All you youngsters out there have probably only heard of their former glory or seen them in films: amusement arcades. Those stuffy halls jam-packed with blinking, noisy gaming machines. It was a place where you'd hang out with friends for hours on end. Sometimes you’d be able to afford the odd game with your pocket money. More often than not, you’d just watch others chase after those high scores. But with the advent of home consoles, gaming arcades gradually started to disappear until they became extinct altogether. But this kind of communal gaming temple might just be making a comeback thanks to VR.
The Fusion Arena in Zurich’s Letzipark opened on 1 March and is the biggest VR arcade in Europe. Up to ten people can play together in virtual reality on around 250 square metres. That’s a record. To date, the maximum was six people. The mastermind behind this ambitious project is Ronny Tobler; a man who already made a bit of a name for himself with a spectacular drone video (in German). And now it looks like the Fusion Arena is next in line to cause a buzz. Ronny hopes that every decent-sized town will soon have a Fusion Arena and that Letzipark is just the beginning.
«Stairs – a bit of a seedy nightclub», Ronny says in response to my question about what used to be in the huge room that we’re standing in. There’s no sign of that anymore. Instead, the gaming area looks more like a motion capturing studio. It turns out that my first impression is not wrong. The ceiling is clad in dozens of sensors that could actually also be used for CGI. But in this case, the OptiTrack sensors, which look like miniature surveillance cameras, are used to track the players movements. Although the room is no longer used as a dancefloor, people will definitely not be standing around.
Each player is equipped with a portable rucksack PC, goggles and four sensors attached to his or her hands and shoes. Each of these items is recorded by the OptiTrack sensors. This enables a precise positioning of the players and their movements.
Oculus Rift serves as the backbone for the VR goggles. However, as they were not designed for these kind of dimensions, they had to be modified. All the equipment, like the PC, display, etc. are from Swiss company True VR Systems, who are also behind the VR centre in Dietlikon. «Nothing is off the peg. It was all customised for us by our partners. You could call us their proof of concept», Ronny adds.
A large part of the equipment was obtained from the B2B department at digitec. PC, network, sound system. After watching a journalist play a game in which she had to step out of a skyscraper and balance on a wooden plank (there’s one lying on the floor at the Fusion Arena to make the experience even more real), Ronny immediately ordered two Vive trackers. The trackers are attached to your shoes and give you visible feet. «It make the whole experience a lot more realistic.»
Ronny was inspired to create his own VR centre while working for a VR company in Geneva that had long outgrown its start-up status. «Even though the company had already existed for about ten years, it was total chaos. After one year, I was fed up.» But that experience also sparked Ronny’s dream of opening his own VR centre. «All the existing VR arenas were dark, neon-coloured and focussed on shooter games». He reckons that’s why the general public associates VR with those kind of games. «I want to set myself apart. My VR centre is warm, playful and pastel-coloured», Ronny explains. Another striking feature is the 20-metre wide velvet curtain that is being professionally steam-cleaned the first time I visit the centre. «It cost me a small fortune», he adds and laughs. «But it was worth it. It really creates that feeling of being in a theatre.»
The whole centre is financed by Ronny or rather Pandally, the company behind it. The Fusion Arena is their reference product. Ronny views VR games as a means to an end and sees much greater potential. «Business applications, movies, travel, whatever you want. We gamers are the pioneers; the beta testers so to speak. And we’re very successful.» Fabian Freund from the VR centre in Dietlikon confirms Ronny’s statement. The former, together with the company True VR Systems, is responsible for the technology at the centre and has been accompanying gamers on their virtual adventures for about one and a half years. The VR centre located behind Ikea and the Pathé cinema is mostly fully booked. Visitors are generally between 25 and 35 years old and totally mixed. «To start with, our audience was almost exclusively made up of gamers. Meanwhile, it's a mixed crowd that's nowhere near as male-dominated as you might think», says Fabian.
