Both arcades opened in June following the commercial release of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headset this spring, and are among just a handful of VR arcades opened worldwide. Their aim is to expand access to virtual reality beyond early adopters through gaming sessions priced at a low hourly rate, group parties and even an international tournament with other VR arcades.
Early arcades found success by offering access to the first video games: People weren’t going to buy a Pac-Man or NBA Jam machine to put in their living room, but they would pay to play at an arcade. Virtual reality is currently at the same spot, arcade founders say. Despite the hype, the tech is still out of reach for many consumers, said Derick Downey, cofounder of Immersion Arcade. The HTC Vive, for example, starts at $800 and requires a top-of-the-line gaming PC.
“We saw this opportunity where the equipment is going to be between $2,500 to $3,000 [and] we could rent it out for a much cheaper price,” he said.
Immersion has two HTC Vive headsets (with two more on the way), gaming computers and monitors so people not immersed in VR can watch users play. Rates range from $10 for 15 minutes, and go up to $60 for two hours. They also take their gaming systems to street festivals, block parties and community events to do demos of the tech.
They have 19 games, licensed from developers. Downey envisions these games changing every month or so, similar to the release schedule at a movie theater. The most popular titles currently include Job Simulator, in which players get to goof around in office and auto mechanic jobs, and The Brookhaven Experiment, a zombie attack game.
Immersion rang up over 100 transactions since opening mid-June, and customers have ranged from a 60-year-old woman who wanted to know what it was like to walk foreign streets (via Realities) to a seven-year-old who quickly realized that a zombie VR game is a lot scarier than zombies on the Walking Dead (they now have a policy that parents have to try the game before they let their child try it). “We’ve had a lot of curious people,” Downey said.
IVirtex offers a similar experience though with separate rooms for players (Immersion is an open space), and slightly cheaper prices (ranging from $5 for 15 minutes to $15 for one hour). In addition to four HTC Vive headsets and 20 games, they also have an Oculus Rift device with 15 games.
Founder Eder Mendez has been a virtual reality buff for years, and he said his first experience with an HTC Vive was “the most majestic, incredible and inspiring thing” he’d ever tried. “I could not believe how clear and detailed the graphics were. How real everything looked and felt,” he said. “I knew for sure that this was something that would change gaming forever.”
And while there’s little question that VR impact gaming, arcades will have to figure out how to stay relevant once the novelty has worn off (or when VR has dropped enough in price where anyone can have one at home). Though there’s a fair amount of nostalgia for arcade games from the 80’s, there are few arcades functioning now.
Mendez is interested in how VR could be used for assistive purposes. “In the future we want to work with people that have disabilities so that they can experience many things that they are not able to because of their disabilities,” he said. “We really hope this technology changes the way people see many things.”
Downey, who’s an arts and technology professor at Illinois State University, is exploring how it could be used in education, and mentioned Immersion is working on a partnership with Bradley University. Immersion is also in talks with VR arcades in Utah and Canada to organize an international VR gaming tournament.
Beyond that, he said he’s excited to see what developments in VR are on the horizon.
“This is the first of its kind,” he said. “This is basically the iPod first generation: who knows what’s coming?”