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.
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.
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.”