Virtual Reality headsets first appeared in arcades and other location-based entertainment (LBE) venues in the 1990s with great fanfare, then all but disappeared until the recent revitalization of VR hardware starting in 2013. Since then, the number of commercially available XR headsets has increased rapidly, each with different pros and cons with respect to the demanding needs of LBE XR.
While 2020 had a chilling effect on all out-of-home businesses, we are already seeing strong demand in 2021 bouncing the LBE industry back to exceed pre-pandemic levels in areas where it has been safe to reopen and we foresee accelerated LBE growth from 2022 onwards as part of the overall rise of the experience economy.
While XR headset technology continues to improve and product lines iterate or sunset, we are at an inflection point where it is a perfect time to survey the state-of-the-art, reflect on what has worked well so far, and investigate which features could be improved to make the development and operation of LBE XR experiences even better.
LBE VR Headset Considerations
The needs of location-based entertainment XR overlap with home and enterprise applications, with the addition of several unique public use requirements. Below are some of the most important factors to consider when evaluating XR headsets for use in LBE.
Tethered vs Untethered
The first question is whether the device must be physically tethered to a PC or if the headset can function wirelessly.
Desktop PCs can be kept up to date with the latest CPU/GPU configurations to ensure an unsurpassed experience that players expect from out-of-home, in exchange for upgrade costs and mobility limiting cables to manage. HDMI cables can be especially fragile, which can contribute to maintenance headaches under heavy use.
For experiences with less extreme graphical requirements, standalone XR headsets which include a CPU/GPU and internal battery can be easier to manage. Since batteries can take a significant amount of time to charge, they should ideally be hot-swappable to keep the device in operation throughout the day. Unfortunately, battery charging times are often much longer than discharge times which necessitates redundancy and battery management procedures that can reduce attraction throughput.
Some headsets can be linked wirelessly to desktop PCs, in exchange for lower resolution, increased latency, and higher overall cost. Backpack PCs are not as easily upgradable as desktop PCs, but can offer an appealing compromise for high resolution, low latency free-roam VR experiences with tethered headsets.
Bigger is generally better when it comes to display specs, with every iteration of devices increasing the resolution per eye, pixels per inch (PPI), refresh rate, field of view (FOV in degrees), and/or brightness (measured in nits). For the most part requirements for LBE are the same as other uses of XR headsets, so this is not a particularly interesting area of focus beyond acknowledging the general desire to offer a best-in-class experience.
There is a tradeoff, however, as the higher the display specs, the higher the computing requirements are as well, which can increase the overall cost and power consumption of the entire system. High-end graphics cards required to keep up with the highest specs can also be difficult to source, especially during the pandemic due to chip shortages and the increased popularity of GPU based crypto mining. Higher FOV can also increase motion sickness for some guests, depending on the type of experience.
As LBE VR experiences are either group activities or are in a loud public space like an arcade, most require closed-back on-ear headphones to control the audio and enable clear VOIP communication between players. There have been some interesting counter examples using shared environmental audio instead of over the ear headphones, but they are atypical.
Since headsets are shared between guests, earbuds are inappropriate. Preferably closed-back on-ear headphones should be integrated into the headset to make it easier to put them on and take them off.
Headsets must be easy to clean, quickly. Surfaces, especially those that directly touch a guest’s face, must not be porous, else they will transfer makeup, sweat, bacteria, and viruses. Smooth surfaces are easier to keep clean, so irregular surfaces should be avoided wherever possible. Materials used must be able to withstand frequent cleaning, whether that means UV-C exposure, disinfecting wipes, or a combination.
In addition to withstanding a regular cleaning regimen, headsets must be built to tolerate being handled roughly, dropped or knocked against hard surfaces, and cycled between guests dozens or even hundreds of times a day. Guests are often distracted, excited, and generally less careful with the equipment they don’t own. Laser tag gear is a better comparison than laptop PCs, when considering what level of robustness is required for LBE environments.
There are a lot of factors that can impact physical comfort, starting with the weight of the device itself. Not only should the headset be as light as possible, but the weight must also be evenly distributed. Size and shape of peoples’ heads vary substantially, especially when you consider the wide variety of hairstyles, so headsets must be easily and quickly adjustable to accommodate a diverse audience. Velcro straps are particularly problematic, as they can get caught in people’s hair and are difficult to manipulate while wearing an unfamiliar headset.
More than half the adult population wears prescription eyewear, with a majority of those wearing glasses rather than contact lenses. Therefore, headsets must either provide vision correction themselves or accommodate a wide range of eyeglass frame sizes. To support stereoscopy, the distance between the lenses must be adjustable to match the interpupillary distance (IPD) of each guest, as closely as possible. Most people don’t know what their IPD is, so a manual setting is usually more useful than a numerical setting.
Using a variety of different methods including sensor fusion, headsets are either capable of three degrees of freedom (3DOF) tracking of rotation alone or six degrees of freedom (6DOF) combining both rotational and positional information.
