People playing Sol Raiders at a media event in Melbourne

Zero Latency

“Duck, duck, duck!” The shouting and the noise are intense, the shots reverberating around me almost palpable. I run up a rickety ramp, probably on some spaceship, I think, except I have no time to think, really. I have to return fire, aim, shoot, but too late. “You died.” The letters appear in mid-air, floating in my vision, informing me solemnly of my demise. “Go to your pod to recharge and come back to the game.” I step into a pod to respawn. I’m alive, again. If only it were that simple in real life.

As realistic as it feels, this is not real life, but a newly released virtual reality game called Sol Raiders, developed by Australian startup Zero Latency. I’m playing alongside seven other VR gamers, transformed into a robo-soldier dropped into a virtual universe where, to survive, we have to reach a power source called Sol.

In the physical world, you can find us in two teams of four, blue against orange, deployed in a huge empty hall, wearing backpacks full of computing power and sporting VR goggles, headphones and mics. All above us are cameras and sensors tracking our movements and translating them into the virtual world. Just outside, a few metres away, we miss out on the 35C heat in sunny Melbourne.

Sol Raiders is the sixth title from the three-year-old startup, and goes live today in the company’s 25 arenas across 13 countries. So far, more than 750,000 players have tried its games globally, paying roughly £50 per person per game, depending on the venue. And venture capitalists seem to paying close attention: since it was founded in 2013, the company has received AU$8.9m (£4.8m) in funding and generated $30m in revenue.

I’m not a gamer; I play Tetris once in a while. I’m not into VR either, as all headsets so far gave me motion sickness – whether they put me into virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality environments. This time, though, is different. I admit, I’m impressed and leave the arena a bit woozy, but mostly excited.

That’s because the technology is incredibly immersive, and the set-up is perfect for that. You have a huge space to freely walk around in, there are no cables or wires, and no props anywhere. Everything is virtual, except for your gun. The headset is still heavy, but no one here seems to mind much. “It’s all about coming here with your friends and having an awesome, quite intense experience,” says Tim Ruse, the CEO of Zero Latency.

“It just blows people’s minds – we’ve had some really extreme reactions, people running in terror, people sort of curling on the floor in balls. Such reactions make you realise you’ve got to dial it back a bit.”

That’s why Zero Latency now has a minimum age requirement of 14 to play on their own – plus anyone aged 10 to 13 will need a parent’s permission and must be accompanied by an adult – because children’s reactions are often even more extreme, says Ruse. “I think it’s something about not being able to get away. If you’re watching something scary, you can turn your head away, but not here. And barriers between life and reality are quite permeable when you are little.”

VR has been around for quite some time, but the era of immersive headsets started only six years ago, when Oculus Rift introduced its DK1 headset in 2013. VR gaming followed nearly straight away, but despite many promises, has been incredibly slow to take off on a mass scale, not least because of the need to either stay tethered to a computer, or the danger of bumping into furniture if you have a smartphone-powered VR headset.

Zero Latency is not the only company offering free roam VR gaming. Munich-based HolodeckVR gives you a chance to become Pac Man, says co-founder Jonathan Nowak Delgado: you can be the gobbling blob in arenas ranging from a rather tight 20x20m to a more generous 200x200m.

Zero Latency’s warehouse setting is more massive, giving you a 400x400m arena (which takes six to eight weeks to set up, I’m told). While HolodeckVR uses Samsung’s mobile Gear VR headsets, Zero Latency has decided to develop its own VR technology, including the backpack that holds the batteries and computing power. Both companies combine optical with radio frequency signals plus cameras to track players in the arena. For shooter games, each player’s weapon is also closely tracked.

In the United States, there is The Void, which develops its own virtual theme parks, while Guizhou in China is home to the giant Oriental Science Fiction Valley theme park. But if one can speak of a VR gaming boom, then it’s definitely happening in Asia, not the West; last year, the amount spent on VR and AR in Asia Pacific (excluding Japan) reached some US$11 billion, according to research firm IDC. Chinese VR gamers account for a whopping 91 per cent of all the AR and VR spend in the region.

