VR Arcades: do 2 wrongs make 1 right?



As much as the idea of Virtual Reality (VR) Arcades excites us, should we not consider that these are two concepts have already died a dramatic death in the marketplace before? So it seems that these businesses and products have come and gone.  Now we are putting them together at IAAPA like we did with fine dining and theater and called it “dinner theater.”  Putting two things together, doesn’t necessarily make them better.  It can make them worse, but its not because either are bad. Its how they are crafted together that is important, We shouldn’t make all the same mistakes and be surprised at the results.

The arcades that survived were the ones that had a social elements mixed with food and merchandise such as Chuck E. Cheese’s or Dave and Buster’s. The arcades who thought it was about the technology created what some call a “coffin industry: One box, one player, one game.” It attracted a small lonely demographic that was not worth taking up prime real estate.

What makes VR popular now and not before is because of the enabling technologies of tracking, resolution, processing power, field of view, etc. at a lower price point. However, this makes for a good consumer product at home, but not necessarily a Location Based Entertainment (LBE) solution. In fact, it can be anti-social slapping a piece of plastic on one’s face and excluding everybody else out of the excitement. Even if you put up a monitor showing what they are seeing, your friends are still once removed from the player’s experience. That is not increasing social engagement and human connection, it is diluting them. Plus the hygiene problem with all the greasy fingers from the food and beverage just adds to the operational hassle.

The reason people leave the home for entertainment, no matter what century you live in, is because they all can enjoy being transported to an escape together. Otherwise, they can watch the entertainment at home. So a LBE with VR needs to consider the guest experience first and layer in the VR where it adds and not diminishes the social engagement and human connection that we all crave. There are so many more ways you can incorporate VR without an Head Mounted Display (HMD).  It is critical to the bottom line that the experience design needs to expand beyond the VR HMD. That is why you need an Experience Architect before buying or building any VR Arcade or LBE (even if you do solve the sim-sickness issue).

An Experience Architect creates memories, not buildings. They imagine the LBE from the point of view of the guest experience.  They design the social experience from how we engage with our hearts, hands and heads, not from the technology, flashing lights and theming. This is something that can’t be rendered in a sketch or watched on a Pre-Visualization video.  This has to be rigorously play-tested with prototypes that can bring together the real, the virtual and the imagined together for affective assessment. VR Prototyping is where VR is most dramatically being used to transform our industry. Prototypes are intended to amplify problems so we can fix them. The standard rendering and or pre-viz video tends to hide these problems to sell an idea, not to prove its value. Pretty sketches do not represent the true guest experience that will be making the long-term Return on the Investment (ROI) in the end.

With VR Prototypes we can create and test the ability to make memories that will bring guests back over and over again. This repeat business is what keeps the doors open to the venue to reach the bottom line of the long-term ROI. When developers are obsessed with just opening the doors on budget and in schedule at the cost of guest experience, the venue will experience a slow death as we have seen many times before. This was seen most dramatically with Wanda’s development of experiences that were suppose to out-Disney Disney.  However, we saw how those venues slowly became empty. As reported by the the Wall Street Journal, this drove their massive divestment of their toxic LBE assets this last year. As an industry, we must learn from our mistakes and not cover them up. We can’t be fooled by the shiny, sparkly things in the window surrounded by flashy lights and carnival music.

VR Arcades could be awesome, but they first need to meet the expectations they set in the imagination of an adoring audience passionate about great out-of-home entertainment. Whether you are the real estate developer, operator or IP owner, hire the Experience Architect first! They can either design you a great experience from the beginning or help create an “experiential make-over” to fix what is already done.