#1199 – Vegas Embraces Entertainment! – Part 2

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We continue the coverage from the Las Vegas show floor for the AEI’24 event and look at some of the amusement and entertainment developments that shaped the industry during these four days, with this second part of the three-part coverage.

AEI’24 VR Free Roam Pavilion

Regarding the VR showing at AEI’24 – this indicated a high-water mark of representation of the technology and its impact on the amusement sector. The trade show supported the VR Arcade Game Summit with association involvement on a drive for VR free roaming standardization – with a dedicated area on the floor. Exhibitors in this area included Wonders Beyond, who showed demonstrations of their content. An arena was operated by The Rabbit Hole, with their ‘VR Fun Zone’ arena, in an example of their custom turnkey VR solution – operating the experience for SPREE Interactive and showcasing their family-friendly VR content.  Synthesis VR, the VR arcade content management platform, partnered to present their ‘Synthesis Arena’. One of the game experiences that has a string of successes as an arena shooting competition, ‘Tower Tag VR’, was also at the show – being demoed as a standalone license-only package for operators.

Continuing the development of a standardized VR free-roam arena platform, the AAMA VR group has been working on encapsulating the requirements for operators of a one-stop turnkey solution. The standardization is seeing the operator able to select the package right for them and then license content accordingly. Examples of this turnkey approach were presented, with many developed in partnership with Private Label, previously a content distributor for VR arcades – the operation has now pivoted towards offering hardware solutions. Supporting the needs of VR operation, exhibitor CleanBox presented their UV light-based sterilization platform for headsets and controllers. This is a vital component of the safer practise operation plan for VR.

Private Label VR was also behind the ‘Roam VR’ arena demonstrator – this was supported by PICO who had the free roamer running on their VR headset. HTC and their VR headset was also another supporter of several exhibitors’ presentations during the show. Also, part of the VR area was represented by VRsenal, showing their ‘Zoolander: Headshot Fever’ upright VR kiosk. It was interesting to note that this was the only VR kiosk at the show, where, in previous years, a number of similar systems had been proffered as natural solutions for amusement adoption – as had been the promise of “unattended VR”. It seems that 2024 marks the reality moment for VR, as the technology now must prove its true ROI generating credentials after a period of living off its novelty factor.

The Rest of XR at AEI’24

Away from the dedicated area, and other VR exhibitors included Hero Zone promoting their popular ‘Hero Zone Arena’ platform, claiming the largest network of operator-powered free roam VR solutions – with over 140 installations of their platform across the US market. The company also had on display their new pop-up platform called ‘Hero Zone Mobile’, with a robust Pelican case and highly mobile application. While HOLOGATE exhibited with their ‘HOLOGATE Arena’ four-player tethered enclosure, running the latest ‘Ghostbusters VR Academy’ game. The new game was recently installed as one of the attractions in the new Sony ‘Wonderverse’ flagship LBE site.

Exhibitor VR360Action showed their VR ride simulator with their ‘OMG Simulator’, as well as their full motion racing simulator ‘Crazy Racing’. Previously reported on VR platforms presented at the Vegas show included RILIX, with their range of VR ride simulators (‘RILIX Coaster VR’), including the partnership with Andamiro on the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ system, and ensuring all systems run on Meta Quest headsets. The game was also presented on the Andamiro USA booth.

Another VR simulator experience at the show was from VRPark, presenting their four-rider motion simulator experiences – with some 60 seasonal VR adventures for the holidays (demonstrating ‘Santa Sleigh Ride’ and ‘Halloween Horror’ carriage ride) using off-the-shelf Meta Quest 3 headsets. VR game development resource Beechmount Product Solutions also took a booth at the show, putting attendees through their ‘Doorway to Madness’ adventure.