In addition to tracking the headset itself, and either two hands or controllers, many LBE attractions require tracking additional objects or props in the environment. Multiple people in a shared space requires tracking synchronization to allow collaboration and minimize physical collisions. To achieve this, attraction developers often rely on a hybrid tracking solution, to combine whatever the headset normally uses with bespoke tracking technology like Vicon, OptiTrack, PhaseSpace, or a custom QR-code style marker-based system. Optical motion capture solutions like OptiTrack can precisely track a large number of objects, however, system cost increases proportionally with the size of the tracked volume due to the expense of the specialized cameras required.
Legacy LBE VR Headsets
Before diving into the current generation of hardware, we start with a look back over the evolution of VR headsets used for out-of-home entertainment experiences. While there have been many over the years, those that have had the biggest impact include the Virtuality Visette, DisneyQuest HMD, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, StarVR, HTC Vive, and the PlayStation VR for reasons described below.
- Resolution Per Eye: 276×372
- FOV (horizontal): 45°
- Audio: Integrated off-ear headphones
- Tracking: 6DOF Polhemus Fastrak (electromagnetic)
First VR headset for LBE
Dactyl Nightmare was the world’s first commercial VR arcade game, launched by W Industries in 1991. The game was powered by an Amiga 3000, Polhemus electromagnetic trackers, and a custom headset called the Visette. While extremely low fidelity by today’s standards, it nevertheless brought immersive multi-player VR gaming to arcades for the first time.
In addition to iterating on the headset design on their own, the inventors of the Visette also collaborated with Sega to create the Mega Visor Display for the SEGA VR-1 motion-simulator attraction which launched at Joypolis and Sega World locations in 1994.
This is not to be confused with the SEGA VR consumer headset, which was cancelled prior to launch. The MVD was a higher resolution (756×244), lighter, with a wider field of view (60 degrees horizontal), yet its product life was unfortunately short-lived due to restructuring within SEGA leading to the closure of most of their LBE centres later in the 1990s. Incredible to imagine how different the LBE XR industry would be today if SEGA hadn’t abandoned their early VR efforts.
- Resolution Per Eye: 640×480 CRT
- FOV (horizontal): 80°
- Audio: Integrated off-ear headphones
- Tracking: 6DOF Polhemus Fastrak (electromagnetic)
Removable headset liner
High-quality CRT display
Weight relief cable system required
The DisneyQuest HMD (head-mounted display) was developed by Walt Disney Imagineering for the Aladdin VR Adventure and other DisneyQuest attractions, which officially opened to the public in 1998. Using this headset Aladdin VR has the distinction of being the longest-running LBE VR attraction to date, which we first previewed at the Disneyland Starcade in 1996 and then operated from 1998 to 2019 at the Walt Disney World Resort.
In order to achieve better image quality than commercially available VR headsets of the time, Disney used cathode-ray tube (CRT) displays. Unfortunately, the CRT displays added so much weight to the front of the headset that a weight relief cable system was required for it to be wearable. However, this worked well in practice since it also conveniently and securely suspended the headset over each station where it was to be used. This, in conjunction with a removable headset liner, made the attraction loading and unloading process extremely efficient and kept the headset from ever hitting the floor.
While waiting in the queue for their turn, guests would put on a fibreglass headset liner and adjust to fit using a convenient dial on the back of their heads. Then when it was their turn, the guest would get into position, snap the headset itself onto the liner on their head, and instantly be ready for their adventure without any further adjustments. When they were finished, the headset could easily be detached and the liner tossed into a bin to be cleaned in a dishwasher like 3D glasses are today.
Oculus Rift DK1
- Resolution Per Eye: 640×480
- FOV (horizontal): 90°
- Audio: External headphones required
- Tracking: 3DOF gyroscope/accelerometer
Good price/performance value
Bulky and front heavy
Limited spatial tracking
Not licensed for commercial use
The Oculus Rift DK1 was launched in 2013 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Despite it being decades after the first LBE VR attractions launched, for many this is remembered as the beginning of the VR revolution and certainly does mark an important milestone with the introduction of the first decent VR headset at a consumer-friendly price point. Commoditization of mobile phones drove the size, weight, and price of display components down to make this possible.
Despite the first units being sold as a development kit, attraction developers jumped at the chance to create LBE attractions using the DK1, the enhanced DK2 with 960×1080 display and 6DOF optical tracking, and eventually the consumer Oculus Rift CV1 (1st VR Awards Headset of the Year winner) with 1080×1200 display that followed in 2016. Many seated VR attractions began popping up in shopping malls and arcades worldwide using these headsets.
However, the headset straps were fussy for guests to adjust and the devices are generally front heavy. The DK1 lacked any positional tracking, while the DK2 and CV1 required external cameras with short-range, which limited movement to seated or standing experiences. The development kits also lacked any audio at all, requiring users to supply their own via headsets or speakers directly from a PC, while integrated headphones were an optional accessory for the consumer Rift.
More significantly, Oculus VR discouraged commercial usage early on, as the development kits were in short supply and intended for experimentation rather than deployment. After the Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR and the launch of the Oculus Rift consumer device, Facebook officially forbade commercial use of Oculus headsets in LBE attractions.
