With the return of VR onto the scene, we’ve begun to cover the subject on the blog recently as “VR Arcades” and other out-of-home applications of the technology find their way into amusement. The purpose of this editorial is to explain in a little more detail what the different types of “technological reality” can be found out there, to help reference future articles.
Knowing Your R’s
Not “readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmatic” as the typical school grade Rs go but in this case, R stands for Reality. We’ll simply define reality as what your five senses perceive to be the world around you. As there are volumes of philosophical arguments about the subject, we’ll just leave it there for simplicity. This article is focused on technology and different ways it is applied, mainly for amusement purposes. This will be divided into two tabs – one to explain the technologies and the other to discuss issues surrounding them.
Simulated Reality (SR) – More commonly known as the simulator, these attempt to recreate a particular experience by as many mechanical means as possible. SR elements are particularly popular for racing/driving games but can really be applied to a wide range of arcade games. Every driving game has a steering wheel and pedals and maybe a shifter. To boost the simulation effect of driving a car, more advanced titles can feature movement or wind effects. In the case of a motorbike game, the swivel controllers are designed to feel just like a motorbike of some kind. Thanks to the long history of arcades, SR is so ubiquitous that is taken for granted.
It is true that some games fit into the classification as a simulator better than others, which is covered by how many dimensions of the chosen experience are reproduced mechanically. Looking back at the arcade business, this has been attempted almost since the beginning: Atari’s Tank did it early on with dual joysticks representing each tread on a tank; Allied upped the ante in 1976 with their simulator game Ski, that placed the user on a set of swivel foot controllers representing skis; Exidy changed the direction of the industry when they introduced the “cockpit” style cabinet with Star Fire to simulate sitting inside of a starfighter and so on. Not every single arcade game might be considered SR but there are hundreds of examples that could be offered to demonstrate the simulator.
Among companies that have developed simulators, Sega is possibly the best known for their work in the field, starting with motion games like Space Harrier and creating the famous gyroscopic simulator, the R360. However, every major arcade company has produced simulation games of some kind before, most involving motion.
For professional simulators, we tend to see these at every IAAPA trade show, covering the experience of driving in a professional race car or piloting a boat or flying in an aircraft. We’ve even reported about locations that have an exclusive focus on SR once in a while although the sure-fire way to find a full-blown simulator is to visit a theme park.
Virtual Reality (VR) – The current talk of the town, so to speak. The vision behind this is to make the user feel like they are transported directly into the computer, ala TRON but without the use of lasers and psychotic programs that seek our demise. This is accomplished by getting up close with those important senses – your eyes and your ears – via the use of a Head Mounted Display (HMD). Using gyroscopes to dynamically move the virtual camera with the direction that the user is looking towards, one can get a sense that they are in the program, moreso if other stimuli are used to complete the illusion.
To reach the promise of ‘total immersion’, additional hardware and properly programmed software are needed. Most current VR solutions rely on ‘open space’ software, not expecting the user to interact with solid objects such as walls, chairs, tables, etc. as the expense behind reproducing all of that rises quickly. This is a place where VR Amusement/arcades can benefit, and apart from the several VR arcades that are already popping up out there, you have concepts like The Void which setup and add walls. Thus the end user doesn’t have to pay for the extra hardware.
When VR is setup outside of the home and on location, we call this “LBE VR,” the LBE standing for “Location-Based Entertainment.”
That said, VR has been done in a more contained arcade setup before – the Virtuality Pods (pictured below) of the early 90s or GlobalVR’s Vortek V3. Sega also made an attempt with something called TecWar, but it never passed the testing phase.
Augmented Reality (AR) – By using a device like a smartphone, handheld game unit, or AR goggles, AR differs by generating CG overlays to real world objects in view of the camera.
The best example of AR at the moment is Pokémon Go. The wild success that the app has enjoyed so far demonstrates that there is a lot of potential that can be tapped into as there are millions of users around the world that already have an AR capable device in their pocket. Another example that received early praise although the device has yet to be released is Microsoft’s Hololens; some games on the Nintendo 3DS and it is possible that the upcoming Nintendo NX will have some kind of AR element to it.
Perhaps the most direct usage of AR in the amusement industry was Sega’s Ghost Hunters, released as a theme park “dark ride” attraction in 1994. Users sat in these pods where they would shoot monsters that were projected into the front glass. Sega had used a similar (albeit crude by comparison) idea in their arcade title Laser Ghost (pictured); and I don’t think it would be off to say Sega’s Holosseum also would fall into the AR category. Konami had tested an AR-enabled light-gun game called Space Agent, in Japan but never released it.
One use of AR that isn’t often thought of as such would be stereoscopic 3D glasses. Stereoscopic gaming hasn’t fared too well in the post-AVATAR 3D glow, unless you want to count VR as the place where it is getting its chance. This is also the main place you would find AR in arcades – from the early SubRoc 3D by Sega to Continental Circus by Taito to a few of the more recent attempts like The Swarm by GlobalVR and Let’s Go Island 3D by Sega.
