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Designing Your DIY Free-Roam VR Space: Maximizing Player Engagement and Spectator Involvement

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.

Unlike laser tag arenas filled with ramps, platforms, and barriers to hide behind, DIY free-roam VR spaces are wide open. The only barriers are the ones rendered in software for the players. The playing area must be clear of obstructions and obstacles. The players will not see them once they don a VR headset, and software developers cannot customize the playing space to accommodate obstacles like columns or walls.

There are two schools when it comes to free-roam arena walls. One perspective is to keep the free-roam space hidden from the players until they enter the space. High-end systems like The VOID and Dreamscape Immersive employed this tactic to maintain mystery.

Using a projector on the back wall for spectator screen increases impact

The other way is to keep it wide open so spectators see the fun the players have, hopefully converting to players themselves. For DIY locations, the latter makes more sense. In the early days of laser tag we employed a viewing area and it was a key component to ticket sales.

Small screens on the back wall don’t help, go big!

There are no standards yet on the size of the playing area. Different games are designed in sizes ranging from 300 square feet to 1000 square feet. Launchers must be capable of operating multiple-size play spaces, and the launcher company will advise on the optimal size of your arena.

While no “standards” exist, 20 x 20, 20 x 30 and 33 x 33 are the most common sizes. 400, 600, and 1000 square feet arenas will comfortably accommodate four, six and 10 players. You also need a staging or “donning” area where equipment is displayed, cleaned, and charged. It’s where players receive their briefing, ask questions, and get their gear on.

I’ve seen operators start small with their DIY free-roam arena, and then expand when they see the level of demand. The two most important considerations when considering the size of the arena are throughput capacity and game variety. Since each launcher offers different games, and most games are configured for a specific arena size, you need to make sure you have enough room to handle the widest variety of content offered by the launcher.

Lighting is important to set the mood, but make sure there’s enough for the tracking, IR security lights can help

AESTHETICS

How your arena looks will dictate how much it earns. Go back and read that last sentence again. It’s important. One of the biggest challenges for VR arcade attractions is converting curious spectators into players. Unless you plan to staff your attraction with talented, outgoing, carnival barkers, the design of your free-roam attraction will play an outsized role in revenue generation. Having the right equipment, software, and games are critical to success. But if nobody plays, then those things don’t matter at all.

Some of the launcher companies offer graphics packages. Some you can download and have printed or fabricated locally. Some offer modular walls you can purchase to add a professional look. There’s no one right way to do it. But there are lots of wrong ways.

I see many laser tag arenas with beautiful theming inside, but with just a sign outside that says, “Laser Tag”. You can get away with it because 34-years after its invention everyone knows what it is. But free-roam virtual reality is like laser tag in 1990. You must “sell it” to get people to try it.

A projector and screen creates a can’t miss spectator screen

I remember when I opened my first laser tag arena in Denver, Colorado in 1989. People would come in the door and ask, “What is this?”.

“Imagine you’re in a dark room, shrouded with fog”, I would say. “All of a sudden you see a beam of light cut across the room. Someone’s shooting a laser beam at you! You duck behind a barrier, and fire back. The battle is on! That’s laser tag.” I must have given that spiel a thousand times. But even then, people wanted to see for themselves. So we created the observation deck. VR’s version of the observation deck is the spectator screen.

Another mistake I see lots of operators make is under investing in the spectator screens. Trying to “sell” the immersive experience of VR through a 40″ TV doesn’t work. It’s underwhelming to say the least. Being in free-roam VR is one of the most amazing entertainment experiences anyone can have. Watching avatars on a television does not even come close.

I’ve seen video walls and large format projectors used to great effect. The cost of these have come way down over the years. Don’t skimp on the spectator experience. Not only will it help you generate more revenue, it adds to the overall environment of your location. Offering a compelling viewing experience for the audience, whether they play or not, creates added value for your customers.

Storage and Charging

Storage is an area I have seen lots of operators cut corners on. And it looks sloppy. Many of the launcher companies also offer cabinets. A few third parties have developed professional storage and charging systems on wheels so they can be moved as needed. There are also heavy-duty flight cases that store and charge headsets and controllers for portable use. Some have incorporated UVC bulbs and claim they sterilize the headsets between use. I’m not an epidemiologist, so take those claims with a grain of salt.

Spree Interactive includes a high-quality charging and storage cabinet in their turnkey arena

Any decent cabinet builder or a craftsman with a table saw and router can design and build a beautiful storage cabinet with cable management and sufficient power strips to hold the individual chargers. But if you don’t have access to someone like that, buy one.

Other sections of this article you may be interested in

  1. Launchers and Content
  2. Do it Yourself Free-roam VR
  3. VR Headsets
  4. Computers and Networking Equipment

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