR Arcades could be an icebreaker, a beacon to introduce the world to the immersion of VR.

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