To top off Japanese interest in AR usage for arcades, you have card games where a card placed onto a special sensor surface that adds virtual items into the game based on the card stats; one big thing lately is to create games for kids where they have a superhero or princess garb superimposed on top of them.
One company that is said to be at the forefront of AR is called Magic Leap, who has been able to obtain an enormous amount of funding for their wearable AR technology. They are seen as an incredibly secretive company as their website doesn’t really tell you what their product is exactly and how it is supposed to work (the press area doesn’t answer any questions about the tech, just PR about money raised and people joining the company) – but some previewers have been able to provide a few more details.
Mixed Reality (MXR) – This is perhaps the most confusing category to define because it “mixes” elements of both SR and AR together, thus blurring lines. I don’t fault anyone for calling an MXR device a simulator or AR application. Perhaps the best way to define it is that AR requires some sort of wearable or other user controlled camera device, be it a transparent HMD like 3D glasses or a smartphone while MXR makes use of real world objects and mixes them with the digital, often by use of projection mapping. A great example are these air hockey, pool table and golf concepts:
Sega also ignited the MXR scene in 2014 with their interactive sandbox technology:
Issues with SR?
Most of the problems that SR has have been dealt with through time and money spent to see what works and what doesn’t. Because of cost and space requirements, SR in the home doesn’t happen often – mainly in cases of someone purchasing an SR arcade machine or pro simulator itself. One console in history that was going to offer SR in the home but failed to make it to market was the Konix Multisystem.
Presently, the arcade sector suffers from a lack of genre variety as sure-fire concepts like a driver or light-gun game are proven money makers, to the determent of other concepts. Although as we have seen in recent years, more tangents from the safe have been taking place, with Super Alpine Racer or Mario & Sonic At the Rio 2016 Olympics.
If we bring up motion simulators however, there is an issue there that still needs a bit of work. I like to call it “The Effect Disconnect”, although there might be a better term to use. This is where the effect of the motion doesn’t connect with what is happening on the screen. It is particularly bad in motion theaters as the platforms will often just bounce the entire group around despite the scene on the screen showing smooth motion. Often the very expensive single motion simulators do get it right but it is very easy to get it wrong. Just bouncing you around for the sake of it is not what should be considered a worthwhile or immersive effect.
Issues with VR?
One oddity I’ve come across on occasion with VR is the absolute refusal to accept that it has some problems to be overcome. I get the sense that if a VR acolyte even suggests that VR might have a problem, they will be banished do a digital gulag, never to be heard from again. I don’t think ignoring a problem is doing it any service, as some problems can be overcome. In the areas where they cannot, you simply do your best to work around it.
I do think that VR has been overhyped by many. Early claims that it would replace the smartphone as the go-to interactive tech & communications device (like you saw in Ready Player One) was absurd to me, as wearable tech inherently has problems – moreso tech that literally blinds the player to the outside world.
I also occasionally hear people who come into my arcade, demanding to know why I haven’t chucked out all my “old” games and replaced them with cutting edge VR booths. I guess I’m just not very good at playing the cash grab game, but it’s not as simple as buying a bunch of HTC Vives and some curtains then calling it a day.
Hardware issues – The primary issue for VR has always been the cost. These systems are not cheap or can be classified as “affordable.” That is an issue that diminishes over time, but in the case of LBE VR, it doesn’t scale like it does in the home space, for reasons I’ll get into below. Suffice it to say, it will not be anytime soon that you’ll have VR systems with comparable prices to standard arcade machines. This means that the market of where these can go is limited mainly to deep pocket FECs and theme parks.
As VR requires a wearable HMD, at its core it is merely a camera placed on the user’s face. To go beyond that and create the illusion of immersion, more hardware is needed to complete that immersive feel – which can include onmi-directional treadmills, force feedback vests, Kinect, a sitdown arcade cabinet with controls, a sit-down platform with moving seats, etc. The problem here is an interesting one, as LBE VR does have an advantage over console VR, since you can provide those extra features and tailor them beyond cardboard. This does help the immersive effect. But the more hardware you throw into the equation, the more expensive it gets, thus lowering the number of potential sales and increasing the amount of ROI a location needs for it to make sense.
Another problem with VR in the arcade is the use of wearable tech in public. This is a barrier if you do not have a good full time attendant taking care of clients, ensuring they are not getting too rough with it and cleaning each headset between use. Just leaving it as is like an arcade game isn’t really an option for most people or locations. We have had face masks being made available as a way to create an attendant-less setup, but face masks are an imperfect item that disrupt the immersion and are not a guarantee for hygiene (transmission of illnesses like pinkeye or you can still smell someone’s stink afterwards…not a pleasant memory to have). Cleaning headsets also causes delays, so that in instances of roller coasters using VR, companies have removed the tech from the coaster as it was more trouble and cost than it was worth.
