Friday, May 22, 2015

The Arcade Megaplex is coming back with VR

Image grabbed from Pinball Wizard Arcade

I miss the megaplex Arcades in America.  I'm talking arcades with a capital 'A'.  They were a childhood institution.  Every time I see a small gaming room tucked away in the dark corner of a cineplex or a flashing pinball machine at the back of bar, a moment of intense recall hits me with the smell of ionized air, the cacophony of 8-bit brawling and quarter falls, the taste of metallic adrenaline, and an excited tremor in my fingers.  Gone are the days of the dark, neon lit warehouses with rows of gaming machines capped with money exchanges.  Gone are the days when the best place to have a 10 year old birthday party was at places like Tilt at the Northwest Plaza or Exhilirama! at the Crestwood Mall.

When the home consoles started having competitive graphics and a killer local multiplayer, going over to a friend's house to play GoldenEye or Smash Bros. became the new thing to do on a Saturday.

Our generation hasn't forgotten as seen by the success of adult gaming bars like Dave & Busters.  But I do wish that today's kids had a place more magical than the living room to make new friends adventuring together in mind blowing experiences.

The Arcade was where entertainment based virtual reality attempted its disastrous debut with experiences like Dactyl Nightmare.  But with better display tech and affordable tracking solutions being at the level of maturity that Oculus has demonstrated, VR Arcades feels like an inevitability.

Arcades got big around the same time the Atari console was released in the late 70s.  The home console was a great appetizer but it was only at the Arcade where you could get access to the best experiences: experiences that felt many generations away from being in our home consoles.  The experience gap remained wide for so long, that the 6 foot tall game cabinets felt like they housed a completely different medium.  When that gap shrank, it just didn't make sense to leave your home when you could play Street Fighter on your TV.

Just like when the Atari home console came out, when VR becomes available to the market, it will drive us to want more.  And just like the Atari was heavily limited in the experience it could deliver at the price point it offered, consumer grade VR is still very limited in terms of resolution, performance, and the fact that you need to be tethered to a powerful machine.

When places like the VOID become a reality, these places will be able to deliver the kind of presence that is unrestricted by consumer constraints.  The head mounted displays and tracking solutions at these VR Arcades will be much more expensive and therefore be miles ahead of what you can afford at home. Instead of a warehouse of cabinets, these arcades will be a large space of corridors, rooms, stairs and platforms. You'll be able to move around untethered with a group of your friends all sharing a world and story projected over those physical walls and obstacles.  When you touch the wall of a 20s style mansion in a murder mystery or the alien ship corridor of a sci-fi space operetta, it will touch back.  These places will not just be for teenage boys; they will most likely have the audience diversity of cinemas.  They will be so much closer to the dream of the Holodeck, and so novel compared to what we have at home, our drive to want more will lead us here.

In the long run, VR Arcades will inspire the technology that we can bring home, just like the Arcades of the 80s and 90s inspired the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Atari Jaguar.  But I wonder if there will be a time when the home experience will close the presence gap to the point where VR Arcades will become obsolete.  The big difference from what came before is that great presence requires a large physical space onto which virtual worlds can be projected.  So perhaps the killer app will be some form of augmented reality that overlays a virtual world over your neighborhood backyards.  Or maybe we'll need to wait for tech like the Matrix that will bypass our tactile sensory systems and allow us to explore and touch a virtual world from the comfort of a couch.

In any case, I know the presence gap will take a long time to close and I look forward to spending some of my upcoming Saturday's returning to the Arcade and having my mind blown.