Virtual reality arcades bank on gamer interest in trying out new technology

WATERLOO, Ont. – Imagine walking into a black-walled, nondescript room that instantly transforms into another world where you can explore outer space or defend a castle from monsters — all by donning a virtual reality headset.

That’s the experience that awaits visitors at one of the number of new VR arcades opening up across Canada. Business owners are hoping to capitalize on gamers’ interest in trying out the immersive technology, even as it becomes more readily available for the public to use at home.

Since the summer and over the past few weeks, several companies have started releasing high-end VR headsets for consumers. But some industry insiders and VR arcade owners aren’t concerned, arguing that the mass extinction video game arcades of the 70s and 80s faced won’t beset this growing industry because obstacles like price and space still exist when it comes to bringing the true VR experience to households.

It’s impossible to know how many VR arcades exist but more and more are opening up, says Bernie Roehl, co-founder of the Virtual Reality Standards Board, a non-profit organization that advises commercial VR facilities on best practices.

“It ranges all the way from huge, massive, literally multimillion-dollar installations, all the way down to an Internet cafe,” he said, describing the gamut of VR arcades that exist in the global marketplace.

Several of these facilities already operate in Canada, including Ctrl V, which opened its first Waterloo, Ont., location last June. It boasts 16 play spaces where visitors can select from more than 20 games, including multi-player experiences, with new ones added monthly for about $25 an hour.

Ctrl V has since expanded to a second spot in the city and is planning for at least another 20 locations in the first year, says its chief financial officer Robert Bruski.

He says the company has received about 160 applications to open franchise locations — mostly in Canada and the U.S., but also some from the United Kingdom, France, Australia and South Africa.

“Most people have never played virtual reality, so it’s new to everyone,” says Bruski.

Roehl says there’s a need for VR facilities because they allow consumers to try out the technology at a reasonable price.

Even though the HTC Vive VR headset started shipping orders to Canada this summer — with the PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift, which is owned by Facebook, having launched more recently — the price of these systems still makes it prohibitive for most gamers, he says.

The PlayStation VR headset alone costs $549.99, while the Oculus Rift sells for $849.99, including some accessories. The HTC Vive system costs $1,149.

While the technology available will continue to develop, says Roehl, consumers shouldn’t expect the powerful systems currently in arcades to drop in price and land in people’s homes any time soon. The equipment in one room at Ctrl V, for example, costs roughly $5,000.

This is why Roehl says so many industry insiders, himself included, believe at-home VR systems won’t be commonplace for several years.

“I think for many years to come the arcades — because they can afford to invest in the latest, greatest, high-end technology — will always stay ahead of the average consumer,” Roehl says.

But cost isn’t the only obstacle facing those wanting to experience VR at home, adds Bruski. There’s also the issue of space.

The HTC Vive, for example, needs a minimum play area of about 32 square feet that is unobstructed for room-scale games, according to its website, and can support a play space of up to nearly 132 square feet.

Certain virtual reality experiences become exponentially better if the player has more space, says Roehl, and those types of games will only be able to be experienced at specialized centres and not homes.

He also believes these futuristic arcades can continue to draw in customers after at-home systems are common by offering games not sold to the public. Ctrl V, for instance, has developers on staff who develop games for the arcade.

“As long as they can keep developing new experiences people will keep coming out,” Roehl says.

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