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Sandbox VR: Location virtual reality is making its comeback



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Virtual reality arcades looked like they were doomed with the onset of the pandemic. People had to social distance, and coming together at places like Sandbox VR‘s location-based virtual reality experiences just wasn’t going to happen. But the company has reemerged from bankruptcy proceedings and it is reopening all of its locations, including a high-profile place in Las Vegas.

The Hong Kong-based Sandbox VR expects to open a new entertainment center in the Grand Canal Shoppes in the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas by the early summer. It’s the first time Sandbox has targeted Vegas, and it is taking over the spot that was formerly occupied by The Void, another pioneer in social VR entertainment at retail locations, said CEO Steve Zhao in an interview.

I went through Sandbox VR’s location in San Francisco before the pandemic. It’s a socially immersive experience that provided players with a unique combination of full-body motion capture that make you feel like you’re in another world. It contained more than home VR headsets, as we strapped sensors onto our wrists and shoes for better tracking, and we wore backpacks with powerful laptops connected to the VR headset. And then our team of five people battled Klingons in the Star Trek: Discovery — Away Mission experience.

That feeling of having fun with your friends is back again, said Zhao, as locations like Chicago and Austin have demonstrated. The company has seen increased demand of 30% from before the pandemic at their current locations outside of Chicago and in Austin since they were able to open again with government-mandated restrictions. Over 90% of customers book ahead online. With the vaccine rollout accelerating and COVID-19 cases falling across the country, Sandbox VR has started ramping production back up in anticipation of the influx of interest at the end of the pandemic. I talked to Zhao about this death and rebirth experience, and what he learned along the way. Let’s hope that the recovery proceeds as expected and all of location-based VR entertainment regains its lost opportunities.

Here’s the edited transcript of our interview.

Steve Zhao is CEO of Sandbox VR.

Above: Steve Zhao is the CEO of Sandbox VR.

Image Credit: Sandbox VR

GamesBeat: What’s open now for you? How are the re-openings going?

Steve Zhao: Back in March we knew things were turning around. There was a lot of hope. Now it’s pretty much backed by data. All the stores have reopened. We have 11 locations worldwide and seven across the United States. They’re all profitable now. We’re actually making more money now compared to when we peaked before the pandemic. The market’s becoming more mature. There’s pent-up demand to go out.

In the last year or so we’ve done quite a bit. We’ve improved our experiences. We’ve made it a lot more immersive. The experiences are much more intense, more horror-based. We’ve amped up the fantasy narrative of things like the pirate experience. Even Star Trek has improved. We made a platform that allows people to share easier. There’s a lot of optimization that goes on inside the machine. The pandemic allowed us to push that forward.

GamesBeat: It looks like you could have 15 by the end of the year?

Zhao: Yes, we’re still on track. We might beat that by one store. We’re opening in Vegas next month. Shanghai is also opening next month. We have a new store in Austin, Texas opening next month as well. We’ve been really busy.

GamesBeat: The one in Vegas, is that the one where the Void was?

Zhao: Yep, exactly.

GamesBeat: I did the Star Trek game before the pandemic. How did you improve that particular experience in the meantime?

Zhao: Our biggest learning is inside our platform. There’s a level of action-based intensity, and also things that — it’s not as narrative-driven. It’s not exciting to just listen to a narrator talking and not do much yourself. We’ve redone the whole cadence and made it a lot more about things you do, a lot more reasons for you to talk to your friends.

Above: Star Trek: Discovery — Away Mission.

Image Credit: Sandbox VR

We made the Klingons much more up-close and personal. It gets a much more visceral reaction if they’re in a closer space than far off. We’ve also made them more intelligent in the way they fight. It feels like you’re fighting real enemies, or at least that’s what we’re trying to do. We try to script it so they change up their strategy, going from a frontal attack to flanking. Little things here and there. All of this in combination increases the immersion of the whole experience.

GamesBeat: How many people go through that experience at once? Is it six people?

Zhao: Yes, six people. That’s standard across all of our games.

GamesBeat: Are people still making appointments, or just dropping in?

Zhao: They are, yes. About 90% of people pre-book online. We haven’t seen a lot of foot traffic yet. We’re still predominantly booked online. Because it’s so packed these days, we just can’t accommodate that many foot traffic customers.

GamesBeat: Has the pricing changed at all now?

Zhao: It’s higher now, yes, between $40 and $50 per person. It reflects the demand that we’ve been getting. We have weekends booked a week or two in advance now.

GamesBeat: Real estate got cheaper for a while, so that’s probably helped out in terms of operating expenses and enabling sites to become more profitable.

Zhao: Oh, yeah. Rent was one of our biggest buckets of expense. Apart from that, we’re talking to more than two dozen landlords right now trying to get deals done. There’s a lot of synergy, because they look at us sort of like — we provide premium experiences, but we can also prove that we track with a younger audience. Millennials come to our locations.

