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Deep inside DNA VR - London’s first VR arcade

For the final instalment of our three-part series on locational VR, Foundry Trends visited London’s first virtual reality arcade, DNA VR, and explored the differences between locational and home-based virtual reality.

Nestled between a pharmacy and a supermarket on a small parade of shops in north London, the entrance to DNA VR doesn’t give much away.

Follow the stairs down into the basement however, and you start to get an idea of what’s in store.  A line of black, padded rooms greets you, each containing a large screen glowing in the dark.

The bank of monitors in the corridor, displaying in-headset views of what’s happening in the rooms, marks where the VR Master keeps watch on the players.

It might be an unassuming set up (we had half expected neon strip lighting and Japanese techno), but as Matt points out, this world isn’t the one you’re going to be exploring for the next few hours.

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The power of presence

My virtual companion for the day, Olivia, was set up in a booth next to me. We were each fitted out with a HTC Vive headset, connected via an intercom system, which Matt joined us on to guide us through the on-screen menus.

After a minute or two acclimatising to the virtual world to get our bearings, Matt recommended a few games to try out.

In the first - an archery game set in an other-wordly landscape - the two of us had to work together to repel hordes of invading monsters.

Having the ability to talk to each other over the intercom helped make this feel fun, social and shared - but beyond that, being in the same physical space together makes this feel more like an amusement arcade experience than a siloed, at-home gaming one.

While gamers have long been able to communicate via headsets, essentially you’re still separated from the other players - often by thousands of miles.

You can’t hear them as they bump into the walls next door to you, you can’t take off the headset and dissect what just happened. Multi-play in a shared space such as an arcade is visceral - in a way remote gaming is not.

Playing the same game with Olivia remotely would have felt far more disconnected by comparison, and this initial foray was a great introduction to the social power of locational VR.

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The power of the Vive

Next, we moved on to a battle royale-style FPS called Skyfront VR, set in a zero-gravity arena floating in the sky.

The general objective of this one is to fly around the arena and kill the other players.

With just the two of us there, this meant me obliterating Olivia (15-0), but Matt informed us that this game often sees groups of ten people participate in chaotic and highly enjoyable carnage.

For me, the most compelling thing about this game was the simulated power of flight. More than once, I felt my legs go weak and stomach flip - it was a remarkably immersive and realistic feeling.

This effectively illustrated another of the key contrasts between locational and home-based virtual reality: power.  

The power of the hardware at DNA VR is far beyond what most VR users would experience at home.

Playstation VR (PSVR)  is the most popular VR headset out today, with 4.2 million headsets sold as of March 2019 (by comparison Vive and Oculus sales are in the hundreds of thousands).

It’s the headset via which people are most likely to encounter virtual reality, partly due to the low price point (less than half the cost of a Vive), and also the fact that you don't need an expensive gaming PC to use it.

The HTC Vive headsets we were using, however, deliver an experience unmatched by the PSVR in relation to visuals, motion tracking and overall performance.

There’s the graphic capabilities: the Vive features two 1,200 x 1,080 pixel OLED displays, offering resolutions of 2,160 x 1,200, compared to the PSVR’s one 5.7 inch 1,920 x 1,080 OLED display.

But more than that, the Vive’s impressive motion tracking features - a gyrosensor, accelerometer, and laser position sensors - meaning the in-game movement mechanics of something like Skyfront VR make for an intuitive and nausea-free experience.

By comparison, the PSVR isn’t built for room-scale tracking - if you start moving about, it can’t accurately track your movements within the virtual world.

It would therefore make for a much more limited experience, even if you could play Skyfront VR on it - which you can’t (the game is only compatible with HTC Vive or Oculus Touch).

More to the point, the Vive’s we were using were hooked up to top-of-the-range gaming PCs fitted out with Nvidia GTX 1070 graphics cards, which see updated RAM, SSDs, and other components every 6-12 months.

Unless you’re already seriously into gaming, you’re unlikely to have such a well-maintained set up at home.

For the casual consumer then, VR arcades like this offer a great chance to try out some of the highest quality VR experiences currently possible, without investing in prohibitively expensive hardware.
 

Unique free-roaming experiences

The final hour we spent at DNA VR really showcased where locational VR comes into its own.

We were taken into a large, empty room with padded walls, strapped into backpacks (essentially an untethered gaming PC), and fitted out with HTC Vive Pros.

This is the free-roam arena. It’s where up to four players can walk around unobstructed by the limiting and obtrusive cables that would hinder a VR experience at home (assuming first that you even have a large, safe, empty room in your house to accommodate something like this).

 

Despite Olivia’s palpable terror, it was decided (by me) that we’d opt for an experience that Matt reassuringly described as ‘genuinely harrowing’: Hospital of Horror.

Without revealing too many spoilers, this is essentially a virtual ‘Haunted House’, of the old-school amusement park variety, rather than a game. Players walk around a creepy, derelict hospital, encountering some alarmingly realistic and jumpy scenarios.

The experience is full of incredibly immersive touches: you could explore the spaces, knock over and move objects, and interact with other players in a way not possible in the other games we’d tried.

What’s more, the graphics were fantastic (thanks to the Vive Pros).

While the previous games we had played were great fun, they had effectively been a powered-up version of gaming experiences you could have in your living room, with better equipment and a more immersive set up.

This experience, on the other hand, was unlike anything you could set up at home. It really gave a sense of VR’s potential, and illustrated why even veteran VR gamers would come to a venue like this.

The next experience told a similar story: a free-roaming VR escape room called Space Station Tiberia. In this one, we were transported to a space station orbiting a fantastically life-like earth.

Much like a traditional escape room, the idea is to follow a series of clues to solve a challenge against a ticking clock.
 

 

Like the experience before it, this offered an awe-inspiring level of immersion and interactivity.

We were able to walk around the room uninhibited, pick things up, and work together to solve the task.

The escape room format is perfect to make the most of the space and freedom a free-roam arena affords. And the virtual twist sets it apart from physical escape rooms, making for a unique take on the formula.

The HTC Vive Pros and powerful backpack PCs that power both Hospital of Horror and  Space Station Tiberia play a huge part in elevating these experiences.

Ideal for commercial VR use, the Vive Pro is arguably the best VR headset you can buy, with  improved audio, visuals, tracking solutions, and ergonomics. It offers a significantly superior visual experience to the standard Vive, with higher-resolution OLED displays that run at 1,440 by 1,600 pixels per eye.

That means that virtual objects are far more detailed and crisp - particularly at distance, improving immersion and making it far more satisfying to explore larger, open areas.

Additionally, the improved quality of the display makes it almost impossible to see subpixels (the colored dots within pixels) and makes it much harder to make out the lines between the pixels (the notorious “screen-door effect”).

These improvements make it the ideal conduit for experiencing the arcade’s flagship free-roam experiences, delivering a level of visual fidelity that can really do them justice.

A winning formula: power and a dose of social

After a highly enjoyable and eye-opening couple of hours, we left the virtual world and returned to reality.

What had been made abundantly clear during our time at DNA VR is that locational VR absolutely has the potential to bridge the gap between early VR adopters and widespread mainstream use.

For someone who doesn’t want, or who never conceivably would, invest in an expensive gaming PC rig or top-of-the-range headset, it offers an affordable way to experience the best of what VR can currently deliver today.

The more people who encounter VR at its best in a venue like this - as opposed to having a lower-grade experience elsewhere - the more who will potentially fall in love with it.

Combined with the compelling social element, this makes for a powerful proposition that should see people coming back. Foundry Trends certainly will be.