#1134 – Entertainment’s Social Impact

The pace of investments and innovations gains momentum as we move into the latter part of the year, and we see a return to some of the norms of the industry. With major investments being made in the immersive and social entertainment landscape, we cover the latest crop of announcements and developments. We also see that the Chinese amusement and attractions market is to make its mark in defining the future international business; and we get a glimpse at the aspirations that are about to appear in the West.

Social and Immersive Facility Progression

The continued investment into the social entertainment space was underlined with the news of new funding being raised across the scene. In the Competitive Socializing sector, the retro amusement hospitality chain ‘NQ64 Arcade Bar’ announced it had raised, from investment firm Tin Cats, some £2.5m in funding towards growing the operation. Currently, the operation runs around nine venues, comprising a mix of vintage video amusement, classic console games, and a heady mix of themed cocktails supported by a sharable menu.

As was reported by The Spirits Business service, this new investment will go towards opening new NQ64 venues in Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield, Bath, Belfast, Brighton, and Aberdeen – and it was revealed that it cost the company up-to-£1m to build a new site. The investment firm joins the original investor, Imbiba, in supporting the operation on this ambitious rollout plan. This is the latest of the growing number of new social entertainment venues to see new investment towards gaining a wider profile in the UK and European market. These venues marry a strong food and beverage offering with an extensive digital entertainment component.   

Concerning immersive entertainment, it was revealed that Europe would be seeing the opening of the latest Sandbox VR LBE VR facility, this time in Germany. Local media revealed that, in Alsfeld, in the country, a new operation ‘Nextlevel Experience’ has raised some €100,000 from a local grant towards funding a LBE VR free-roaming arena project, partnering with Sandbox VR to install their platform within this project, under a franchise agreement. Work has started on two 60-sq. m. rooms that will house the free-roam environment (which the operation has named “Holodecks”), along with areas comprising an escape room and other VR attractions. The whole operation is expected to open for Autumn. This marks the latest franchise operation for Sandbox VR, with their second European site (see our exclusive coverage of the London site opening), continuing their rollout of their experience internationally.   

Another free-roaming platform on the march is that from Zero Latency. The company has been partnered with MeetSpaceVR, who opened their fourth venue in Thatcham, in the UK. The venue, located in an industrial estate, comprises the main Zero Latency free-roaming backpack-less PC VR arena and also incorporates an interactive play wall (called the “Immersive Play Zone”), along with an area to play the latest VR escape room experiences from the likes of Ubisoft Escape Games and ARVI Labs. Rather than offering a single VR experience, MeetSpaceVR works to offer a multiplicity of experiences within one venue and looks towards rolling out their successful operation to new UK locations in the coming months. Their Manchester venue is due to open on September 29th, just a stone’s throw from the Trafford Centre. Bristol and Leeds are to follow in quick succession. Also, keep an eye open for their crowdfunding campaign with Seedrs, where they are looking to reward 87,000 players with a chance to share in their expansive journey.

The news in this scene continues, with the announcement that Zero Latency would be undertaking a dedicated rollout of their operation across the USA. The expansion plans will see the latest version of their free-roaming platform being brought to brand-new locations in Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Orlando, and Cincinnati, during the remainder of the year. These new US facilities will be part of the Next-Gen rollout of Zero Latency hardware, developed in partnership with technology specialist HTC, and employing the new ‘HTC Focus 3’ headset, streaming 5k high-end VR content (via a 6E wireless hub), and removing the need for PC backpacks. These up-to-eight-player experiences are supported through a library of inhouse content, as well as the exclusive Ubisoft ‘Far Cry VR’ experience. This upgrade will also be supported by the first US location, in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, which opened back in 2017; with another 25 of the corporate’s VR venues making the move to the wireless future for free-roaming.

Another operator of VR free-roaming experiences making a splash in Europe, is Netherlands-based The Park Entertainment. The company announced the opening of their latest VR facilities in Amsterdam, bringing the chain up to 13 venues. The company is establishing its ‘The Park’ VR entertainment chain as a franchise operation, with locations dotted across Europe and Switzerland. These venues comprise both free-roaming and also tethered VR experiences aimed at group bookings. The operation has described it as “phygital entertainment” – with a target audience between the ages of 25 and 35.

This is only the beginning of the plans for the operation, also including the launch last year of the ‘The Park Playground’ brand, which is planned for rollout internationally, with aspirations for a London and US opening in the coming months. The Park is owned by Telenet, part of Liberty Global – the main investor. Following restructuring, the operation is looking to establish some 30 venues in the main European sector and has started the process of franchising their concept to find interested operators. 