Exhibitor Koliseum came to the US trade event with their ‘Koliseum Soccer VR’ – a four-player immersive version of foosball. Players used recreations of the table soccer game controls, while watching the action using VR headsets, developed by Kynoa. Along with this, the Swiss company presented their new ‘Whack-a-Light’ game system – a gamified reimagining of whack-a-mole using light buttons to create a fast paced two-player game. A company that has been associated with new VR developments, along with their foosball table work, was Barron Games International. However, the company was not exhibiting at AEI’24 – with information regarding the state of the operation to be reported on in coming coverage.

Away from the VR offerings and the Mixed Reality (MR) scene was represented with “Immersive Enclosure” systems from INOWIZE, with their ‘QBIX’ platform comprising 5D effects and immersive screens for four-player action. The company was presenting their latest experience for the enclosure, ‘Chef Express’, a food preparation game, and the company also had some early game demonstrations showing the pipeline of new content which will be supporting the system.

With an open booth speaking with attendees all at the show, Valo Motion, fresh from their agreement with Creative Works, were promoting their ‘Valo Arena’ and other properties. Likewise, Creative Works had a booth of their own. Promotions included their extensive immersive laser tag arena and escape room work, alongside the success seen from the company’s own VR platforms, with a demonstration of their ‘Limitless VR’ arena system – the only platform in the market incorporating physical elements into the virtual free-roaming space.

One surprise appearance at AEI was from Night Heron Entertainment, who presented behind a closed booth a new VR platform. This was on an invite-only NDA basis, to distributors and operators, and the new start-up company has been working on releasing a brand-new concept employing unique IP. The development team behind the project has a background working with TheVOID, and this venture hopes to employ some of their experiences in presenting compelling VR adventures. We will be watching this project closely and hope to report back on developments in Q4.

Regarding MR and AR, the latest immersive see-through AR experiences were presented by professional laser tag manufacturer Delta Strike USA, acting as an agent for the Verse Immersive platform – using Microsoft Hololens 2 headsets, and offering an AR-based immersive gallery experience demonstrated on the booth. Developers of the ‘Unreal Garden’ experience, previously reported on, made an appearance at AEI in the hope of attracting interest from operators wanting to add an immersive experience to their venues’ cache.

Finally, the whole gambit of XR (Extended Reality) was seen with interactive screen and floor systems. This included the presentation of Pixel Games, with their interactive gaming floor system using illuminated floor panels to offer a selection of compelling multiplayer games. The company has installed its compelling platform at 15 locations in Europe and Saudi Arabia. Another example of the interactive gaming floor was seen on the Battle Company booth, with an example of their ‘Flash Pads’. The ability to offer an active entertainment experience with a digital game element has become a popular addition to many venues.

Concerning the interactive wall system, and PlayMind exhibited at AEI’24 with their ‘PlayBox’ full-size system, supporting from two-to-four players, with interactive ball throwing action using an LED screen; alongside their new entry into the conventional amusement scene with a smaller standalone, redemption-ready, coin-op system (‘PlayBox Carnival’). The company also develops immersive experiences with their ‘PlayBooth’ platform – entering the immersive enclosure realms.

Rest of the Amusement Scene at AEI’24

A story that has generated a lot of online interest came with reports that famous game brand Atari would be returning to the amusement scene. The reality of this was seen on the Alan-1 booth at AEI’24 – the company, a new start-up, has licensed some ten titles from the current Atari operation, from their ‘Recharge’ PC range of reimaged classics. These have been placed into specially designed cabinets (‘Video Arcade Systems’), embracing all the aesthetics of the original classics, but for a modern age. Seen at the show were two examples, ‘Asteroids: Recharged’ – in eye-catching three-player and two-player versions, as well as the original ‘Avian Knights’. Alan-1 is in discussions with distributors towards the best route to market for these games currently on-test.

Concerning the industry, the drive for retro recreation for the amusement and consumer gaming scene was generating much interest, as IP is seen to be lucrative once again. This was reflected by the news that SNK IP, developed in partnership with Arika, is revamping popular IP from the coin-op developer – including fighting game properties set to be released. No word if the eventual releases will get their time in the arcades – although it is known that those retaining the SNK IP vaults have promoted plans to develop an entertainment facility brand, scheduled for the UAE.

