Recently UploadVR posted an in-depth feature on how VR is set to revitalize the long stagnant arcade industry. In that article, we covered VRCade, The Void, and StarCade, three notable VR Arcade projects that will hopefully come to a city near you sometime in the not too distant future. However, unlike the arcades of old filled with a variety off-the-shelf arcade cabinets, each of the above are bespoke VR experiences that have somewhat more in common with theme park rides – for example, The Void is opening a Ghostbusters VR experience in NYC this July to promote the release of the new movie.
However, what if this isn’t the kind of VR experience you’re looking for? Wouldn’t it be great if you could go somewhere and experience a selection of the latest VR games on consumer-level hardware so you can have all the fun without having to drop a bundle on a VR-capable PC and expensive HMD, not to mention finding the space required to use it if you want to go room-scale? Well, there’s an answer in Canada that uses HTC’s Vive. The Vive’s room-scale VR lends itself well to public demonstration, and there are already some Vive-based VR arcades in Asia, and now North America is getting in on the action.
Today marks the official opening of CtrlV, one of the first Vive-powered VR arcades on this side of the Pacific in Waterloo Ontario, Canada. The arcade has 16 Vive stations equipped with GTX 980Ti-powered PCs and a selection of VR games to play, starting at $20 CAD for one hour of VR time. Last week I was invited to CtrlV’s VIP launch event where I got to check out the setup, talk to the founders and also see its custom coded in-VR game launcher “The Control Room” that replaces the SteamVR interface.
Inspired by a Cautionary Tale of Game Addiction
At the VIP event, I talked to CtrlV CEO Ryan Brooks, CFO Robert Bruski and COO James Elligson about how CtrlV came about.
Brooks explained that he has been following the VR industry for some years, and after VR’s big showing at CES, he realized that 2016 would be the first year of consumer VR. On the other hand, it was also clear both the cost and space required to experience high-end VR at the moment are beyond many people’s means. Why not create a place where both the VR curious and the VR enthusiast can come and “experiment in VR without having to find the space or funds to do it.”
Brooks related another reason for starting CtrlV – game addiction. Referencing the 2005 death of the South Korean gamer from playing StarCraft for 50 hours straight, Brooks suggested that because VR is so immersive perhaps having a safe time-limited environment to experience it in might be advisable.
CtrlV was incorporated on February 19 of this year, and the VIP event was on May 25 so I was impressed with how fast Brooks, Bruski, and Elligson managed to get everything up and running, with Elligson saying they even amazed themselves at “how fast things got put together.” Despite the VIP event being the first public opening of the arcade, the busy night seemed to run like clockwork, and I didn’t see anyone experiencing any technical difficulties, a testament to the hard work and attention to detail put into the arcade by its founders. When I asked what their expectations were once CtrlV opened to paying customers, Bruski said they expected to exceed the pay-per-hour entertainment business average of a 30-percent fill capacity due to the current high level of interest in VR.
CtrlV’s Impressive VR Arcade Setup
CtrlV’s facility has room for 16 VR stations, each 8 ft x 10 ft (2.45 m x 3.05m) and equipped with both an HTC Vive and a beefy gaming PC. Brooks said the Vive was chosen because it is the best consumer VR system available right now, offering hand interaction and room-scale VR, both features that enhance the VR arcade experience significantly.
Right from the get-go you can see that CtrlV has put a lot of thought into the design of the booths. Both the floor and walls are covered in impact-absorbing foam (which does necessitate removing your shoes when playing) to protect both the players from injury and the equipment from damage.
CtrlV’s Vive cable overhead tethering system uses two retractable key rings, a simple solution that seemed to work very well. It keeps the cable out of the way while still allowing it to extend far enough that you can almost lie down on the floor without any fear of strangling yourself.
The Vive’s base stations are also set up non-traditionally, with the inner Lighthouse angled in such a way that it can just see the other unit without its IR beams interfering with the tracking in the other VR booths opposite it.
Each booth is equipped with powerful gaming PCs. They all have an Intel Core i7-6700K CPU, ASUS GeForce GTX 980Ti Strix video card (though Brooks told us they might upgrade to GTX 1080’s soon), 32GB of RAM and a Samsung 850 EVO 250GB SSD. With these specs, CtrlV players can expect to have no framerate issues while in VR. For audio, CtrlV has gone with Logitech’s G633 Artemis Spectrum RGB 7.1 surround sound USB headphones that plug into the Vive HMD’s USB accessory port using a short USB cable.
