Game, set, fire: Virtual and augmented reality arcades take off in Singapore

A new breed of virtual-reality and augmented-reality arcades is raising the fun factor in the video-gaming industry with more specialised hardware and games

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have become the hottest trends in video gaming today by giving players more immersive and realistic action in at least three new shops here.

VR and AR are related, but slightly different technologies. VR places gamers into a full-fledged virtual world, while AR overlays virtual elements onto the real world.

The action-heavy Zero Latency, which has its roots in Australia, is Singapore's first free-roaming VR gaming shop. It cuts the cord which tethers players to a VR console, giving them absolute freedom to walk as they see fit.

Gamers don goggles, headphones and a weapon, all hooked up to a backpack containing a laptop, and are free to wander untethered in a darkened room in real life, but are actually off exploring abandoned spaceships or fighting off zombie hordes in virtual space.

Virtual Room Singapore, meanwhile, reduces VR to the basics by giving players only a headset and two controllers, but contains cleverly designed puzzles and missions that will test a team's ability to coordinate and work together.

Hado Singapore uses AR to overlay virtual objects, such as animated dragons or fireballs, over the real-world environment.

While VR and AR arcades have been in Singapore since 2016, their play set-up was largely quite basic. These early shops rented off-the-shelf VR headsets and consoles, such as the HTC Vive or PlayStation VR, to gamers and gave them enough space to play commercially available games.

The new breed of VR and AR arcades provide specialised equipment and proprietary games specially developed for bigger playing areas and teamplay.

Interest in such arcades has picked up rapidly, with curious onlookers gathering outside shops watching gear-loaded players react to invisible monsters and obstacles.

Zero Latency has had about 6,000 visitors since it opened here last November, according to Mr Simon Ogilvie, executive director of Tomorrow Entertainment, which brought the franchise to Singapore.

Virtual Room Singapore has had an average of 1,500 visitors a month since it opened last October, while Hado Singapore has seen "thousands" of gamers step through its doors in the same time period.

Video editor Eunice Wong, 29, had never played a VR game in her life, prior to joining a game at Virtual Room Singapore, but still found the experience intuitive and easy to pick up. "It was a good beginner's foray into VR," she says. "I like how the VR allowed you to sort of experience things like zero gravity and dinosaurs and the haptic technology immersed you in the various worlds."

But these entertainment options do not come cheap, as software licensing fees and hardware costs are quite high. A 30-minute session at Virtual Room Singapore starts at $44, while a 30-minute session at Zero Latency costs as much as a full-fledged video game at $69.

But Zero Latency's Mr Ogilvie describes the genre as the "business class of gaming" - priced at a premium, but offering people the chance to play games they cannot play at home or in arcades.

Ms Rebecca Assice, director of Virtual Room Singapore, says that while some players are initially hesitant about playing in VR for fear of motion sickness, many take to the experience minutes into the game.

As for Mr Jasper Tan, founder of company NexRealm, which brought the rights for Hado from Japan to Singapore, AR is a cheaper alternative to VR gaming, which he hopes will introduce more newcomers to the genre. "People really get into the games," he says. "We even have uncles coming to play and they're rolling on the floor (to dodge attacks)."

Virtual Room Singapore

Where: Level B3, Lucky Chinatown, 211 New Bridge Road

Admission: $44 a session (Mondays to Thursdays), $49 (Fridays to Sundays and public holidays)

Virtual Room Singapore takes the team-based collaboration of escape room games and elevates it to the virtual-reality (VR) realm, whereby teams of up to four players have to work together to solve puzzles and complete a mission.

You and your friends are time-travelling soldiers who have to visit ancient sites to right the wrongs of history and so find yourselves in ancient Egyptian tombs, the moon landing of 1969, the time of dinosaurs and more.

Each player gets his or her own room, but is able to see and interact with teammates in the virtual world. Players are given a HTC Vive VR headset and two controllers and will have to communicate with one another through microphones and headphones.

Most puzzles revolve around picking up virtual items and figuring out what to do with them, be it assembling a drill gun to unscrew crates or hitting rocks to make fire. The puzzles are not difficult and are usually easy to figure out after a few moments of walking around the room and staring at the items provided.

A friend and I completed our game in 35 minutes, although it felt much shorter because of how engrossed we were in the VR world.

Larger groups might take more time as they will have to put in more work and collaboration to solve the puzzles. For example, a player might be missing a piece of equipment needed to progress while another player has a spare and has to toss it over to the partner.

Because each room is not big and it is easy to lose oneself in the VR world, players have to be careful not to bump into walls. I slammed into a wall a tad too hard when I was too caught up trying to catch a ball my partner was throwing to me.

The VR headset also dangles from a cable from the ceiling. The cable got wrapped around my head as I was navigating and wandering around the room.

