The American economy may have cooled this spring, but operators of virtual reality are betting that the entertainment will come back hotter than ever — and dominate the arcades of the future.
“There’s so much room to grow with VR, because the technology that would put the experience into people’s living rooms is still at least a decade or more away, so it’ll keep people coming to arcades for now,” said Jesse Phillips, owner of Parallel Universe in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
When he spoke with Tourist Attractions & Parks, Phillips was planning to reopen the facility in late May. Like many in the industry, he said virtual reality is an ideal entertainment for the era of social distancing, which seems likely to continue even as the economy gradually reopens. “In some ways, virtual reality is the best socially distancing social tool that we have right now,” Philip observed. “You can get a great social environment with a group of people just by putting on a headset.”
Phillips added that he expects VR to become a common solution for shared-space experiences like nights out and children’s birthday parties, which otherwise could be logistically difficult for those practicing social distancing. In the future, Phillips envisions a central role for virtual reality hosting e-sports clubs, team competitions and other events, the way bowling alleys have a reliable weekly business around leagues. “As a scene, it’s already happening,” Phillips said of the e-sports world.
At many FECs, including Parallel Universe, VR stations are already set far enough apart to allow for the six-foot recommended spacing. Hygiene has always been a priority for the Sherman Oaks facility, but Phillips said he will make the sanitation regime more visible to guests to allay anxiety.
In Tampa, VR has been such a hit at Laser Ops, a 1.5-year-old facility, that Co-Owners Lynn Thompson and Ted Mangrano were investing in upgrades while the facility was shuttered in April.
“We had the downtime, we decided to keep some of our employees working, so we’ve expanded while we’ve been closed,” said Thompson. The operators had reason for their confidence: open for not even two years, Laser Ops generated $3 million in revenue during the most recent year, with 35 percent year-over-year growth before the crisis and the summer completely booked for events. So Thompson and Mangrano felt comfortable investing in 10 new games for the “old school” arcade, and new virtual reality and other games on the modern side of the facility, which also features laser tag and a full restaurant and bar.
Thompson reflected that VR was underwhelming when first introduced, but has become more sophisticated and now offers an experience that appeals both to children and their parents. “Customers over 40 aren’t sure they’ll like it, but they find it addictive and fun,” Thompson said. “VR is now here to stay. It gets better and better, and it’s just so realistic.”
Laser Ops invested in the Hologate VR system, which was expensive but has paid dividends in customer excitement. “It’s an integrative system, and there are constantly new games — two new ones have come out just while we’ve been closed,” Thompson said. “It’s not cheap to purchase or use, but we’re stoked about it.”
Thompson was also stoked about new ultraviolet wands — “like something out of Harry Potter” — that are used to disinfect play equipment. “They sanitize far better than wipes,” Thompson said. “They’re super expensive, but super great.” Hygiene is of particular concern for attractions that require patrons to don reusable headgear; in addition to VR games, Laser Ops archery and physical ball machines also require players to wear masks, so sanitation is a priority.
Hand sanitizers will be stationed approximately every thousand feet or so throughout the 22,000-square-foot venue, and gloves and facemasks will be standard employee attire when Laser Ops re-opens (Thompson noted that employees already accustomed to best practices for wearing gloves, since Laser Ops has a kitchen). “We’re going to do training on how not to touch your face, washing hands,” said Thompson. “But even before, we were always super conscious of how many kids were passing through and touching everything.”
As Octane Raceway was preparing to reopen in Scottsdale, Ariz., in May, General Manager JP Mullan was putting new hygiene standards in place. They included a socially distanced waiting area in the front of the facility, hand sanitizing stations throughout, and PPE for staff, who will train in handwashing techniques. Octane’s virtual reality stations are mobile, so a game master is tasked with ensuring players don’t roam too close together; if they do, an alarm alerts them. Games that used to accommodate up to eight players will now have a maximum of six. Customers will be asked to sanitize upon entry, and both registration and check out will be digitized and touchless, with receipts emailed afterwards.
“It’ll all be more hands-off,” Mullan said. But social distancing is compatible with the VR experience, which Mullan expects to be even more popular in the future: “It’ll be harder for people to get out and do things, and this will be a great option.”
“Most virtual reality facilities were already conforming to rigorous hygiene standards,” said Eric Hartley, general manager at Arctic Sun VR in Fairbanks, Alaska. “Our European industry colleagues published new safely guidelines recently, we’re already doing 95 percent of the list,” he noted. At Arctic Sun, that includes sanitizing machines between customers and using sterilized masks during play at stations that are already at least 6 feet apart. Hartley will probably discourage larger groups for a while, along with the practice of players swapping stations during a single session, which increases contact with the attendant.
And at least until home VR systems become mainstream, the technology will be a draw. “The industry is definitely growing rapidly, with many new releases,” he observed. “We’re going to see an evolution in the arcades.”
In Montana, VR Operator Jaysen Anderson had much the same perspective. He opened the first location of Big Sky Arcadia five years ago in Bozeman as a traditional arcade; when he launched a second branch in Missoula 2018, he added two virtual reality stations and now thinks VR is the future. “And we have multiple machines on order,” Anderson said.
When he spoke to the magazine in early May, Anderson was in the process of reopening both locations after the shutdown. Early crowds were thin enough that he had not yet had to adapt formal social distancing guidelines within the facility, though he was planning to increase staff levels to ensure vigilance. In addition to a constant wipe-down routine, Big Sky Arcadia locations use a UV light sanitation system to clean VR gear.
“Everyone’s going to be looking to go out and do something,” said Anderson. “And this is one thing you can’t do at your house — yet.”