Above: Guests at Sandbox VR.

Image Credit: Sandbox VR

GamesBeat: Did you prioritize any particular regions for your expansion?

Zhao: We’re looking a lot in Texas and Chicago. Chicago is doing well. In Chicago we see foot traffic increasing 25% every month since February. But other than that, no. We’re just working nationwide right now, seeing who’s interested.

GamesBeat: What about outside of the United States?

Zhao: Hong Kong is doing amazingly well right now. It’s beaten pre-pandemic by a lot. Singapore and Vancouver had some very strong months, but they also dealt with COVID spikes this year. When there’s no government regulation asking them to close, they have very strong numbers.

GamesBeat: Does it feel like it’s back to a kind of race now as everyone tries to reopen? Is there more competition for you, or less?

Zhao: It’s definitely different now because the Void is gone. I don’t know what Dreamscape is doing, but I know they’re working more on education now, so I don’t know if retail is a big part of their plan. Even before the pandemic, a lot of VR startups were already gone. What we do, highly immersive full-body experiences, I don’t know about anyone else who really pushed through. The big thing is that we’re operating profitably now as a company.

GamesBeat: It feels like the headsets are getting better. There’s the new HTC model that’s out for enterprise. Varjo just made an announcement today. Do you think that the improvement in the overall quality of VR is moving ahead?

Zhao: Absolutely. In new stores we’ll be outfitting them with the HP Reverb G2s, combined with the new backpacks. The fidelity of the overall experience is much better. You can see the world a lot more clearly. The immersion is deeper. A lot of good things have come through that. We’ve always been agnostic when it comes to hardware. Whatever comes out, if we think it will improve the user experience and we can integrate it effectively, we’ll do it.

GamesBeat: Are there some things you think about as the biggest lessons from the pandemic?

Zhao: Thinking about a startup, knowing what to focus on is critical. Before the pandemic there was so much stuff you could do that wasn’t necessarily critical. Once you have to survive, though, you have to be very careful in how you make decisions. We only focused on a few core things and tried to do them really well. That was our biggest takeaway, that insane focus.

Dean Takahashi and guests of GamesBeat play Star Trek Discovery Away Mission. Players include Rob Oshima, Jon Gagnon, Josh Allen, and James Zhang.

Above: Dean Takahashi (center) and guests of GamesBeat play Star Trek Discovery — Away Mission. Players include (left to right): James Zhang, Jon Gagnon, Josh Allen, and Rob Oshima.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: You had that death-and-rebirth experience.

Zhao: That might be the best way you can put it, yeah. We came into the pandemic feeling like, “Oh, man, there’s a good chance that we just won’t survive.” We lost 100% of our revenue, literally, in March. We had no idea how long it was going to last. We were just counting the days.

GamesBeat: Going into the reopening, how early were you able to start making some decisions about getting things open again? Was it a few months ago now?

Zhao: We looked at each store reopening based on regional jurisdictions. We looked at each state to see what their rules were, and when it seemed like the rules were coming up, we’d work backward and plan for it. That’s why our stores in Chicago and Austin were pretty much open off and on during the pandemic, but the stores in California, we had to wait until April to have them open again. They were the last bastion that had to be shut down.

GamesBeat: What kind of locations do you seek out now? Where are you more likely to open given the different real estate environment today?

Zhao: We do a lot of pre-booked traffic, so we don’t necessarily need a premium location, a top site. We definitely want places like malls or downtown neighborhoods that are convenient to access, places where millennials who might try Sandbox would already go out for food or drinks. That’s why we’re working with lifestyle shopping centers across the nation to be part of that.

Sandbox VR gives you freedom of movement in virtual reality.

Above: Sandbox VR gives you freedom of movement in virtual reality.

Image Credit: Sandbox VR

GamesBeat: What are you working on for the future in terms of new experiences?

Zhao: In the immediate future we’ll be doing a sequel for Deadwood Mansion. That’s still by far the most popular experience. That’s in the works right now. You’ll be shooting bats. People probably want to do that. Although it’s still a zombie experience. Outside of that, we’re going to continue to build on other immersive worlds people want to see. Who do they want to be? It’s never about the number of pieces of content. It’s about the diversity of content. What can we do with fantasy? What kind of IP makes sense for an immersive world? We’ll go from there.

GamesBeat: Do you see people coming back, repeat customers returning regularly? How many people will go through every available experience?

Zhao: It’s been pretty hard to track with the pandemic. We’d open and close and open and close. Sometimes when we were open we had very limited spots, so it was very irregular. Now things have reopened, but it’s been very recent. People often have to book much further in advance, which sometimes turns them off. We don’t have much concrete data about a steady state. It’s a little too early to tell. When we have stores that are able to run longer, we’ll see.

