Made for each other: Vegas already an early VR adopter | Crain's Las Vegas

Made for each other: Vegas already an early VR adopter

VR Arcade produces location-based pop-up and permanent VR experiences in partnership with Vegas hotels and casinos, nightclubs, restaurants and events. | Photo courtesy of VR Arcade

As a niche subgenre of the digital media industry, virtual reality is still very much a nascent one. For many consumers, VR is still too expensive and too cumbersome for widespread adoption.

"The cost of a computer with the processing power to handle the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset will put you back $1,500 or more. Anything less than that and you compromise the experience and quality," said Jonathan Bricklin, co-founder of SPiN, a ping-pong nightclub with seven locations throughout North America, whose next project is to bring a virtual reality "theme park" to Las Vegas.

In addition to the expense of the computer itself, users are also limited to the kind of computer they can use. Oh, and those headsets? They run about $500-$800 for the barest minimum of starter sets. And they all still need to be tethered to a computer or gaming console, making them all the more cumbersome. In short, VR is still far too expensive and inconvenient for the average consumer to care about yet.

"Right now VR is in its infancy. It will be forgotten if it doesn't evolve. It's too clunky and too delicate," said Bricklin. "But there are a lot of factors that are expected to advance. Headsets are going to be wireless in the next six to 12 months, which will be amazing to have no wires taking you out of the illusion. And 4k resolution will also be amazing. And the content will eventually include fully immersive worlds [to explore]."

The key to getting more people to try VR and eventually bring it into widespread use, says Bricklin, is to offer them fully immersive VR experiences, such as what he is currently planning with One Hundred Monkeys.

"It's a very new experience for people so it requires a lot of hand-holding," he said. "The solution to the chicken-and-egg problem is literally people doing VR arcades like me."

'Leading VR city'

Bricklin says he plans to take what he has learned at SPiN – serving quality food and beverages and hosting events in an adult-oriented entertainment playground – and applying it to VR, delivering content he thinks is particularly original and exciting. And the American market that he thinks can best support his grand vision and supply a steady stream of customers? Right here in Vegas.

"If there is a city in the world that would be accepting and welcoming [of this content], it would be Vegas," Bricklin said. "It should be the leading VR city in the country."

He explains there is no large-scale VR "theme park" anywhere in the world like what he is planning, and predicts that within a year Las Vegas will a leading VR entertainment destination.

One Hundred Monkeys will feature a central bar/lounge that serves light comfort food and creative cocktails, and about a dozen classic sit-down arcade games like "Donkey Kong" and "Pac-Man." Branching off from the central lounge, there will be five different themed "worlds" distinguished by unique physical spaces designed to complement the VR experiences they offer. So, a "sports world" might be designed to resemble a soccer field, and would include added sounds, smells, and sensations – such as blowing wind – that further enhance the immersive experience in each of the handfuls of VR attractions available in each "world."

Experiences will include sports, particularly those activities that are more exotic or dangerous like mountain biking or skydiving; action/adventure first-person shooters; "bizarre and truly unimaginable" psychedelic journeys; and provocative, though not outright pornographic, "red light" experiences.

In addition to licensing content, One Hundred Monkeys is also developing its own content with the MMOne, a VR-simulated motion chair that allows 360-degree movement in every direction, making these experiences fully immersive.

"It's the Ferrari of motion chairs," Bricklin said. "It can accomplish the exact same thing a multimillion-dollar roller coaster can do."

While Bricklin is still negotiating the details of a location for One Hundred Monkeys, he does plan on hosting a promotional pop-up boutique downtown in October.

As for the future of VR, Bricklin predicts, "it's going to get more complex and interactive." People will use it not just for gaming or simulated sports (and sex); VR will also open up the world to virtual travel. 

"People who wouldn't otherwise be able to travel the world will be able to do so in a very convincing way," he said. "We'll be providing a service to people who can't afford the real thing."

Indeed, as VR use expands and VR applications broaden, its applications in entertainment – beyond home gaming – and as a tourism driver could signify the next evolution in experiential consumer entertainment, and Vegas could prove itself at the forefront.

As a city that is constantly fine-tuning itself for your maximum entertainment benefit – after all, its survival very much depends on it – Vegas is already showing itself to be an early adopter of VR for consumer entertainment. Caesars Entertainment already has leased out space to VR Adventures at The LINQ, and test-driven an experimental VR bar concept powered by Oculus Rift earlier this year. MGM Grand also tried out a temporary VR bar during this year's Consumer Electronics Show, which may be a sign of more permanent VR installations to come.

