Location VR: The state of play on virtual reality out of the home

Everything you need to know about location-based VR
Location VR: The state of play
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Most of the attention on virtual reality has focused on in-the-home VR experience. You know, your HTC Vives, Oculus Rifts and PlayStation VRs. When we think of VR outside of the home, we usually think of strapping a Google Daydream View or Gear VR to our faces at a theme park.

However, in the past year we've seen the maturation of a new type of virtual reality. Location VR is unlike other VR systems, instead hoping to create the most immersive experience possible. Think of it as a futuristic melding of theme parks and movie theaters.

Read this: How does VR actually work?

So what exactly is location VR, what's going on with it now and when you'll get your hands on it. Read on, friend to find out.

What is it?

Simply, location VR takes the VR you know and love and turns it up to 11. When you're in a location VR system, you're still wearing a headset. In fact, some location VR companies, like Nomadic, just use off-the-shelf headsets and a PC rig.

So you'll be wearing a VR headset, and you'll still be looking into a created world in that headset. The first difference you'll notice is that you'll often wear some kind of backpack. This is where the computer that powers the high-end headset is often stored. This is so you can move around without being tethered to something.

What makes location VR so interesting though is the third element: The actual location. What usually happens is the company will craft a themed space that you can walk through and interact with, heightening the immersion. You can't physically see this space with your eyes, but it's often created in a way that perfectly syncs with what you're seeing in your headset.

How location VR works

When we tried out Nomadic's VR experience, we learned that the company lined the ceiling with a whole bunch of cameras. Those cameras were looking for dots on all of the objects in the crafted space. It then transports that data into the VR experience.

Basically, it turns everything in the space into a VR controller. If I open a door in the space, the door in VR opens. If I pick up a gun in the space, I pick it up in VR. There are no touch controllers or gloves or anything like that.

The other layer of this is special effects, which makes location VR even more immersive. For instance, if you're walked past a boiler in the VR headset, you'll actually be able to feel the heat. If you go outside and it's raining, there'll be sprinkles of water. You step into an elevator, it actually moves and jumps a bit.

This is done by actually creating physical props. It's movie magic, adapted for the world of virtual reality. Some of these solutions are absurdly simple, like placing a heater where the boiler would be or a fan or a rain shower where you want wind or rain. Other things are more complicated.

That means the company would have to construct the props itself, like creating a simulated elevator that doesn't actually go anywhere. You get in it, it rumbles a bit, then you get out. These are tricks the theme park industry has pulled for decades, and now they're being incorporated in an entirely new outdoor medium.

Who's making it happen

Location VR: The state of play on VR out of the home

There are a couple of companies going at it for the crown of best location VR, and not all of them are going about it the same way, either. The most popular name in all of this is probably The Void. They were the first name in the game, and they were able to open a couple of spaces a couple years ago. They were even able to create some experiences tied to big-name properties, like Ghostbusters.

However, they were last year admitted to Disney's accelerator, and thus got swept up into the world of Star Wars. If you go to either Disneyland in Los Angeles or Disney World in Orlando in 2018, you'll be able to experience Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, The Void's new location VR experience.

What makes The Void special is that they build everything bespoke. Their spaces are crafted for that one experience specifically, as are their headsets and backpacks. The opposite of that is Nomadic.

Nomadic takes a modular approach to location VR, in an effort to be able to adapt quickly to the needs of customers. For instance, its crafted spaces can be changed if a line is getting too long - it can switch from single-player experiences to multiplayer experiences just by employees quickly moving things around. Nomadic will also swap around its PCs and headsets, depending on who has the best hardware out there. So there's no need to develop its own technology. It can instead focus on building more and more modular parts for its experiences, from props to sets.

Dreamscape is the newest player in the game, but it also has the backing of Hollywood. It's got funding from the likes of Warner Bros, Steven Spielberg, AMC Theaters, Nickelodeon and more. What makes Dreamscape special is that it's utilizing full-scale body tracking, so your entire body will in the experience.

And then there's IMAX, which is opening IMAX VR Experience Centers around the world. Compared to the rest of the location VR crop, the IMAX centers are actually kind of basic. You're still pretty much playing the VR you play at home, but everything is slightly better. You have your own space, things are neater, there's a bunch of high-end equipment. It's great, but it lacks the full immersion that's available in the other location VR solutions.

Where you can try it

The Void's Secrets of the Empire has been open in Disney World since 16 December, and opens up in Disneyland on 5 January. So if you're looking to book a vacation to either of the happiest places on earth you won't have to search too far for some location VR goodness.

Meanwhile, IMAX has been opening its VR Experience Centers around the world. There's one open across from the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, and another one open at the Intu Trafford Centre in Manchester, UK.

Nomadic is looking to roll out its location VR units in malls and movie theaters throughout 2018. Dreamscape is a little further along, but it plans to roll out its experiences in AMC theaters and standalone locations over the next 18 months or so.

All of these experiences will cost you, though how much is up in the air. Nomadic is aiming for $10 to $15, while IMAX is aiming for $7 to $10. The Void's experience is the most expensive thus far, coming in at $29.