These days, it’s pretty much impossible to find a public place for communal gaming. And this is where Ronny comes in. «We’ve created a place where you can experience stuff together with your friends. It’s totally different than sitting at home in front of your PC.»
VR centres are popping up like mushrooms – not just in Switzerland but all over the world. Currently, there are four providers: The Void, Noitom, True VR Systems and Zero Latency. The latter is the market leader and already represented in nine countries. Cheaper, improved technology will further increase popularity. «This is just the beginning. Oculus Rift came out only a few years ago. That’s nothing», Ronny points out. VR Centres offer ideal conditions to introduce virtual reality to a mainstream audience. After all, the threshold to get started at home is still pretty high. You’ll need about 2000 Swiss francs for a good PC and then there’s the goggles, controller and enough space to move around. That’s a lot of money and you’d think twice about investing. What’s more, VR centres have extra sensors, equipment, 4D elements and offer more than your standard home setup. Ronny and Fabian are convinced that, just like cinemas, every largish town will have a VR centre in a few years time.
Both Fabian and Ronny are not big fans of entry-level devices such as Google Cardboard and Samsung VR. They even find them counterproductive. «The market is infested with these cheapo VR goggles that make you nauseous. Plus, there's a lack of information, so people think all VR is like that», says Fabian. He goes on to emphasise that nausea is not a problem in their centre. «The main cause of nausea is the dissonance between physical and virtual movements. In our games, you’re actually moving, so you won’t feel sick», Ronny assures. Fabian confirms that, although many VR centre customers arrive with doubts regarding nausea, only one person actually felt sick.
For this reason, the Fusion Arena has a lobby area where you can try out the most common systems like HTC Vive and PS VR. This gives you a feel for the different systems. It also doubles up as a kind of tutorial for the real deal: Fusion Gate Universum.
The main games go by the name Fusion Gate Universum and were programmed by True VR Systems. Both idea and content are the product of Ronny’s imagination. «I created my very own gaming universe». Two to ten people can set out on an adventure together. At the moment, there are two quests available and each last about 30 minutes. Every three months, new quests will be added. In «Biohazard», you’re on planet Merua trying to contain the zombie invasion. To do so, you’re equipped with «real» lazer guns. However, when I visited the arena before it was open to the public, only two out of ten guns had been delivered. The rest has probably arrived at this stage. The second quest is all about a secret project of the United Nations and the Swiss army. In a bunker tucked away in the Alps, you’ll come across a fusion gate that will transport you to a far-away planet. There, you face various challenges and mysteries that must be solved as a team. Game-typical types like a medic, an engineer etc. are to be expected.
A few media representatives and I were given the chance to test the beta version of the first quest – unfortunately without the planned 4D elements wind and fragrance. But even without those extras, the game was so much fun. For regular gamers, it’s fairly easy to play and the puzzle is soon solved. What makes it a truly unique experience is seeing the other players, being able to touch them and communicate and discovering the gaming world together. It just feels so different knowing that the person next to you is actually standing there. The most fun was probably due to minor calibration mistakes that made our hands stick out at impossible angles or had some people moving like gorillas. My group definitely got a few laughs out of it.
The entry fee is CHF 49.90. This includes the main game and gives you access to the lounge. In other words, you can try out the different VR systems before starting with the main game. According to Ronny, the Fusion Arena provides enough space for up to 50 people. I think I’ll ask my boss if we can go there for our next team event.
Gaming arcades are fascinating. They’re a place where like-minded people come together to play games and have fun. Consoles and online games almost wiped them out entirely. VR might just be a catalyst for a revival. To date, virtual reality is still too expensive for most home users. So why not visit a VR centre like the Fusion Arena and enjoy the experience together with friends or strangers? Technical advancements are bound to accelerate the development of this field and make it more accessible. Once the prices drop, we’ll probably soon be asking the following question on a Saturday night: Fancy the cinema or the VR arena tonight?
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