We have anecdotes. Staff at our stores would say, “We’ve seen this guy come in five times, eight times.” People come back with more folks with them. For Deadwood sometimes people try to chase a high score. We’ve heard stories like that. That’s another reason why we think episodic experiences will work. People will come back to follow that story.

GamesBeat: How many employees do you have now?

Zhao: We have about 20 people in corporate, but we have more than 100 working at retail.

GamesBeat: It seems like location-based entertainment has survived. That was a big question not too long ago.

Zhao: It’s definitely been hard. There’s no online component. It’s all about generating revenue with time inside the location. We’ve been fortunate. We got some great investors. They kept up the flow, and we did everything we could to stretch every dollar. The timing has been great. If the pandemic lasted much longer, I don’t know where we would have been. Our best-performing stores are making around $200,000 a month in gross revenue now. They’ve rebounded in a big way for us.

I don’t know about everyone else working in the space, but our vision has always been to create the holodeck and bring the holodeck to your neighborhood. We have a lot more work to do.


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Warplanes: WW1 Fighters to See Official Oculus Quest Store Launch This Week



Back in March, Home Net Games launched the popular Warplanes: WW1 Fighters for PC VR headsets as well as Oculus Quest via App Lab – making it one of the earliest. The studio has now announced that Warplanes: WW1 Fighters will be officially released on the Oculus Store at the end of July.

Warplanes: WW1 VR

Whilst App Lab has been a great way for indie developers to get their projects onto Oculus Quest finding them is another matter, with services like SideQuest or App Lab DB simplifying discovery. The end goal for all developers is to get their videogame onto the proper Oculus Store and that’s exactly what Home Net Games is going to achieve this month.

Through App Lab Warplanes: WW1 Fighters has received lots of positive feedback for its World War 1 aerial combat, where you can jump into the cockpit of authentic planes from the era. With single-player and multiplayer modes where you can complete campaign missions or go head-to-head with other pilots, multiplayer battles include Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Last Man Standing or team up with friends on co-op missions. Warplanes: WW1 Fighters features 18 planes; from light scout planes to heavy bombers. Progression will allow you to build your own squadron, upgrading and customizing your planes.

These can realistic or simple to control thanks to Warplanes: WW1 Fighters‘ customizable flight models. Set them for a more arcade-like experience or go full simulation with real-life aerodynamics. Gameplay options allow further in-depth tweaking such as enabling manual takeoffs and landing, aggressive AI, disabling HUD and realistic damage which affects flight.

Warplanes: WW1 VR

Warplanes: WW1 Fighters supports Oculus Quest 2’s 90Hz mode for improved performance, great for those dogfighting exchanges. The studio also confirms that: “If you purchased the game on App Lab, the game will be upgraded to the Oculus Store version with no extra cost. All saves and settings will be compatible with the new version. Of course, you’ll be getting all future updates as well.”

Home Net Games will be officially launching Warplanes: WW1 Fighters for Oculus Quest on 29th July 2021. For further updates on the latest App Lab titles, keep reading VRFocus.

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Facebook is Unlocking AR Capabilities for Developers on Quest 2



Facebook announced today that an upcoming update to the Quest development SDK will include experimental support for a Passthrough API which will allow Unity developers to build AR experiences and features into apps on Quest 2.

Although Quest wasn’t launched as an AR headset initially, its impressive passthrough camera capability showed that it could handle AR functions surprisingly well. In fact, if you use the passthrough view as your default background, the Quest boundary and main menu floats against the backdrop of your playspace—effectively making it an AR experience that’s been available on the headset for some time.

Until now Facebook kept the tools for building AR apps on the headset to itself, but today it announced it’s unlocking the same capabilities for third-party developers too.

Initially rolling out as an “experimental” feature, the so called ‘Passthrough API’ will become available in the v31 update to the Quest development SDK. The Passthrough API is only available on Quest 2 for now; it isn’t clear if Facebook plans to extent it to the original Quest.

Facebook expects the new capabilities will enable a brand new class of applications on Quest 2 that take advantage of AR in interesting ways. Here’s some examples and explanations of the features developers can use:

Composition: You can composite Passthrough layers with other VR layers via existing blending techniques like hole punching and alpha blending.

Styling: You’ll be able to apply styles and tint to layers from a predefined list, including applying a color overlay to the feed, rendering edges, customizing opacity, and posterizing.

Custom Geometry: You can render Passthrough images to a custom mesh instead of relying on the default style mesh—for example, to project Passthrough on a planar surface.

Although transparent AR headsets—like HoloLens and Magic Leap—give a much clearer (and color) view of the real-world, passthrough AR headsets like Varjo XR-3 (and now Quest 2), tend to offer a much more immersive field-of-view and more convincing virtual imagery thanks to complete opacity control and the potential for perfect latency between  real world imagery and virtual imagery. Though Quest 2’s AR view is still fairly low resolution and black & white, it’s expected that future headsets from Facebook will focus on improving the passthrough AR view.