Still, despite the hype and tech giants like Facebook and Google all offering new VR experiences, overall VR gaming is much, much smaller than, say, e-sports, which has skyrocketed over the past decade. Lachlan McAllister, who owns GG EZ e-sports bar in Melbourne (the first one to open in Australia, in 2017), says that playing Sol Raiders is sort of a “cross section between athletic play, but also a completely virtual experience”.

Taking off his backpack and sweating profusely after running around with a gun for a quarter of an hour, he says e-sports could very well go the VR route in the future. “It’s compelling, because one of the arguments against e-sports for some people is that, you know, that’s not an athletic experience. But if you get to have a game which ties sort of all the elements of sport and e-sports together, potentially, yeah. The only thing is it’d be a lot harder as you need a pretty incredible setup.”

While more than half of the customers at Zero Latency are male, women do come as well, says Ruse. “One memorable moment was when a mother came with her three daughters,” he says. “She was in her 50s. And she loved it – she asked if she could come back next week with her friends.”

So is free-roaming, multiplayer VR gaming the future of virtual reality – 15 minutes of zombie shooting with friends instead of 7-a-side football or a boozy night out?

Thuong Hoang, lecturer in VR and AR at Deakin University in Australia, says that the immersion and free roaming are “intriguing” for consumers, but there are challenges ahead for it to really scale. First is cost: big, high tech venues and untethered VR equipment don’t come cheap. Plus there is simulator sickness, he adds, and I nod, as it really hits home. “There is a lot of research into the causes of simulator sickness, and into user interface techniques to reduce the effects of sickness, but they’re still an ongoing research challenge,” he says.

Erica Southgate, a VR researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, uses VR for education, but says we are still “incubating the technology for mass appeal”. And to really take off, be it in gaming, health, factory work or education, headsets need to come down in price, offer a longer battery life, and a more expansive user interface. At the moment, prices for standalone headsets vary from £499.99 for HTC Vive to £380 for Oculus Rift (plus a truly high-end computer) to the much cheaper but more limited experience on a Samsung Gear VR, yours for £23.99, provided you have a recent high-end Samsung smartphone.

“I think that once we have really high quality, stand-alone headsets with age appropriate content and virtual social spaces for entertainment and education, that children and young people will drive the next big uptake swing,” says Southgate.

Tuang Nguyen, a Gartner analyst, says that content is also a major problem – specifically, an insufficient breadth and depth of it. “What if I don’t like free roam? What if I like mystery games, or puzzle solving games?” he says. “But let’s say I do like free roam. Am I expected to play this game forever? An analogy is Game of Thrones. Maybe I love Game of Thrones. Does that mean it’s to the exclusion of any other type of TV or movie viewing content? Thus, breadth and depth.”

And then there is convenience. “Can I tell my mum to go have a VR experience and leave it at that?” asks Nguyen. “If it’s location-based entertainment, she needs to know what it means, and where and how to find it. If it’s a headset, she has to buy and set it up. Again, compare this to more traditional entertainment like a movie (mum, go watch Black Panther and Infinity War).”

Still, Nguyen does think there’s “certainly” a bright future for VR, but for that, different factors need to come together: headsets need to become so thin and light they look just like regular glasses, or those you can fold and put in your pocket even. And content, content, content. Just like with HD TV: when it first came out, people went wild for it – but having bought it, they were completely disappointed because there wasn’t any content for it, says Nguyen.

So VR is still coming of age, slowly, and that’s reflected in the amount of sales: last year, 22 million VR and AR headsets were sold, according to CCS Insight – compared to 1.8 billion smartphones, 197 million PCs and 212 million tablets. Still, Zero Latency has seen quite a growth: since July 2016, it has expanded from two location-based entertainment sites to 25 sites, and will add five more in the coming weeks.

“To be clear, there’s no doubt that VR is growing, but it’s coming from a small base at a relatively early stage in the market,” Nguyen says.

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