Massive multiplayer VR theme park experience to transport up to 120 people to collective virtual worlds

Who says virtual reality needs to be a solitary experience? Holodeck VR is bringing massive multiplayer VR to theme parks, and in just a few short months you’ll be able to strap on a headset and battle your friends in a vibrant virtual world

Imagine going to a theme park and, in addition to boarding the classic rollercoasters and buying shockingly overpriced junk food, being able to enter a virtual game where you can see and play against a host of other people.

This isn’t an image of the far future; it’s a technology that exists right now, and in a few short months it will become available to the public at several major theme parks.

The beauty of the Holodeck is that you can explore large areas with many users

Dubbed Holodeck VR, it’s a system that can put up to 120 people in one virtual reality experience, occupying the same space and seeing each other in the form of avatars that they can interact and even do battle with.

“The beauty of the Holodeck is that you can explore large areas with many users, so it’s a massive multiplayer location-based VR experience,” explains Jonathan Nowak Delgado, managing director and co-founder of Holodeck VR .

The first iterations, set for installation in time for Halloween this year, are likely to host up to 20 people at a time on a 20m x 20m grid, but if demand is as high as it looks set to be, it won’t be long before there is significant demand for larger Holodeck setups.

The case for massive multiplayer VR

Virtual reality is generally considered a solitary experience, cutting you off from the world and people around you, and when it comes to home-based VR, this is likely to be mostly the case for a good while to come.

However, Nowak Delgado considers the loneliness of VR to be something Holodeck can tackle, turning a virtual world into a highly social experience.

“Nobody wants to be lonely, so we have the social VR experience where we can technically cover up to 120 users at the same time and they can see each other as avatars,” he says.

An early demonstration of a 20m x 20m Holodeck setup. Image courtesy of Fraunhofer

What’s more, by allowing users to move around freely – aided by the use of smartphone-based Gear VRs rather than graphically superior systems tethered to a desktop computer – Holodeck does away with many of the motion sickness concerns associated with the format.

“You have this notion of freedom to explore, so you’re not bound to a desktop, which is really unhuman and unnatural, so you can move around,” says Nowak Delgado.  “This is one thing which we believe is hindering mass market adoption, that sometimes there’s a disconnect between what you see and hear and what you feel, so by having this virtual and physical world laid over we believe that is actually fighting the motion sickness.”

And while you can play alongside a host of friends or family members, you don’t even need to be playing the same game.

“You can have different experiences at the same time, so for example a family at the theme park could go there, and the guys could play a different game,” he explains. “They could still see one another and perhaps even interact with one another, but they’re in different games.”

Theme parks’ VR hunger

For theme parks, virtual reality is something of a next big thing. Six Flags, for example, already offers virtual reality rollercoaster experiences, which Nowak Delgado considers “very neat, actually, because the G-forces match with what you see”.

However, VR-infused rollercoasters are just the start. The theme parks want more virtual reality, and Holodeck is more than happy to oblige.

“They want Holodecks. They articulated this, and that’s a great thing, so now we are working with many of them to get the Holodecks for the Halloween season, which is the busiest season of the theme parks,” says Nowak Delgado.

We are working with many theme parks to get the Holodecks for the Halloween season

But it’s about far more than just providing a virtual reality experience. Holodeck VR has been careful to tailor its product to theme park operators’ needs; a move that is paying off significantly with the first paying customers already including heavyweights such as Six Flags and Universal Studios.

First and foremost, this means providing experiences that the user couldn’t have in their own home, but it also means creating VR content that large numbers of people can enjoy, and which people will want to play again and again. And one of the first games developed for Holodeck VR, Maya Temple, is designed for just this purpose, providing a 20-user experience where players can fire glowing balls of light at each other in a Mayan setting.

“Think about it as virtual paintball, so you can throw colourful balls towards each other and get some points,” says Nowak Delgado.

Perhaps a bigger pull for theme parks, however, is the fact that compared to the installation of a major ride, a Holodeck is very affordable, and can easily be added to through the company’s offering.

“The business model is quite straightforward, so there’s a hardware and a software package to begin with, and then there’s additional games, and then we have a franchise model for the laser tag-type operators,” he explains.

“We have a proprietary tracking technology, it’s a radio frequency and optical hybrid system, we then have some software behind it to make it feel smooth, and we have an operator software to manage all the smart phones at the same time, and in the long run we have this value generation machine, which is the content distribution.”

Beyond The Void

For fans of the emerging VR multiplayer entertainment industry, there is likely to be an elephant in the room, in the form of The Void.

Also a location-based multiplayer VR experience, albeit one that focuses around a story and requires physical objects for players to interact with, it has been nothing short of a sensation since the opening of its first location in New York’s Madame Tussauds last year.

But while The Void is undoubtedly a competitor to Holodeck VR, Nowak Delgado regards the company’s success as a very positive sign.

“We have competition, which is great, because it shows there is a market,” he says. “The Void is the most fierce competitor, they are scaling in Madame Tussaud’s type environments: inner cities, smaller [locations], but we are more for Legoland-type setups and even larger.”

Poised for success

With so much interest in multiplayer VR experiences, Holodeck VR has the distinct vibe of a company on the precipice of significant success, which has been helped by a number of high-profile supporters.

Image and featured image courtesy of Holodeck VR

Nowak Delgado and his co-founder started developing the company through the prestigious research organisation Fraunhofer, and have attracted advisors in the form of Electronic Arts founder Jeff Burton and former Microsoft tech evangelist Robert Scoble, the latter of whom is helping the company set up a Holodeck party in San Francisco’s Bay Area for would-be investors.

And that’s probably going to be needed: HoloDeck VR is currently raising seed round funding and has “soft circled” a target of €1m.

However, with the first setups already in the process of being installed, it’s certainly a company on the way up.

“The technology has been developed over years; now we’re honing it in with this 20 x 20m setup that we believe is just preparation for the larger one, which we can already do, however we need to co-create and educate the market,” explains Nowak Delgado.

“We are currently installing three systems, one of them is in Europa-Park Rust, the second largest theme park [in Europe] after Disneyland Paris, the other one is in Deutsche Museum, so it’s going into edutainment and the third one is going to be in another theme park.”

The future of entertainment

With the first installations just months away from opening, Holodeck VR has big plans for the future of entertainment.

The technology has applications far beyond theme parks, covering everything from professional sports tracking – the first application of which is already installed in New York’s Prudential Centre – to architecture, and unsurprisingly Holodeck has received several enquiries from numerous business-focused industries.

But in the long run, it could be cinemas that truly see an impact from the technology.

“Within the gaming industry we picked theme parks and laser tag to begin, however the market for cinemas is a bigger one to be disrupted,” says Nowak Delgado. “We believe that in some years there’s going to be more interactive places and cinemas where it’s not so much a lean back experience, but has a bit more involvement.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”