A new reality: could VR revive the amusement arcade?

The rise of the gaming console has left its mark on living rooms and bedrooms around Britain – but it has also hit the high street. There were around 1,000 amusement arcades in the UK in the 1980s, but that number had halved by 2011, according to the amusements industry trade body, Bacta.

Now, the next generation of gaming – virtual reality – is once again making the arcade the prime venue for playing cutting-edge games.

Back at the inception of gaming, fans went to video-game arcades. Japanese coin-operated games like Out Run and Street Fighter managed to draw in players once Pac-Man and Donkey Kong fell away, but they could not beat increasingly impressive home consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation, which came along in the mid-90s, and Microsoft’s Xbox at the turn of the century.

Seaside arcades have clung on as “family entertainment centres” or “mixed entertainment facilities”, full of games aimed at small children alongside rides and attractions.

However, VR Star in Bristol is one of several hundred virtual reality arcades around the UK that are persuading gamers to quit their homes for the high street. They mirror a global trend for dedicated “VRcades” springing up in the US, Japan, South Korea and China. With 380 such dedicated venues now operating around the world, could VR offer the arcade a route back in the shape of so-called “destination gaming”?

While it’s possible to buy budget technology, good quality VR is expensive. HTC’s Vive headset is available for around £599 in the UK, but to function effectively it requires a computer with serious processing power and a high quality graphics card, raising the bar to thousands of pounds. Even then you’re not tapping the full potential of VR gaming.

The driving simulators and shoot-em-ups in VR Star Bristol are further brought to life with motion sensors and high-quality sound, taking the experience to another level. The 360-degree visuals and depth of field take on another dimension when paired with hydraulics and tilting floors. LA-based Dreamscape Immersive’s Alien Zoo experience even uses wind machines to add to the sensation of movement.

“To get the full experience, VR needs what we call SiSoMo: sight, sound and motion,” says Martin Higginson, the executive chairman of British developer Immotion, which owns VR Star. “If you want a truly immersive experience you need high-end components, and for that reason VR will be an out-of-home experience for some years. I’ve spent most of my life in digital media and it is the most exciting thing yet.”

Situated in a modest space in Cabot Circus shopping centre, VR Star was launched to test the waters in mid-December. By the beginning of March, it had admitted 4,000 customers, paying £30 an hour.

The enthusiastic response has encouraged the company to open four more venues in Swindon, Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds. A total of 60 VR Stars are planned around the country, along with units in existing arcades and custom-made rides for brands such as Legoland. Just before Christmas, Immotion announced a £1.3m investment to launch its platforms in Europe and the US.

The units in VR Star play games from a Chinese developer but Immotion intends to run its own titles following last year’s acquisition of Studio Liddell, a Manchester-based animation producer.

“What you see and experience currently is like the early days of computer gaming,” says Higginson. “It’s going to improve rapidly. Those games are 2K [screen resolution] but very soon we will be running 4K with faster processing and better rendering. We will take you on Jurassic rides or helicopter you over the Serengeti and it will blow you away.”

Experts say VR has come at the right time for the arcade business. “Arcades have always had lifecycles reflecting changing innovation,” says Devi Kolli, the head of VR equipment firm AiSolve. “They can’t survive the way they are without reinventing themselves with cutting-edge technology, and we are part of that. The response to VR so far suggests the market is hungry for good products.”

If they are prepared to invest in the new generation of VR, existing arcades could enjoy a return to prominence as gaming destinations, though they will have to compete with dedicated spaces like VR Star.

Jeremy Dalton, a VR consultant at PwC, is more positive. He says the complexity of setting up VR experiences offers an ideal chance for arcades. “The set-up issues with VR provides a perfect opportunity for third parties … and that’s gaming arcades. You just hand over your money and enjoy the ride.”