The hardware is also still far from perfected – there are latency issues as well as resolution issues (as one person on my Linkedin mentioned, there is the ‘screen door’ effect where you can see the spaces in between the pixels, which was a problem back in the 90’s as well). These latter issues will be dealt with as time and R&D progresses along but at present, there is an Effect Disconnect where you notice these things as well as expecting to touch and feel the virtual objects – that aren’t really there. When they are, I noticed that often objects will actually be a couple to few inches away from where your brain expects them to be. This can shatter the illusion, or cause vertigo, depending on the game.
If you strip all that away, you’re still just dealing with a camera on your face and that leads to the other issue – vertigo. No, not everyone has the unfortunate bout with this problem as soon as they put the HMD on but as more people have begun to use it, some are finding that they can only manage short (20-30 min) sessions before vertigo or a headache sets in. One experience I had with Oculus left me with a migraine for hours afterwards and I’m not prone to those at all. I am still in the minority but this is one of those issues that is more a brain “problem”. It is possible that as HMDs improve their latency, resolutions, weight and solve the Effect Disconnect that the brunt of these effects for certain users will be diminished.
I should note that when I used VR with contact lenses, the vertigo & headache effects were diminished for me; where I recently had lasik (March 2019), that might change further. But you still have a portion of the population that is in a similar circumstance to myself, where something in our brains, or the ways that our eyes work cause an issue when VR is involved.
In the arcade space, this is far more prominent for VR systems that use motion – which almost all of them I saw at IAAPA did require. The Effect Disconnect of motion being off tied to VR almost made me vomit, like I had just stepped off the Gravitar amusement park ride – the game showed a smooth ride through space but for some reason the seat just kept bouncing around like I was 4-wheeling a mountain trail in Moab.
Software issues – Not much in the way of software (so far) has offered a compelling, exclusive manner in which you can only reproduce the game with an HMD. Not unlike Microsoft’s Kinect, which has matured hardware but good luck finding a game that is so awesome that you are fine with having spent the extra money. Without concepts that offer a compelling reason to make a dynamic camera on your head stand out from using a more traditional control method, VR has yet to come up with its “Pac-Man”, “Call of Duty” or “Pokémon Go”. The closest thing we’ve got to it at the moment is Beat Saber, but even that hasn’t managed to reach the same level of cultural recognition of DDR…of even Pump It Up.
Granted, this is something that may be solved as there is an awful lot of R&D money being dumped into VR on both hardware and software fronts. For a long time, the hardware issues have prevented software from maturing to where it needs to be. As it is, there are plenty of “tacked on” VR options (leading to plenty of VR “shovelware” – the kind of crap you maybe play once, then never again) but what seems to be most compelling at the moment are programs that require very little to no interactivity from the user such as VR films, which tend to be fairly short. The moment the game begins to ask for the user to do something, any Effect Disconnect can cause it to go off the rails.
Issues with AR?
Some of the issues that VR has with it apply to AR as well, at least in wearable tech. It is far more common for someone to use their smartphone as an AR device than something like Google Glass (which ended up with some users being labeled “Glassholes” and getting banned from certain venues). No one expects people to be walking around with VR HMDs but AR HMDs can happen and then you walk the fine line of privacy concerns in public.
In the arcade, that isn’t something we really need to worry about as the overlay displays are either built into the game or its just a matter of using 3D glasses. Smartphones have only been used in terms of QR code scanning but I think that more could be done if some R&D efforts were dedicated to some experimentation there.
3D gaming has been tried in the arcade business but like 3D gaming on the home side, it fizzled out fairly quickly. The AR card games that Japan has enjoyed have also been tested here but without full English translations, I’m not sure how anyone expected the games to test well. Card gaming itself is pretty popular in some areas here but without the right game or license, then potential for going with that style of game will not be realized. You’re just not going to get enough interest to warrant production if you try something like Sengokushi Taisen. Magic The Gathering on the other hand, still has many players who would be a good target market for an AR card arcade game.
On the home software side, the quality of experience does tend to lag behind VR and SR if you are aiming for any sort of simulation experience. This is because it is obvious that you are dealing with CG overlays. Like VR, AR could be augmented further by using additional hardware but this adds cost and begins to limit your audience.
Issues with MXR?
Just figuring out what it is so that you can market it to the public is a challenge. Consider how difficult it has been for Nintendo to market their WiiU to the public despite having an excellent game library.
Regardless the marketing, it is more likely to gain steam in the out-of-home entertainment space given the examples shown. Then it boils down to quality of content and cost of the unit. Costs for anything like the setups shown do tend to be prohibitive for small venues, hitting around $20,000 and up. Then they also will usually take up a lot of floor space.
Another issue here is people walking off with the control mechanism. For an example, Sega’s kinetic sand MXR arcade game is neat but I cannot imagine ever putting one of those in my arcade and getting sand crammed into other games. This was an issue with another cool MXR concept they tested years ago called Block/Brick People. With air hockey, theft of the paddles or pucks is fairly common but they are also cheap to replace.
Each one of these categories has plentiful potential to entertain the public and it should be exciting to see what developments are in store for the near future. Most arcade/amusement companies are looking into VR at the moment although after the Pokémon Go craze, perhaps AR will be getting another chance too.
Which of these “technological realities” are your favorite?