While developers will be able to start experimenting with AR on Quest 2 with the v31 SDK via Unity, support for other engines—and the ability to actually publish AR apps to users—is expected later this year.

With a device like Quest 2 loaded full of cameras, it’s definitely worth thinking about privacy, especially now that third-party apps can make use of AR capabilities. On that front, Facebook says that “apps that use Passthrough API cannot access, view, or store images or videos of your physical environment from the Oculus Quest 2 sensors,” and that “raw images from device sensors are processed on-device,” meaning that the images the camera sees don’t get sent to Facebook or to third-party developers.

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Two New ‘Harry Potter’ VR Experiences Launch at Harry Potter New York



Two new Harry Potter VR experiences have launched at the Harry Potter New York retail location. Wizards Take Flight and Chaos at Hogwarts were developed in collaboration with Dreamscape, Wevr, and Keylight.

The Harry Potter New York store, which launched last month as a retail destination for fans of the series, is now home to two new VR experiences offering visitors a chance to cast spells with wands at Hogwarts and ride flying brooms through London.

Both experiences launched last week, supporting up to six players at at time, and have a total run time of about 30 minutes (including gearing up and down).

Chaos at Hogwarts

After missing the Hogwarts Express at King’s Cross Station, Dobby helps get us to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Students! Dobby needs your help. Journey through Hogwarts Castle, cast spells with your wand, round up Pixies, discover hidden secrets, and find whether you and your friends can manage the Chaos at Hogwarts.

Wizards Take Flight

Take flight into the wizarding world on your own broom. Fly freely in the skies above Hogwarts before meeting Hagrid at Knockturn Alley. Then battle Death Eaters over the city of London, casting spells with your wand as you try to escape through the clouds to the safety of Hogwarts Castle.

For Chaos at Hogwarts, players will wear a VR backpack, headset, foot-trackers, and hand-trackers. In Wizards Take Flight players will each be seated on a physical broom accessory and wear a VR headset and hand-trackers. Both experiences are said to make use of “various haptics and special effects.”

Both Harry Potter VR experiences are priced at $34, and while tickets are technically available on the Harry Potter New York website, it appears that both VR experiences are completely sold out through August 15th.

Chaos at Hogwarts and Wizards Take Flight were made in collaboration with VR LBE, development, and production companies Dreamscape Immersive, Wevr, and Keylight.

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The VR Drop: A Breezey RPG Summer



It’s hot, it’s sunny so why stay inside playing virtual reality (VR) videogames? Because it’s hot, too sunny and quite frankly July has been filled with awesome releases. And that’s set to continue as the month comes to a close next week with more VR titles than you can shake a stick at gearing up for launch. Here are five that VRFocus is looking forward to in the coming days.

Winds & Leaves

Winds & Leaves – Trebuchet

After previously releasing Prison Boss VR Canadian developer Trebuchet returns with a far more open-air experience. In Winds & Leaves you become a virtual gardener bringing life back to a barren planet. Using a unique connection to the trees and plants around you, the only way you can explore the world is by planting forests that provide life-giving energy whilst offering a safe haven to return to. A VR experience for nature lovers.

  • Supported platforms: PlayStation VR
  • Launch date: 27th July

Arcsmith – Bithell Games

In Arcsmith you become a space engineer guided by a rather reluctant master arcsmith Korith Dinn. Onboard his usually quiet space station you’ll learn how to construct a variety of space-based items and machinery, fitting parts together in your own way. Whilst these three-dimensional engineering puzzles have specifications to work to, the modular design of the components means you can get creative with each assembly.


Zombieland VR: Headshot Fever – XR Games

Initially due for release earlier this month on Steam, Zombieland fans can get in on the action in a few days. An official franchise tie-in with the films, Zombieland VR: Headshot Fever is an arcade-style shooter testing your aim and speed across a variety of zombie-filled courses. Get two headshots in a row to activate slow-mo, giving you more time to rack up those kills and points to unlock more goodies.

Vengeful Rites – Deep Dive Interactive

A Steam Early Access title that arrived back in 2018, Vengeful Rights is a big, story-driven role-playing game (RPG) set for an official launch next week. Filled with puzzles to solve and monsters to fight you’ll be able to wield swords, bows and magical abilities as you seek to save the world in this classic fantasy adventure.

Neon Hat

Neon Hat – Entalto Studios

From Spanish indie team Entalto Studios, Neon Hat is a very vibrant, cyber racer designed for use with PlayStation Move controllers, each one serves as a rocket booster allowing players to fly around corners and through checkpoints. Featuring its own original synthwave soundtrack, Neon Hat features ten courses across three gameplay modes. 

  • Supported platforms: PlayStation VR
  • Launch date: 29th July

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