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Laser tag has endured in the FEC industry for one reason. Throughput. It’s one of the most space-efficient anchor attractions you can have. A 3000 square foot laser tag arena can handle as many as 100 people per hour. A laser tag arena is a workhorse on a busy Saturday filled with birthday parties.
But damn, if it hasn’t aged well. Laser tag arenas have not advanced in 30 years. I go into a “modern” laser tag and feel like I’m having a flashback to 1995—blacklight, fog, tacky-themed fluorescent props, or alien spaceships. If anything, it’s gone backward. And while the equipment has new features, it seems all people want to play are the old standards: Free for All and Capture the Flag.
In 1996, Laser Storm won Best New Product at IAAPA Orlando for Stargate Laser Tag. Players entered through a fog and strobe-lit special effects portal into an arena filled with movie props from the hit motion picture. The following year we launched Marvel’s X-Men Danger Room, complete with Cerebro, a computer system that quizzed players for extra points. With all the big IPs out there, I can’t believe we are still living in a world of generic laser tag.
Well, that’s about to change. Virtual and mixed reality is set to take over the laser tag market. Laser tag arena specialist Creative Works dropped the first bomb at IAAPA in November. Limitless VR puts 12 or 18 players into an 1800 – 2400 square foot arena with physical barriers mapped to the virtual space. Players don a VIVE Focus 3, grab a replica gun with an integrated VR controller and enter the arena. After a short mixed reality briefing where players see each other via pass-through video, the virtual curtain drops, and they’re fully immersed in a virtual arena.
With virtual reality, the amount of creativity game designers can employ is…limitless. Players can choose their avatars, customize their weapon load-outs, deploy shields, and more. Arenas can have targets, drones that shoot back at you, and special effects that make Mark Hamill’s lightsaber glow green with envy. Theming is entirely digital. Want to play underwater? In a jungle? On a barren moonscape? Just push a button. The possibilities are endless.
Creative Works tried to install Limitless into existing laser tag arenas, which required mapping every arena to a different virtual map. It’s a slow and expensive process combining photogrammetry and software development. It proved cost prohibitive. So, for now, Limitless has some limitations; it’s designed for new installations. If you’re opening a new FEC and considering laser tag, I would hit the brakes and consider Limitless.
What about the more than 5000 laser tag arenas operating today? Are they stuck in the ‘90s forever? Thankfully not. The advances in mixed-reality headsets will soon enable companies to design solutions to turn any laser tag arena into a mixed-reality battlefield. And it’s going to be awesome.
The first mixed-reality headsets hit the market in the last six months. The Meta Quest Pro, Pico 4, and VIVE XR Elite offer limited color pass-through. The Quest Pro has the lowest resolution but uses two cameras for stereoscopy, so depth perception is good. The Pico 4 and the XR Elite have higher-resolution passthrough video but employ only one camera. The Pico 4 lacks good depth perception to run around a space with barriers and other people safely. The XR Elite uses a depth sensor to create the illusion of depth. I’ve yet to try it in a setting that would test out the feature.
By next year I’m sure there will be enhancements to current headsets, or entirely new ones, that offer full color, high-resolution, stereo pass-through. Then things will get interesting. For an example of what’s possible, check out Resolution Games’ Spatial Ops.
Resolution Games is the studio behind smash VR hits Demeo, Blaston, and Acron: Attack of the Squirrels. Spatial Ops is the world’s first competitive multiplayer shooter in mixed reality. Players can turn any real-world space into an urban battlefield and compete with (or against) their friends in FPS action.
Adding a high-quality mixed reality game to a laser tag arena promises to take a tired, old activity and make it relevant again. It promises variety in gameplay and environment. And accuracy. Laser tag never became a legitimate competitive activity because it’s too easy to cheat, and the equipment isn’t accurate or reliable. Moving to a software-based solution guarantees accuracy and enables rules enforcement. So leagues, tournaments, and even esports will become possible in laser tag arenas.
It might take until 2025 for the technology to converge. But when it does, laser tag will again become the hottest FEC activity on the planet.