Regarding AEI’24, the classic upright video game cabinet was also represented by exA-Arcadia. The US operation of the Japanese corporation presenting five examples of their two-player ‘ARC-1’ cabs, running the latest video shooters and brawlers, representing some of the 30 titles available.

A new greater stance on copyright was promoted by the AEI’24 show organizers, with a strike team put in place to deal with Intellectual Property violation claims – including an IP attorney on call, all working to address the threat copy games represent for the industry. Signage was also in evidence, promoting this new stance against the crime. This need was brought into sharp relief when, across on the Billiards industry part of the show, one exhibitor, KODA Sports, showed iCade ROM based retro cabinets. This would see a complaint from one exhibitor that involved their removal. The IAAPA association has had in place their own policing of IP on their show floor, following demands from exhibitors back in 2011 – dropping IP mediators into the show mix. The newfound emphasis to police this grey aspect of the business is welcomed, based on results.

Reflection on AEI’s Future!

Following the excellent retrospective of the US amusement trade shows event by George McAuliffe in Replay Magazine, we give a more detailed history of the show, broken down from its Music Operators Association (MOA – 1948-1980) roots to the amalgamation of amusement, into the AMOA and Amusement Operators Expo (AOE – 1980-1985), the inclusion of the Fun Expo and then Amusement Showcase International (ASI – 1985-2009) Expo, then the merger with the American Coin Machine Exposition (ACME), and finally evolving into AEI in 2009, to the show we know today. This obviously glosses over the International Association for the Leisure and Entertainment Industry (IALEI) and its successful rise, and tempestuous acquisition in 2009 by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). But does reflect the move from the traditional amusement trade in the early years to the migration to the FEC and LBE industry residing still within the amusement enclave.

This charts some 76-years since the amusement trade expo first started – and not forgetting how the American amusement scene was able, back in the 1970 and 1980, to accommodate a two-show format for the year. We are faced with an industry that has now been left with a single two-day show structure for the Spring period, partnered with the American Amusement Machine Association (AAMA). This places a greater dependency on the November IAAPA event, while still clinging to a September Gala gathering. The show we are left with is also now co-located with billiards, bulk vending, and an inordinate amount of adult gaming machine exhibitors.

History Repeating

The appearance of so many Chinese-developed games, represented by US distributors, brought back memories of the Golden Age of video gaming in the 1980s and the dependence that Japanese developers had on importing their new games through US distributors. The similarity with what the Chinese game developers is going through now was obvious. This leads to the conclusion that it is only a matter of time before we have the “Space Invader moment”! – where a Chinese game will be so popular that it will enable the developer to become independent of the distributor system and sell directly into the territory. From Gremlin to SEGA, from Midway to TAITO or Atari to NAMCO – inevitably the pupil becomes the master, and while BANDAI NAMCO Amusement may be the last vestige of the old Japanese manufacturer star system, we may be about to re-live this process with the Chinese entrants seen represented at the show.

AEI’24 Conclusion

A record turnout for exhibitors (205) and attendees (over 4,600) marked the end of AEI 2024. Many exhibitors commented on the strong leads and stronger show floor attendance, especially this being only a two-day show. The combining of billiard and vending, along with the new VR component, all added to an overall positive showing. The usual questions regarding the appearance of so many gaming machine manufacturers at the amusement trade event was raised, and sidelined. This seems to be a factor of doing business in the area. The proximity to Bar & Restaurant Expo (BRE) and Pizza Expo also added to the positive direction in AEI attendance, (which we will cover in coming report).

The success of this proximity will sadly not be shared for 2025. It was announced that next year’s AEI show is scheduled for the 17 to the 20 March 2025. Meanwhile, the BRE organizers confirmed their dates in the same location for 24 to 26 of March 2025. This will come as a sad reflection of the disconnect – especially as we report, in the next part of our extensive coverage, the importance that the hospitality event, and growing social entertainment sector, are having on Vegas and the industry in general.

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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