It's a slow Saturday afternoon and rain is sluicing down the windowpanes. The kids are complaining that there's nothing to do and you could use a little action yourself. Let's see. How about racking up robots, diving with dolphins or shattering the sound barrier in a Harrier? Thanks to the wonders of virtual reality (VR) you can do them all in the same afternoon and still have time to bathe the dog. If you don't have a VR arcade nearby, don't despair; the technology is expanding, the cost is coming down, and these location-based entertainment (LBE) sites are proliferating like tribbles.
Location-based entertainment is hardly a new concept. The bowling alley where your mom and dad dated could be rightfully called LBE. When "Jake's Roll 'N Bowl" later set Space Invaders and Galaxian video games beside the shoe rental counter, your future parents could enjoy a crude entertainment multiplex. The same can be said for movie theaters, miniature golf courses and amusement parks. However, such entertainment was a bit short on imagination -- a concept that took on increasing relevance as location-based entertainment evolved. The opening of Disneyland in 1955 may have been the first large-scale example of LBE as participants entered distinctly themed fantasy environments and watched "animatronic" animals, dolls and presidents cavort for their entertainment and delight. As location-based entertainment became more technically sophisticated, the level of interactive participation increased greatly. LBE involving VR simulations is the ultimate example of this principle.
The goal of any VR program is to involve the participant directly in the events being simulated, and the more advanced the program the more detailed the simulation. The participant can experience varying levels of VR. With Window on the World (WoW) technology, a.k.a. "desktop" VR, one views the action on a conventional computer monitor or screen. The next level up is "video mapping," which puts a simulation of the participant into the game itself. The most advanced incarnation of VR is called "immersive." Here the player, through use of a head-mounted display (HMD), sensory control gloves, an advanced joystick, or a combination of these, actually enters the game in a physical and psychological sense. Immersive VR can be enjoyed in a "pod," cockpit or cab; these devices may have vertical and roll motion or use moving seats. The experience may even take place in a room ("cave," to use the vernacular) where wireless tracking allows full body, free-range movement within the simulated environment.
VR's Road to Fruition
This field of entertainment, which dates back to the early 1990s, has only begun to reach its full potential. The penultimate goal of the best VR programs is to have events unfold in the closest possible approximation to "real time," and with recent breakthroughs in fast-frame rates and motion sensing technology this goal has been "virtually" realized. Companies such as Virtuality, Magic Edge, Virtual World Entertainment and Kinney Aero have set up, or served as advisors and suppliers for, VR arcades. These businesses have developed products that seem more suited to intergalactic exploration than amusement centers; the SG Onyx Reality Engine II, the interactive Tesla System, and the Intertrax Real-Time Motion Sensor HMD are just a few of them. Other players in the high-tech market have also developed VR gadgets that work in support of games; the Sony Glasstron, for example, is a 35-degree field display monitor that can handle most of the output from more advanced 3D authoring tools and texture mapping programs. Writing as a technology-challenged individual who believes that his washing machine obtains water from a troll named Mordac the Wet, I refer my readers to VR technical manuals in order to learn how these marvels are achieved. When everything works as it should, the participant can gambol among underwater reefs (GreyStone Technologies' Reef Explorer, Mercury System), traverse the Grand Canyon (Ferris Productions' Grand Canyon Adventure, CyberUnit XLR8 System), or even take their place in the squared circle (Virtuality's Virtuality Boxing, 2000SU System).
One of the most interesting aspects of the VR arcade is that not much room is needed; a passable arcade containing all three levels of VR gaming can be placed in a 5,000 square foot area. A high-end VR arcade allowing for free-range movement could be placed in a 20,000 square foot structure. Even in a major city, the rental overhead would be reasonably low and profits exceedingly likely. Kinney Aero (based in Lake Forest, California) built a VR-LBE facility called FighterTown where participants enjoyed simulated flight missions in F-111, F-104, F16 and F-14 jets. FighterTown reports 100% utilization capacity and repeat customers are estimated in the 65-70% range. Within a year of opening, this endeavor was able to expand from four to ten aircraft pods, each one upgraded with more realistic motion technology. This is only one story; Virtual World Entertainment (VWE) boasts BattleTech, a futuristic war game which has been continuously running since 1991. Since opening in Chicago nine years ago, VWE now has 17 LBE centers in the U.S., 4 in Japan, 3 in Canada and one in China. The images may be CG but the money is real.
Vary Your VR Please
These glowing business reports are, however, tempered by certain considerations. One important factor is that of theme diversification within the VR field. In a 1995 overview of all available VR-LBE experiences available (94 in all), nearly 40% of these games were what the industry calls "shoot-em-ups." The main demographic sector participating in these engage-and-destroy experiences were teenaged and young adult males. If one added the VR games that included sports and military simulations, the percentage of experiences most attractive to this sector rose to forbidding proportions. VR-LBE stood for Very Restricted-Longing But Excluded in the eyes of females, older adults and families. While theme diversification has significantly expanded since the 1995 overview, VR-LBE should constantly keep an eye on content-specific experiences that appeal to a wide range of potential customers. It is encouraging to see that some of the newest and more advanced VR entertainment, such as Iwerks Entertainment's Dino Island, create lifelike, real-time scenarios of adventure that an entire family can readily enjoy.
