How VR theme parks are changing entertainment in Japan

Tokyo CNN  — 

The perilous wooden plank that dangles from the skyscraper’s dizzying rooftop is all that stands between me and the deafening rescue helicopter in front.

But my feet cannot move forward. Vertigo has condemned me.

Of course, aliens haven’t reached Earth yet. Rather, I’m at the Adores VR Park Tokyo, playing the “Dive Hard” virtual reality game – and it’s disarmingly convincing.

The vertigo-inducing “Dive Hard” game.

The park opened in December 2016 as an experiment. Nearly 12 months later, it is attracting 9,000 visitors a month and turning people away at weekends, as crowds clamor to immerse themselves in extreme experiences, distant worlds and fantasy scenarios, using technology most people still can’t afford to have at home.

And it’s not alone. Across Japan, VR theme parks are pioneering a new type of location-based entertainment, and testing the boundaries of virtual human experiences.

In the beginning …

“Remember 2016?” asks Manabu Ishii, president of the VR Park Tokyo. “It was the year of VR, the year when it really got everyone’s attention.”

He’s right. In March 2016, Oculus VR launched its hotly anticipated Oculus Rift headset, while HTC and Valve swiftly followed up a month later with the rival HTC Vive.

Both were head-mounted devices that looked like ski-goggles and offered the wearer highly praised 3D immersion into movies, games, and other experiences. Both underperformed sales wise.

The “Jungle Bungee” VR game.

Buying a headset is “an expensive proposition so far,” explains Rob Lister, chief development officer at IMAX, overseeing VR. Indeed, the Rift cost $600 at launch. “There hasn’t been a ton of content for them, and you need a dedicated space in which to play, and a high-powered PC,” he adds.

Ishii felt the solution was to bring this technology to the masses, and so 1 billion yen ($8.7 million) was spent gutting the 300-square-meter fourth floor of a blindingly neon Shibuya arcade. Slot machines and poker games were replaced with six VR rides. Guests pay 3,500 yen ($31) on weekends for a 90-minute all-you-can-play session.

“When it first opened, most customers were from the VR world,” Ishii says. “But now in 2017, ordinary people come. Actually, it’s enjoyed most by couples.”

Today there are 11 rides, which artfully combine virtual realty with real experiences.

A clip from “Salomon’s Carpet.”

“Salomon’s Carpet,” for example, is a two-player magic carpet ride that requires gamers to keep their balance while flying through a mystic Arab world on a real carpet, which really moves and cost 20 million yen ($176,000) to custom build.

Ishii says it is the most popular ride. “The headset and the carpet are linked well,” he explains, “And players like that they can see each other in the game. It’s social.”

‘Non-geek people’

Across town in Shinjuku, Japanese gaming giant Bandai Namco has totally reimagined the arcade aesthetic. Its VR Zone opened in July with a clean, chic look that Kunihisa Yagishita, general manager of Bandai Namco’s VR division, says was engineered to attract customers who wouldn’t normally visit an arcade – “non-geek people,” he jokes.

The design’s focal point is the Center Tree, a beautiful anime-inspired magic forest created using projection mapping. VR Zone’s Instagram page is flooded with images of female visitors posing here. “Today, Instagram is a stronger media for marketing than TV or newspapers,” Yagishita says.

The Center Tree installation at VR Zone Shinjuku.

Like the Adores facility, the VR Zone is something of an experiment: Bandai Namco has this two-story, 3,500-square-meter site for only two years, and during that period it aims to attract one million people, or about 50,000 a month. Visitors currently buy an 800 yen ($7) admission pass, then purchase tickets to individual games, which cost about 1,000 yen ($9).

While Yagishita won’t confirm whether visitor targets are being met, Bandai Namco does plan to roll out 20 more VR Zones domestically by the end of this fiscal year. In August, it opened a VR Zone Portal in London.

Bandai certainly has strong intellectual property on its side: “The Mario Kart Arcade GP VR” ride, which it published for Nintendo, has made headlines around the world.

The "Mario Kart" ride at VR Zone Shinjuku.

Gamers race through Mario Land, feeling the car shudder as they fly through air, and collecting and lobbing turtle shells at enemies with their hands. “That is everyone’s dream,” says Yagishita. “You can do that here.”

The 14 other games (11 of which are also VR) include a flying winged-bicycle ride, in which gamers really do pedal harder to go faster, a cat rescue game where VR-enabled haptic gloves let users pick up the kitten, while an eight-player “Ghost in the Shell” fighter challenge will open by the end of the year.

The technology

When it comes to the tech, both Adores and Bandai Namco have opted for the HTC Vive over the Oculus Rift.

“The HTC Vive is exciting,” says American VR expert Kent Bye, host of the Voices of VR podcast. “It is full room scale, meaning you can move 360 degrees around a room.” With the Vive, the user isn’t tethered to one spot, whereas “the Oculus Rift only has a front-facing camera,” meaning the user always has to face towards the sensors. “So it has the ability to do some stand-up experiences, but was more designed for sit down.”

The “Omni ARENA” game at VR Park Tokyo.

At VR Zone most of the rides are sit down, meaning the Rift could have sufficed, but Yagishita says that “other companies were not too keen about this business idea, with the super-heavy use of their headset. But HTC was positive.”

Bye adds that “there are more independent creators who are experimenting” with the Vive.

Enter the big boys

Japan may currently be at the forefront of VR “location-based entertainment” centers, but across the Pacific Ocean a major player has entered the arena.

Last November, IMAX announced its $50 million virtual reality fund, which it pledged would create at least 25 interactive experiences over the next three years to help VR realize its potential.

At the moment, Lister says, the industry is being foxed by the classic chicken and the egg problem. “There is simply not enough great new content to justify people investing in VR, and as a result there isn’t a big enough network to justify firms investing in the content,” he says.

The IMAX VR Center in Los Angeles.

“Honestly and modestly, if there is any firm that can work with the big intellectual property providers to break that log jam and provide a robust pipeline of content it’s IMAX.”

IMAX’s ambition is to become the world leader in premium VR experiences. To get there, it’s employing the same end-to-end strategy it did with cinema. As such, it has partnered on a $15 million VR camera with Google, is working with Starbreeze, the Swedish game developer behind “Payday 2,” on a headset that has an ultra-wide field of view, and helping Taiwanese computer giant Acer to develop a super-powerful PC designed for use with VR.

The final component in that ecosystem is a VR theme park.

In February, the company opened its VR Center in Los Angeles, with games such as the film-based “John Wick Chronicles” and an Everest climbing experience. Lister says the site is currently generating $15,000 of revenue a week. By 2018, there will be 10 IMAX centers globally, with talks underway for a Tokyo facility next year.

The “John Wick” game at the VR Park Tokyo.

“I think what attracts people to these centers is that this is brand new, (room scale VR) is not something they’re getting at home,” Lister says.

Bye agrees, but sees the future of such facilities centered less around solo activities and more on the social.

“It’s going to be less about creating games and more about having a shared experience with your friends in a space that makes you feel like you’re traveling to another world.

“With VR you can hack your senses, stimulate your whole body to give yourself an experience you’ve never had before.”

Such as standing on the rooftop of a skyscraper you know to be fake, but not being able to step to safety.