Being a public VR experience, hygiene is obviously and important concern, so with that in mind each Vive has a waterproof VR Cover over the foam face cushion, and each station has a container of alcohol-free sanitary towels to wipe down the equipment in between play sessions. As for how CtrlV handles the limited battery life of the Vive’s controllers, they are charged in between VR sessions, but if the arcade is especially busy, there are spare fully-charged controllers than can be swapped in.
The VR Experiences Available to Players
Of course, the license model for commercial public use of a game is completely different that home use rights, so right now the selection of VR experiences at CtrlV is limited to those that it’s secured the commercial use rights to. CtrlV has the rights to all three of Futuretown’s Vive games, shooters Jeeboman and A-10 VR along with the multiplayer Cloudlands: VR Minigolf. There is also Giant Army’s Universe Sandbox 2 that lets you experience a virtual solar system and I-Illusion’s popular shooter Space Pirate Trainer. To round off the games you can play there is Valve’s The Lab and the, currently in beta, Affected: The Manor, by Fallen Planet Studios. According to CtrlV, the company recently gained the license for Light Repair Team #4 by Eerie Bear Games too, so that should join the lineup soon, along with games from other developers.
“The Control Room” Custom Game Launcher
One thing that surprised me is that instead of using the standard SteamVR in-VR game launcher, CtrlV has created its own custom game launcher. Brooks said they think SteamVR is OK for hard-core gamers, but it’s still a 2D menu in a virtual 3D space, and they wanted to make game selection both “simpler and more immersive” while also teaching new users how to use the Vive controllers. So CtrlV hired two University of Waterloo co-op student developers, Adib Shalekeen & Pascal Nguyen (each lacking previous VR development experience), to put together a custom game launcher dubbed “The Control Room.”
Shalekeen and Nguyen used Unreal Engine 4 to put it together in the short span of only three and a half weeks, a testament to their talent and the power of VR creation tools like Unreal. The Control Room is an intuitive interface with “floating hand-held consoles” you pick up that show a preview of each game available on their screens – hit a button on the Vive controller to go into that game. It will also be expanded to allow players in the CtrlV space to use it for matchmaking and as a lobby for multiplayer VR games. Next up, Shalekeen and Nguyen hope to create a VR game specifically for CtrlV, but they were tight-lipped on what kind of game that would be.
For More than Entertainment
As one of the first VR arcades to open to the public, it would have been easy for CtrlV to just be a for-profit entertainment venue and nothing more. It’s good to know then that its founders realize that by being pioneers in the VR arcade industry they can offer a lot more. With that in mind, they have partnered with the University of Waterloo’s Games Institute to exchange resources, in space, hardware, financial, and marketing so, according to Robert Bruski, they can “both grow together.”
CtrlV is also a Crytek’s VR First partner, Crytek’s VR developer lab network that gives developers, students, and researchers access to powerful VR hardware and full CRYENGINE source code. The space is also bookable during non-open hours for developers to use, for a fee of course. Although CtrlV would consider the exchange of a finished VR game in lieu of payment, “depending on the quality and genre of the content being developed.”
What Comes Next for CtrlV?
In addition to the main VR arcade, CtrlV has also partnered with local cinema chain, Landmark Cinemas to replace its traditional in-theatre arcade with three Vive VR stations, running shorter 10 min experiences. As far as expansion, the founders want to prove their one location works before they start actively working to get CtrlV arcades into more places.
The demand to experience high-end VR is clearly pent up because although the hype is there, it’s still an expensive proposition for many, and a VR arcade can service that demand perfectly. A few days after the VIP event I attended, CtrlV held an all-day open house and ended up giving 696 Vive VR demos in one day to people who lined up in 38°C (100°F) weather. Still despite that success, today is the first day people will have to pay to play. Also, partnering with developers and educational institutions so the location can be used for things other than entertainment is both smart and good for the Southern Ontario VR industry. We’ll keep an eye on this early VR arcade and see if it can serve as a model for others.