Road test of the latest location-based VR experiences

Location-based VR has bounced back after the pandemic. So let’s have some arcade action! The fastest growing company, Sandbox VR, just opened its 40th office worldwide. Gibbys Guide has been out and about road testing the best the industry has to offer.

Gibby presents

Gibby Zobel is an English-born journalist, director and radio host. Based in Brazil for over 20 years, he produces content for BBC World Service, BBC News and China Global Television Network (CGTN). Currently on gap year in the UK, he writes and publishes Gibby’s Guide, a free, independent VR digital magazine launching in 2021.

As fans of Gibby’s work, we share a selection of the magazine’s in-depth articles, this one from the latest issue: Gibby’s Guide V23.

“I wanted an immersive experience with my friends, where they could get close and touch and actually make a physical connection. I believed that the real magic of VR would begin when someone could get totally lost in the immersive experience. The game, the interface, the disbelief would vanish and only the experience would remain.

Steve Zhao, co-founder and CEO of Sandbox VR, outlined his vision of a viable minimal matrix. He then he built it.


Location-based virtual reality or LBVR refers to a place outside the home where people can play unique VR games, usually as a team, that they can’t find on consumer headsets. Haptic vests and physical items like a gun can add to the experience, as can extras like fans, heaters, water sprays, and plumbing. The games are either specially made in-house or by studios like Ubisoft.

It started with the opening of their first arena in June 2017 on the 16th floor of a Hong Kong alleyway with leaky pipes, surrounded by private clubs and other less salubrious neighbors.

Exactly six years later, a premium location in downtown Seattle just became Sandbox VR’s 40th location worldwide, they have operations in the US, Europe and Asia and are the fastest growing company in the industry.

But it almost didn’t happen. Covid-19 has threatened to strangle the fledgling LBVR industry at birth. The leading player of the time, The Void sank without a trace. Some have survived. A case in point is Zhaos Sandbox VR. She tells the story on her Medium page.

“With a nationwide lockdown and a mandate to close all our retail outlets, our revenue has plummeted by 100%. The year was traumatic for the team and for me – running a near-death startup during the worst possible crisis while undergoing an emotionally taxing bankruptcy process, with the team barely getting paid,” he says.

But through a drastic 80% staff cut, a rent freeze and financial contortions they managed to overcome.

Last month they launched their seventh in-house built LBVR title, Seekers of The Shard: Dragonfireand they announced a deal with Netflix to bring Squid game to virtual reality later this year following a deal with CBS The discovery of Star Trek.

While Sandbox VR is undoubtedly the shining beacon, selling over 100,000 tickets a month, other LBVR companies are making headway.

Czech start-up Divr Labs is backed by billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, known for his investment in West Ham United Football Club, and has opened in a prime west London location within Westfield, the largest shopping center in the ‘Europe, as well as offices in Stockholm and Prague.

Clever design means Divr Labs can accommodate 48 people per hour within its 150 square meters of space. At full capacity that would equate to an income north of $4 million a year in that retail area alone.

London’s first VR arcade, DNA VR, has expanded to three locations in the capital and one in Manchester, while another UK venture, Meetspace VR, has seven arcades across the country.

In Guandong Province in China, Lionsgate Entertainment World, which opened in July 2019, is the most technologically advanced theme park on the planet. Take advantage of popular movie franchises like The Hunger Games AND The Twilight saga to create VR experiences including indoor VR roller coasters and motorbike simulators.

Likewise, ILMxLAB (now ILM Immersive) held a limited run of Star Wars tales from the edge of the galaxy at Disney World Orlando in 2022.

Back in London, Layered Reality also borrows from popular culture by creating a two-hour show featuring Jeff Wayne Immersive experience of War Of The Worlds.

Now in its fourth year, it takes place in a huge purpose-built set. It has been voted the number one immersive experience in the capital on Trip Advisor and has surpassed 175,000 customers.

But what are these experiences like? Do they justify the hype?

Sometimes LBVR can be a terrible disappointment; recent examples include efforts at high-profile arts centers such as the Serpentine Galleries and the Barbican Centre, which can be fatal to the public interest, especially if it’s their first time wearing a headset.

They also have to stand up to competing entertainment options. Traditional arcades have had a resurgence and retro venues like NQ64, Arcade Club and Pixel Bar are popular.

Then there is the emerging trend of motion tracking projection mapping.

Immersive Gamebox offers their own non-VR version of Squid Game, Ghostbuster, AND angry Birds while Chaos Karts promises “an augmented reality experience without the need for headphones” on their lighted circuits.

A LBVR road trip

Gibbys Guidethats me and a group of friends set out to get the temperature of the industry, traveling to five different locations in the UK.

We all had some level of experience playing Quest 2 at home, but no one had been to an LBVR attraction.

Clearly this sample is geographically specific but some, like Sandbox VR, can also be found in the US and around the world and many of the details are common to others.

None of the LBVR locations we visited used the Quest 2; various iterations of the HTC Vive (usually the Focus 3) or the PiMAX were the headsets of choice in the venues.

Prices ranged between the equivalent of $40 to $75 per person and lasted between 25 minutes and two hours. The minimum age requirement started at 7 and went up to 16 depending on the game.

VR sandboxes

Sandbox VR knows the value of first impressions. The location is prime real estate in central London, and the facade of the modern Post Building is a must-see, decked out in giant posters of VR gamers bearing the brand’s logo.

You’re greeted by airport-style check-in terminals and a robot waiter to mix your drinks.

The assistants give you an iPad menu of weapons to choose from (you bring the physical item into the arena), take your picture, and lead you to a loading area. You don a haptic vest and strap alien-looking Velcro trackers that look like atoms around your wrists and ankles for real-time full-body motion capture.

You carry a laptop in a backpack that sends movement coordinates to a server. That’s quite a bit of kit, not forgetting the headset itself, and you feel the weight of it.

I’m playing Dead Wood Valley with Johnny. We often play multiplayer games on the Quest 2 from separate homes, but this is our first co-location (ie: occupying the same physical play space) VR experience.

The street is full of zombies and vultures. It’s noisy. We can’t hear each other due to the sound of our gunfire starting at the very beginning and only fading after defeating the final boss.

25 minutes later. We’ve flown in a helicopter, traveled in a truck, and saved ourselves from certain death multiple times (you have to physically touch your teammate’s shoulder to revive them).

At the end of the experience it’s time to party on a lighted dance floor to record one of two social media-ripe videos that transition from you in the VR gear in the room to the virtual world.

“Overall I’m a little underwhelmed,” says Jonny. “The game itself looked good, sounded good, but what you actually do is pretty limited.”

“You’re just shooting, you don’t really have time to communicate, the room was quite small. It reminded me of one of those old arcade games where you’d have the gun and foot pedal to duck and hide behind things, but boosted into a VRscape.

“I liked the haptic suit and the feedback on the gun. When I had to touch you on the shoulder it was disorienting.

“I guess for people who haven’t done VR before or in a group it’s something fun to do, like bowling.”

“I’m glad I did, I’d recommend people give it a try. It’s a bit overpriced, but then I’m notoriously stingy!

Continued on page 2: Divr Labs and DNA VR

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