"Having something like VR Adventures adds such a great flavor to the experience of The LINQ because it's quick and it's different," said Shaun Swanger, vice president and general manager of The LINQ Promenade. "You might come here and ride the High Roller or eat at one of the restaurants, and this is something you can do in just a few minutes to make the experience more memorable."

VR Adventures has been open for one year now and offers five different VR experiences to guests. "The fact that it's so quick but so exciting makes it perfect for Vegas," Swanger stated. "People are here for three and a half days and are trying to pack in as much entertainment as they can."

Next stop? Augmented reality

Christopher Crescitelli, founder of VR Fest, also sees the commercial potential for VR in Vegas. He moved the festival to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in 2016 to coincide with the massive Consumer Electronics Show. The veteran of 3-D filmmaking (he was previously part of a high-tech research team at Lucasfilm) saw the potential for location-based VR entertainment to expand marketing opportunities and generate revenue in Las Vegas, so he packed up and moved himself and his company to Sin City.

"We are the first boots on the ground, working on the front lines to bring as much exposure and as many people to the table through VR experiences as possible," he said.

His company, VR Arcade, is already producing location-based pop-up and permanent VR experiences in partnership with Las Vegas hotels and casinos, nightclubs, restaurants, and events. They have developed experiences for Hyde, Light, Omnia, and Hakkasan, and were part of the team behind the augmented reality treasure hunt experience at Level Up Lounge inside MGM during this year's CES.

"It's my 'Pokemon Go,' if you will," joked Crescitelli.

The location-based AR experience uses indoor mapping software that allows users to have a "gamified" experience as they walk around inside a casino, collecting treasures and earning rewards as they do so.  Augmented reality is slightly different than VR in that the experience itself is not immersive but rather layers computer-generated enhancements atop an existing reality. Crescitelli says the potential uses for such AR are endless, especially in ways relevant to Las Vegas where casinos can implement this technology to help visitors navigate their properties while also encouraging them to explore.

Crescitelli's next project is VR Room Service, scheduled to launch at the end of this summer. This service will allow customers to order up a VR service, just as they would in-room dining, and have it delivered within an hour. The service will be completely turnkey, including all of the components and props needed for the experience, from the headsets to haptic vests. The system is designed so users can just plug in and play without having to download anything themselves, and an attendant can also be sent out to assist with set-up.

They are developing original content for VR Room Service as well as licensing content from existing developers for their headsets. Crescitelli says phase two will include live VR streaming of sports, concerts, and other events, much like pay-per-view.

But in-room entertainment and dedicated lounges aren't the only VR applications suited for tourism-driven Vegas. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority saw the potential in VR tech for marketing purposes years ago and has already implemented it for promotional uses.

"Over the last three years we have been able to sit at the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES and NAB and see VR having a massive presence, and also see where the content and digital trends were going," said Nick Mattera, senior director of digital engagement for the LVCVA.

In March 2016, the LVCVA launched its first VR experiences at SXSW, promoting Las Vegas as a tourist destination through VR experiences that included a helicopter ride over the Strip and a tour of Nobu with the chef himself. They now have over 30 VR-experience videos highlighting hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, Cirque shows, and events like Life is Beautiful.

"The general idea is that consumers today are inundated with ads and blogs and magazines. As a leading destination, how do we break through that clutter and tell our story in a new and unique way? Las Vegas is the most exciting destination in the world, but how do you convey that excitement that really makes an emotional connection with the consumer?"

The LVCVA's adoption of VR as a promotional tool sets the city apart as a destination, and automatically positions it at the forefront of VR entertainment. Since launching in 2016, there have been over 30,000 downloads of the Las Vegas Virtual Reality app, and over 18 million views of their 360-degree video content.

And it goes beyond entertainment and tourism marketing. LVCVA salespeople can sell convention and meeting spaces by showing them to clients and at trade shows on VR headsets. They've also partnered with Southwest Airlines and Virgin Atlantic on storefront virtual integrations that allow customers to "try" different Vegas experiences and then book those same experiences right there on the spot.

"One of the questions we always get is, 'How does VR help drive sales in Vegas?' We really look to establish partnerships with our VR initiatives to tie into sales programming," Mattera said. "We're really making it functional in the sense that people can try it and actually buy it."

"One of the things that's different about Vegas is the appetite for new and different and fun," said William Griggs, founder of Austin-based Virtual Reality Rental, which also operates in Vegas and dozens of other North American cities. "Folks from all around the country and world come to have a good time. That is the catalyst for VR rental. This is a way to transition guests from the fear of commitment to the fear of missing out."

Sin City, meet simulated city.

June 20, 2017 - 4:20pm