VR ‘crossover’ leisure reaches train, sports activities and toys| CommentaryVending Occasions

Out-of-home entertainment will become the ’10thGen’ game platform in many developers’ eyes, considering the changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Image courtesy of Legoland.

Is there a limit to consumer VR “crossover” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic?

One crossover opportunity that is charting a growing trend is “exergaming” — VR exercise and fitness systems. Obviously, most of the VR fitness is being done by home VR users, though overall home-fitness and exercise has mushroomed in the face of the lockdown on all fitness and gym facilities.

Pivoting under the new conditions, start-up Black Box VR was known initially for its CES 2018 break onto the scene with its immersive exercise platform. The company generated attention, trending heavily, and covered by more than 30 media outlets during the event. This would lead to the company rolling out its platform as part of a retail facility concept, as well as supporting a virtual sports training regime which was opened at four of partner EoS Fitness gyms.

With lockdown, the company has increased its focus on utilizing its connected VR training capabilities. Black Box VR announced, in February, a partnership with FCFL (Fan Controlled Football League), a fan streamed soccer competition. Through home exercise devices, connected to the Black Box VR platform, users can compete and stream their exercise regime on platforms such as Twitch. This is a first of its kind, turning “exergaming” into a possible streaming sensation. The company is also looking towards applying this concept to its conventional fitness facility aspirations.

Haptics marries VR

The ability to use the influence of a commercial VR presence to attract investment has continued, and this has also broadened into the haptics sector. LBE peripheral developer Striker VR is well known for its “Arena Infinity” VR guns, employing sophisticated haptic feedback, and having been deployed by operators such as Spaces and Nomadic VR, and in amusement systems from VEX and Minority Media, to name just a few adopters.

In February, the company announced it has raised $4 million, described as “strategic funding.” This strategy included the company pivoting towards developing a consumer VR haptic weapon peripheral in a system that would support both PC VR and Quest platforms at a sub-$500 price point. No timeline for this rollout was offered, but it would mark a first in the VR market. However, not a first in commercial entertainment, as we remember corporations such as ThrustMaster benefiting from successful force-feedback controllers in amusement, pivoting to consumer.

Haptics and force-feedback stimuli are elements that have been added to the amusement gaming experience for decades. The pinball table “Earthshaker!” in 1989 from Williams Electronic Games was the first to incorporate haptics through vibration. At the same time, Atari launched the video “Hard Drivin” — along with many firsts, it had realistic force-feedback steering. Current technology is now making this element even achievable on consumer systems with the 9th generation home gaming platforms, such as the Sony PS5 console and its “DualSence” game controller.

The importance of the peripheral market in support of the amusement, and even e-sports gaming scene, was brought into sharp relief with the news that computer and technology giant HP would be acquiring the game accessory brand “HyperX” for the sum of $425 million from parent company Kingston Technology. This is a major brand with key sponsorships deals in support of peripherals in the e-sports professional sector. This is yet another example of the impact of crossover in the placing of brands and services in the international sector.

Crossover in entertainment

Before we look at facilities, there are the larger theme park and resort implementations of crossover of intellectual properties. In a long-proven formula, theme parks have incorporated recognizable consumer brands — borrowing this activity from the “World’s Fair” approach of the 1930s to heavily corporate sponsored entertainment. The latest example of this was seen with the announcement of the world’s first “Peppa Pig Theme Park” at Legoland Florida Resort.

Merlin Entertainment signed with property owner Hasbro to open a unique country dedicated to the popular toy and television brand with appropriately themed attractions. It is scheduled to open at the site in 2022.

Entertainment facility chains are also looking at the need for crossover promotion. The opportunities that tournaments bring to the vital repeat visitation and brand recognition element of facility business has not been lost on entertainment outside of amusement.

Social entertainment chain Topgolf Entertainment (recently acquired by Callaway for $2 billion) announced a cross-platform global tournament competition supporting players at the 8,500 “Toptracer Range” gamified driving ranges and those on “World Golf Tour” mobile golf game app (which has over 30 million users). The corporation revealed a first-of-its-kind “9-Shot Challenge Global Tournament” that will allow players to compete across the world and is expected to grow as a dedicated competition supported by the corporation. This provides the ability to tie players into an app-based tournament that is also location-based.

The Topgolf crossover took an even more intense step with the announcement of a cross-promotion partnership with sports betting platform BetMGM. The relationship will include the activation of branding and promotions by both parties, across the “World Golf Tour” game app and at selected Topgolf locations. This will see the promotion of the immersive sports betting experience provided by BetMGM to Topgolf guests.

The ability to offer this service comes on the back of the 2018 US Supreme Court ruling permitting wagering on sports in selected conditions. How this will be rolled into future competitions and tournaments is a subject that will be watched closely, especially by the e-sports community.

Ubisoft steps forward

One of the best examples of a crossover in brands between consumer and commercial in this sector would be from Ubisoft. The consumer game publisher and developer has seen its properties developed for conventional video amusement with Adrenaline Amusements, for VR amusement ride systems with LAI Games, for VR arena scale deployment with Zero Latency, and the company has even created its own label for VR escape game projects and sales. Ubisoft has created a dedicated LBE division to oversee this.

Another initiative was the short-lived experiment into family location-based entertainment venue development, “Rabbids Amusement Centre.” Moving forward, the company recently revealed further developments in LBE with its IP with the announcement of a partnership with Osool Entertainment to develop three attractions using Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed” IP in the Saudi-based indoor facility Fizz.

Other IP and leading brands are joining this charge, as seen with the success achieved by Hasbro and Lionsgate diversifying into a serious commercial entertainment presence. Not to mention the high publicity around consumer game developer Nintendo’s entry in location-based entertainment with Universal Studios’ “Super Nintendo World.”

Stumbles along the way

Other operations had also started to dabble prior to the upheaval of the global health crisis. Along with successes, we can also chart the major failures as seen with “Hub Zero” in Dubai (owned by Meraas Leisure), that worked with developers Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Capcom, Konami, Square Enix and PopCap to conceptualize attractions based on their IP for the LBE venue that eventually failed to live up to any of its hyperbole.

Speaking of toy brands looking at a crossover into location-based entertainment, it was announced that Mattel would be developing its first “Mission: Play!” facility in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Germany. The venue has been developed by iP2Development and will be operated by Planet Leisure Germany — a dedicated family entertainment center concept based around key Mattel IP such as Barbie, Hot Wheels and Mega Bloks. The facility is scheduled to open its doors in 2022. This marks the latest move into amusement and attraction space by the toy giant — the company was also involved with Adrenaline Amusement on an amusement release based on its Hot Wheels brand back in 2019, along with other entertainment interests.

This underlines how difficult it is to successfully cross over between the two industries, but this will not stop many more from trying. And so, plans to have cross-platform presences for important IP will continue, and out-of-home entertainment will become the “10th generation” game platform in many developers’ eyes considering the changes in these new valuable waters.

(Editor’s note: Extracts from this blog are from recent coverage in The Stinger Report, published by KWP and its director, Kevin Williams, the leading interactive out-of-home entertainment news service covering the immersive frontier and beyond.)

Along with advisory positions with other entrants into the market he is founder and publisher of the Stinger Report, “a-must-read” e-zine for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions and entertainment industry. He is a prolific writer and provides regular news columns for main trade publications. He also travels the globe as a keynote speaker, moderator and panelist at numerous industry conferences and events. Author of “The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier: Expanding Interactive Boundaries in Leisure Facilities,” the only book on this aspect of the market, with the second edition scheduled for a 2023 release.

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