There is more at stake here than profits. As VR undergoes refinements, lifelike experiences featuring blood, destruction and stupendous ninja cleavage may come under increasing scrutiny. In Indianapolis, Mayor Bart Peterson made national headlines this year by proposing a "violent video game" ordinance that forbade anyone under the age of seventeen to play anything more combative than race car simulations. Games featuring graphic violence and/or sexual content were to be plastered with warning labels and kept a minimum of ten feet away from nonviolent games, and any arcade owner not enforcing this ordinance could face loss of license. On July 11, the City Council passed this ordinance by the unanimous margin of 27-0. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a temporary stay on behalf of the coin-operated industry until an injunction hearing can be held, but the writing may be on the WoW if VR arcades feature too high a proportion of virtual violence or raunchy reality. States more conservative than Indiana (and there are a few) may harass VR-LBE arcades with even more stringent legislation unless the content diversifies considerably.
VR Without A Shot
In truth, the range of VR-LBE experiences should become all-inclusive and feature scenarios that every average American yearns to experience. I'm talking about making some extravagant, pleasant dreams come true or taking the experiences of one's everyday life and recreating them in a more rewarding manner. And so, with nary a shoot-em-up in sight, here are some proposals for the next great VR-LBE experiences:
Boy Band Interactive: Who has more disposable income than pre-teen girls? This lucrative market can be tapped with Boy Band Interactive, a VR experience guaranteed to keep their excitable heads glued into HMDs. Our participant can choose from a list of the hottest boy bands extant for the immersive experience of a lifetime (or at least that summer). The participant finds herself in the front row of, say, an N'Sync concert where she watches a three-minute performance of one of the band's songs. Following this she is motioned on to the stage by the member she deems to be the cutest. She is taken backstage for another twelve minutes of personalized banalities and platitudes from the band, and the immersive experience ends when a stagehand alerts the boys that it's time for an encore. The band files out and the aforementioned cutest member plants a chaste kiss on the participant's cheek, promising to return in just a moment. Fifteen minutes for fifteen bucks -- no more expensive than purchasing the CD, and twice the fun!
Virtual Rodeo Drive: For the proletariat who only sees haute couture and pricey celebwear in the tabloid spreads or pages of People, I present -- Virtual Rodeo Drive. It's the grand dame of all shopping trips as participants drop in at La Perla for lingerie, purchase a few baubles for the homestead at MacKenzie-Childs and find the perfect handbag at Hermès. After the man of the house drops in at Louis Vuitton and Lacoste, he'll never wear that Dale Earnhardt ballcap again! Instead of haughty, 87-pound salesgirls who regard ordinary customers with facial expressions reserved for ripe roadkill, our customers encounter derriere-smooching toadies who fetch molto elegante fashions on the double. Every few minutes some sim-celebrity (like Heather Locklear) strolls by to comment approvingly on the participant's taste and style.The immersive experience ends at the doors of Ginza Sushi-Ko, where the meal is on the house. An unforgettable shopping experience, and cheaper than a pair of socks at Bijan!
Virtually Perfect Family: Now anyone can thrive in a healthy family system without a drop of dysfunction to be found. When you plunk down your cash for Virtually Perfect Family, things -- and people -- turn out just the way you dreamed they would. As Virtual Dad, you come home to big hugs and warm smiles. Suzie can't wait to show off her report card, and Tommy confides his easily-solved problems to you, the man he admires more than Ken Griffey Jr. After a great dinner filled with family conversation, the kids are in bed and it's Monday Night Football...your wife coyly beckons from the boudoir. Is that a lacy red negligee she's wearing?
As Virtual Mom, you're in a hurry; it's graduation night and you're receiving your Masters in Public Health Administration! It was a great idea to return to school and as you dress, hubby comes in to tell you how proud he is. He's been so supportive, quitting his consulting job to help you achieve your dreams. You watch and smile as he tells Tommy that it's OK to cry at the graduation and then advises Suzie to look up to you as an example of what beauty, brains and education can achieve. Is that a poorly concealed jewelry box in his suit pocket -- a special gift for your special night? This immersive VR experience includes a two-minute sim-graduation exercise in which you strut across a stage like the magna cum laude you are.
I know. They're not as much fun as blasting robots or dropping smart bombs down Saddam's chimney, but similar experiences might someday be in demand for those who can afford home VR theaters. As we consider a future where the technology of virtual reality could be the defining force in entertainment, VR-LBE just might offer all games to all people, and the arcades may never close.
In a dark corner of Jake's Roll 'N Bowl sits a once-popular video game. Its screen is streaked with hazy dust, the joystick bent and askew. A thick black plug rests forlornly on the carpet, its bronze prongs darkened by age. Despite its long-faded colors the word Centipede can still be read along the console's chipped and battered sides. No kid has touched the game in years; that was dad's thing. Today his children are down at the VR-Cade, walking on Mars.
This is definitely not their father's LBE.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.