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DIY VR Free-Roam on a Budget: How to Build Your Own Multiplayer Virtual Reality System for Under $10,000

Zero Latency’s Gen 3 is lightweight with just a headset, headphones and a blaster
Zero Latency’s Gen 3 is lightweight with just a headset, headphones and a blaster

This post is a section of the Do It Yourself Free Roam article in Bob Cooney’s VR Arcade Game Buyer’s guide (download full guide here). Links to the other sections of the article are at the end of this post.

Imagine getting an entire multiplayer free-roam virtual reality system for less than $10,000. It’s now possible if you’re willing to put in some effort, exercise some creativity, and follow this guide. When I started advising Zero Latency VR in 2016, an eight-player arena cost nearly $700,000. That system used a complex array of machine vision tracking cameras and powerful servers with enterprise-grade networking systems. It took a whole week to install and another week to train staff how to use it.

Fast forward seven-years and free-roam VR has become democratized by new technology. Gone are the backpack computers, external camera systems, and server racks. The backpacks have been replaced with all-in-one headsets that handle all the processing and graphics on a chip. They also contain onboard cameras to track players moving about a space. And it can all be run on a laptop computer with a simple consumer Wi-Fi router.

The following is a comprehensive guide to how you can assemble a bare bones free-roam system, license content, and be up and running for a few thousand dollars. A system that cheap will not be suitable for most locations and it will likely cause you operational headaches. Just because you can does not mean you should.

This is a guide, not an instruction manual. Depending on what combination of hardware, software, and games you decide on, you will need to work with the suppliers to configure your system. This guide will help you decide if a DIY free-roam system is for you, and how much to budget and how you might want to assemble the key components. If as you read this you find it all overwhelming, I strongly urge you to hire someone to help or consider the turnkey systems towards the end of this guide.

The original Zero Latency system used lots of custom gear that was expensive and heavy

A Warning: Why You Might Consider a Turnkey

Beyond being easier, a turnkey arena from the right supplier adds the curb appeal to your attraction needed to convert spectators to players. I’ve seen many DIY arenas that look like high-school garage projects. And I’ve seen them in what would otherwise be first-class locations. You will struggle to extract a premium ticket price from an attraction that looks like you’ve thrown it together from a scrapyard.

I decided to build a doghouse for my two Alaskan Malamutes while living in Colorado. How hard could it be, right? I went to Home Depot for some 4X4s, treated plywood, hardware, and I even bought roof tiles to make it fancy. When I was done, the dogs took one look at it and proceeded to dig a basement. They never even set foot inside. It was so ugly they slept underneath it. As Dirty Harry said, “A man needs to know his limitations.”

If you build it, and it looks like this, they will not come

I don’t want to see a bunch of bad dog houses pop up in FECs across the world. One of my concerns with writing this guide is that it could encourage operators to cut corners, leading to poor performance and undermining VR in the market. My research shows that professionally designed arenas can generate double or triple the revenue of DIY setups.

Curb appeal is critical to converting traffic to ticket sales. Think about your top-earning arcade games. Flashing lights, bright colors, and sound effects contribute to earnings. Big Bass Wheel is a great game, partly because it looks great. If you do it yourself, make sure to put in the effort to make it look great.

DIY doesn’t have to mean doing it wrong.

The Free-Roam Landscape

A few years ago, if you wanted a free-roam VR system, you needed to pick one company to deliver your entire solution. This led to inevitable compromises for operators. Maybe you loved one company’s games, but their technology was getting old. Or you had another that offered great prices and modern tech, but their games were underwhelming. Now that some standards are being settled, it’s possible to pick the best parts of a system à la carte (with some notable exceptions around the launcher which we will get into).

The parts of a free-roam system are:
1. Launcher and Content
2. Arena or Playing Space
3. Storage and Charging
4. VR Headsets
5. Computers and Networking Equipment
6. Accessories like vests, gun peripherals, battery chargers, etc.

It might help to look at the free-roam landscape through the lens of the television industry (pre-streaming). A decade ago, if you wanted to watch television, you might go to Best Buy to pick up a TV set, deciding between Sony, Samsung, or if you’re on a budget, maybe TCL. Then you’d select a cable provider (if you were lucky to have more than one in your area), who would sell you a package of local channels, some premium ones like HBO, SHOWTIME, and maybe a sports network.

Just like with a home theater, bigger IS better when it comes to free-roam arenas

You can think of the free-roam landscape in similar terms. The headsets are like the TV. They all work to deliver the content, but the features and price points differ substantially. There’s a big difference between a Quest 2 and a Focus 3 in features and in price.

The launcher is your Mission Control system

The playing area is your living room. If you have a huge living room, you might want an 80″ screen with surround sound. If you have a tiny room, you might opt for a 40” with a soundbar. The size of your playing space will dictate some of your decisions.

The launcher is your operating system, where you select and monitor games, register players, and gather insights and reports. It’s like the set top box. And the games are like the channels. Some are basic, some are premium. Some are developed by the company that makes the launcher, and some are made by independent studios and licensed to one or more launchers.

If all this is confusing, keep reading and it will start to make sense. Right now, the most important choice you can make is the launcher, because it’s difficult to manage multiple launchers on one set of headsets. This might change in the future, but for now it probably makes sense to start with the launcher, and then fit out the rest of your system accordingly.

Other sections of this article you may be interested in

  1. Launchers and Content
  2. The Arena
  3. VR Headsets
  4. Computers and Networking Equipment

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