Unfortunately, there is not much replay value to Virtual Room - once you figure out the solution for each stage, you will know what to do for subsequent games.

But Virtual Room Singapore's director Rebecca Assice says the centre will continue to bring in new missions every few months, with a second set of stages due to be released next month that will be "harder and more challenging".

At Hado Singapore, players team up to take down virtual enemies or battle one another in virtual dodgeball. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Hado Singapore

Where: 02-15 Scape, 2 Orchard Link

Admission: $20 (weekdays), $23 (weekends) for all three games; individual games from $6

Hado Singapore does not plant gamers into a full-fledged virtual world, but places virtual objects such as exploding mushrooms, roaring dragons and virtual fireballs that one can sling into the real world instead.

The augmented-reality (AR) concept store encourages team-based gameplay, with teams either working together to take down virtual enemies or battling one another in virtual dodgeball.

Hado - short for "hadoken", or a fireball made famous by fighting arcade game Street Fighter - offers three games, going in order of increasing physical intensity: Hado Shoot, Hado Monster Battle and Hado Dodgeball.

Players can buy a one-time pass to play all three games in one session, which takes about half an hour to complete. It is also the cheapest option among the shops listed here, setting players back $20 on weekdays.

Hado Shoot is designed to ease players into AR technology. You don AR goggles - made of a plastic headset with an iPhone 6s strapped onto it - which superimposes virtual enemies into the room you are in.

A motion sensor strapped on your forearm detects your arm movement, letting you fling fireballs at your targets.

In Monster Battle, teams of two battle against virtual monsters such as dragons or devils by flinging fireballs at them while dodging their flame attacks.

Tip: Try to defeat the monster with at least 20 seconds left on the game clock for a bonus round with a bigger, badder enemy.

But the first two games are only teasers to the main event, Hado Dodgeball, which pits two teams of three against each other. Players fling fireballs at the opposing team to see who can get the most hits.

It is easy to get so caught up in the action and so focused on your targets in front of you that you bump into teammates as you dodge to the side, since your peripheral vision is narrowed due to the AR goggles.

It is much more physically demanding than it seems. When the action began and the fireballs came my way, my competitive side kicked in and I started feinting left and right to dodge my attackers, while aggressively swinging my arm forward to launch fireballs.

By the end of two 80-second rounds, I was panting as though I had just finished the 2.4km run on my Individual Physical Proficiency Test.

Lester Hio

At Zero Latency, players wear virtual-reality goggles and headphones and use a plastic rifle to take down zombies or solve puzzles in virtual reality. PHOTO: ZERO LATENCY

Zero Latency

Where: 03-346 Suntec City Mall, 3 Temasek Boulevard

Admission: $69 for half an hour ($59 limited introductory price)

For gamers who grew up wishing they could be right in the thick of action instead of being stuck behind a controller, Zero Latency is a dream come true.

The Australia-based company, which set up shop here in Suntec City last November, provides free-roaming virtual reality (VR) that lets anyone walk, dodge and shoot virtual enemies without being tethered to a fixed spot by cables.

To do so, simply strap on a backpack which contains a laptop that powers a VR headset, put on a pair of headphones and pick up a lightweight plastic rifle.

In all, it is neither too heavy nor cumbersome.

The shop has three games on its menu - puzzle game Engineerium, zombie shoot-'em-up Zombie Survival and puzzle-shooter hybrid game Singularity.

A fourth game is expected to arrive in April.

Engineerium is the perfect gateway into VR gaming for those new to it, as it is a relatively laid-back puzzle game which rewards teamwork and collaboration.

It also does a superb job of highlighting what VR can do for immersive gameplay.

In one particular segment, players have to walk down a steep, narrow passageway which rotates 180 degrees, making you feel like you can fall off anytime.

It seemed so real that some of my teammates were squealing and unwilling to take another step further during a demo.

Things get kicked up to eleven when you jump into Zombie Survival.

The 15 minutes I spent playing it with a group of seven other teammates was one of the most intense gaming experiences of my life.

We found ourselves trapped in a construction site while zombies streamed in from all directions, sometimes jumping right in front of our faces, eliciting shrieks of shock.

But that is when you get to feel like a real action star as you raise your weapon to mow them down. Be warned: It can get quite tiring shooting and pumping the reload button continuously.

The quality of Zero Latency's graphics is top-notch, with smooth frame-rates and vivid visuals, making the VR experience lag-free and tolerable to those who might fear motion sickness.

The playing areas at the shop are large and generous, spanning a total of 4,200 sq ft.

It really gives you leeway to walk around confidently without fear of bumping into walls or other gamers, although the more gung-ho players will be told not to run or jump for safety reasons.

As fun as Zero Latency is, it is still an extremely pricey experience, with each package coming in at $69 for half an hour of gameplay.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline Game, set, fire: Virtual and augmented reality arcades take off in Singapore. Subscribe