In the beginning there was the doll house.
When Bay Area-based virtual reality (VR) startup Nomadic began to work on adapting the VR zombie shooter “Arizona Sunshine” for location-based entertainment, it first built a doll house-scale model of the stage that players would eventually be able to enter.
On a wooden peg board, the Nomadic team arranged small wooden doors, walls and physical props — all the things that make location-based VR so realistic, tricking the brain into believing that you really walk across a plank from one roof to another. “We used cans of Red Bull to represent players,” said Nomadic CEO Doug Griffin.
Pushing the cans through the doll house, Nomadic creative director Anthony Shafer would track times with a stopwatch, trying to figure out the best flow of the story for optimal throughput. He’d spend hours circling the doll house, tweaking details and mumbling to himself, he recently recalled. “It was the hardest set that I have worked on,” Shafer said.
But it also turned out to be the most rewarding one, he added. “I got to keep it and play with it.”
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The results of Shafer’s work can now be seen at the Pointe Orlando mall in Florida, where Nomadic recently opened its first VR center. Groups of up to four paying customers get to strap on a computer backpack and put on an Oculus Rift VR headset, and then enter the world of “Arizona Sunshine,” where they are tasked with finding a cure for the zombie outbreak — a task that naturally involves shooting a lot of zombies.
The startup recently invited Variety to its office in San Rafael, Calif., where it has been operating a test build of the same stage used in Orlando. The experience itself lasted around 15 minutes, but seemed a lot more expansive, as players get to board a train, take an elevator, maneuver over a moving platform, catch a ride on a helicopter, walk across that plank, and more.
Throughout the experience, there are real walls, doors and other physical cues that correspond with items in the virtual world shown in the headsets. Players get to turn door knobs and open doors, press buttons, turn levers, and yes, even touch a dead body.
When they stick their head out of the moving train, wind blows into their face. The plank wobbles, platforms move under their feet. Especially curious minds will even find real drawers to open, hiding gimmicks like a real rubber ducky. “I spend a lot of time crafting those Easter eggs,” Shafer said.
Shafer previously worked as a lead technical director for Industrial Light & Magic, and also has some experience as a digital effects supervisor. “I spent ten years blowing things up,” he quipped. Working on a location-based VR experience was very different, he recalled, as it involved a lot of user testing.
Nomadic had anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 users go through its very first test experience, which involved shooting drones from the sky. The results of those tests informed how the company arranged the set of “Arizona Sunshine.”
One example: The aforementioned plank was initially positioned towards the end of the experience, leading a few players to literally freeze up. Now, it’s at the beginning, easing players into the experience. “We are challenging people to do things that they normally wouldn’t do,” Shafer said, adding: “They can be the hero of their own adventure.”
Nomadic cooperated with Vertigo Games, the studio behind “Arizona Sunshine,” on building this location-based experience. This included Vertigo sending over daily builds, which would then be tested in San Rafael, with an eye on optimizing throughput.
Nomadic can guide up to four groups at the same time through the experience, with doors locking and unlocking in time to make sure that groups don’t accidentally stumble across each other. At certain points in the game, the narration can slow down or speed up to make sure that slower players don’t bog everyone down. The company initially automated a lot with Arduinos, but ultimately decided to design its own circuit board to control doors, moving platforms, fans and more throughout the game.
All of this design was done with re-usability in mind. Nomadic’s set is completely modular, and the company plans to allow operators to use the same building blocks to run multiple experiences with few changes. That will be key to getting people to come back, and allow locations to attract a wide range of audiences. “It’s all built for scale,” said Griffin.
The company plans to open a handful of-owned and-operated locations next year, with Los Angeles and Las Vegas among possible targets. Ultimately, it wants to work with third-party operators to bring “Arizona Sunshine” and other experiences to malls and movie theaters across the U.S. and beyond.
Nomadic isn’t the only company looking to popularize this kind of location-based VR entertainment. The Void has been bringing similar experiences, including “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire” to 10 locations and counting. Dreamscape Immersive, which is backed by Hollywood heavyweights including AMC, 21st Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon, is looking to open its own locations soon.
However, Griffin isn’t worried about the competition, arguing that there is still a lot of unmet demand for location-based VR. “The industry has been responding with excitement — and way more demand than we are able to accommodate,” he said.