The rolling out of VR-based experience has continued apace, with the news of plans from Positron VR towards an ambitious ten-facility installation across the US. The company recently installed, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, their ‘Positron VR Theater’ installation – comprising 20-25 of their unique motion chair pods, supported by VR headsets. The new rollout comes on the back of significant investment made in the operation, from the likes of JB Capital. The company produces and licences original VR content to be deployed in their theaters, and is looking at entertainment venues, museums, and galleries as placements for the system. 

Chinese Amusement and Attraction

Regarding the international scene and following on from our previous coverage of the virtual amusement trade event from China, we can report the start of a return to physical trade events in this territory, with the holding of the 6th Asia VR & AR Expo / Amusement & Attractions Expo (AAA) entertainment game exhibition in Guangzhou, China. The Stinger Report covered this, and the AAA trade events from this location, and it was great to see a crowded show floor for the return of this event after over 24-months absence (although still applying a strong mask mandate).

WAHLAP Technology is celebrating its 30th anniversary in the amusement and attraction business. This is a company that represents many of the Western brands, and whose releases through partnerships with IGS developers see deployment in that territory and beyond. The company had a crowded booth at the show, with the latest first- and third-party releases. One of these partnerships is with LAI, promoting the success of the ‘Asphalt 9 Legend Arcade’ platform in Western release, and a sneak peek at a possible direction for the game was leaked. 

Our friends at Arcade Heroes revealed images, while on loc-test, of ‘Asphalt 9 Legend Arcade VR’. This is a version of the game using a VR headset (3Glasses VR headset), with the cabinet bearing a similarity to the IGS ‘Overtake VR’ (launched back in 2018) – although this cabinet turns the player away from the screen to point at the audience. Both games were developed by IGS and licensed for Western deployment. From the marketing material on display with this site test, this platform is being seriously considered for release, and could be expected to appear on the IAAPA Orlando booth for November.

Another powerhouse from the Chinese scene, Movie Power, was at the show – celebrating their 15th anniversary. The booth was respondent with VR platforms, the majority of which have been seen before and are aimed more for Asian consumption. But the company also revealed new thinking with their ‘Full Sense Ride’ – a unique enclosure that comprises their ride-on VR experience (‘VR Sky Ride’), in an operated enclosure for up-to-six players at a time on the latest VR system. This is part of what the company calls the “second generation VR technology”, looking to develop a new series of VR experience which will also see international deployment.  

Another heavy hitter in the Chinese amusement VR scene was at the show with FunIn VR (sub-brand of Guangzhou Zhouyuan) – the company showed a sit-down motion theatre style VR system, and their latest VR skiing game. They also showed a new, two-player VR game, based on simple sports titles like boxing, golf and archery, with the platform running the Pico Neo 3 headset and controllers as a low-cost system. Along with previously seen VR platforms, also represented was the VAR Live ‘VAR Box’ upright kiosks system, a part of a third-party representation. FunIn VR is one of many manufacturers feeding the pop-up VR Arcade venue business in China. 

Not just virtual reality, but also augmented reality (also referred to as Mixed Reality (MR)) was on display from several exhibitors. Examples included a MR-based karting platform that allowed players to compete with other racers; alongside a new concept for an augmented gaming board, with virtual robots viewed by players using AR headsets, and with audiences seeing the action on screens. Also, several AR headset Player Vs, Player combat games were previewed, seen as an emerging new trend. And finally, the use of AR to create virtual environments that mix physical elements with overlayed digital effects. Many of these examples were in early stages of development but are expected to be a vibrant sector of the market.

In the amusement aspect of the event, the new trend of Next-Gen crane and prize machines were on display, employing the latest illumination and new styling to prove very eye-catching, and with examples seen from exhibitors such as TongLi Animatio/n Tech. Crane and capsule toy prize machines are seeing a new lease of life, redesigned with a new appeal to meet the demands of the customer base. Another new trend in amusement seen at the AAA component of the event, was in music games, with Arccer Technology showing ‘Dance Battle’ – a game comprising both an illuminated sensory floor and tracking the players movements on screen for full-body dancing. It is designed in support of their ‘Dance Cube 2’ screen swiping rhythm game.

The Chinese amusement and VR scene is in a period of transition. Along with the investment in the “Second Generation” VR technology that hopes to generate new sales, there is the shakeup of the VR arcade scene in the home territory. Of the thousands of VR arcades that were opened over the last five-to-six years, there has been a hard attrition rate. While finding popularity, they have seen a market with an insatiable appetite for new content and experiences. The need to feed this, and achieve international sales in a difficult climate, has seen pressure placed upon this sector, which will be reflected in the new releases we can expect to see at the Western trade events ending the year.  

The build-up for the big trade events in Europe and America was superseded by the holding of the ‘Theme Park Expo Vietnam’ (TPEV’22). The show focused on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), leading Theme Park, Waterpark and Attractions, and saw many exhibitors who would, in a matter of weeks, make the trip to present at IAAPA Europe.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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