The Oculus Rift S, with 1280×1440 per eye resolution, self-contained inside-out tracking, and dial-adjustable head strap, seemed like it could be a solid option for LBE VR, but was instead discontinued in 2021 and represents the last of Facebook’s tethered headsets.
Samsung Gear VR
- Resolution Per Eye: 1280×1440
- FOV (horizontal): 75°
- Audio: Phone speakers or external headphones
- Tracking: 3DOF gyroscope/accelerometer
No positional tracking
Requires Samsung mobile phone
Easily overheats and batteries drain quickly running VR
A year after Google released the first Cardboard VR viewer, Samsung partnered with Oculus VR to launch the Gear VR headset in 2015. The device went through several iterations, each requiring a Samsung mobile phone to operate.
The Gear VR and similar mobile-phone-powered headsets quickly became a popular choice for developers of seated attractions, especially roller coasters. While these devices lack any positional tracking capability, the precise timing of roller coaster movements could be programmed into the experience by triggering the start of the simulation to coincide with the start of the physical roller coaster. Because of the limited battery life in mobile phones running the VR simulation, the phones would need to either be swapped frequently or tethered to a power supply. The time and expense of maintaining the headsets, as well as the additional time required for guests to handle headsets during load-in/load-out, has limited the continued appeal of incorporating headsets onto traditional theme park rides. For instance, SeaWorld removed VR headsets from their Kraken Unleashed roller coaster in September of 2018, after just over one year of operation.
- Resolution Per Eye: 2560×1440
- FOV (horizontal): 210°
- Audio: External headphones required
- Tracking: 6DOF PhaseSpace (active infrared optical tracking)
Super wide field-of-view
Relatively complex tracking system
No integrated audio
Created through a partnership between Acer and Starbreeze, the StarVR headset was first deployed at the IMAX VR centres in 2016. The most important feature of this headset is the impressively wide 210° horizontal field-of-view and relatively high resolution ‘5K’ display. This combination created an unparalleled level of visual immersion. The PhaseSpace LED tracking system it was paired with works well but requires mounting/calibrating numerous cameras and the active LEDs mounted on the headset and controllers can be fragile.
A long-awaited enhanced version with SteamVR Base Station tracking integration, the StarVR One, launched in 2020 but has yet to see wide adoption – which isn’t surprising given IMAX VR ceased operations in 2018 and Starbreeze shut down all its VR production efforts in 2019.
Sony PlayStation VR
- Resolution Per Eye: 960×1080
- FOV (horizontal): 96°
- Audio: Integrated earbuds
- Tracking: 6DOF PlayStation Eye (optical tracking)
Easily adjustable ergonomic design
Not licensed for commercial use
Although not technically an LBE headset, the PSVR receives honourable mention here as Sony’s patented halo-like crown provides unparalleled comfort and ease of adjustment. Since the halo doesn’t require a strap across the centre of a person’s head, it accommodates more head shapes and hair styles with relative ease. The halo is lightly spring-loaded, with fine-tune tightening adjustment dial and rapid release button. Additionally, the display itself can be adjusted in-and-out independently from the head strap to more easily accommodate different face shapes and prescription eyeglasses.
The headset itself is light and might be well suited for LBE VR, except for the fact that it requires a PlayStation console to function and relies on a single PlayStation Eye camera for positional tracking. Sony licensed its design for third-party devices, such as the Lenovo Mirage Solo headset, and should continue to serve as inspiration for headset manufacturers seeking to improve comfort and adjustability.
- Resolution Per Eye: 1080×1200
- FOV (horizontal): 92°
- Audio: External headphones (or optional Deluxe Audio Strap)
- Tracking: 6DOF SteamVR Base Station (infrared optical tracking)
Flexible room-scale tracking
LBE friendly support
Optional wireless adapter for untethered experience
Essential Deluxe Audio Strap features not included (prior to Pro)
Only up to 3 wireless adapters supported in the same area
In 2016, the same year that Facebook launched the Oculus Rift, Sony launched the PlayStation VR and Starbreeze unveiled the StarVR HMD, a collaboration between HTC and Valve led to the launch of the HTC Vive. A combination of factors led it to quickly become the go-to standard for LBE VR attraction developers, which significantly contributed to the rapid growth of the VR arcade industry.
The display specs are comparable to the Oculus Rift, but the inside-out optical tracking system, using sensors in the headset to track position relative to infrared LED base stations, enables a larger and more flexible room-scale tracking volume. Additionally, unlike the original Rift which shipped with a standard Microsoft Xbox controller, the HTC Vive shipped with two 6DOF tracked game controllers and optional Vive Trackers enable tracking of additional objects such as feet or props. Finally, while commercial uses of the Oculus Rift were disallowed without special permission from Facebook, HTC warmly embraced and supported the LBE industry from the beginning.
The headset itself is unfortunately front heavy and fit adjustment requires manipulation of multiple Velcro straps, which is especially challenging for users in a hurry to try VR for the first time and cannot see the straps nor understand exactly what a good fit feels or looks like. Like the Rift, the face cover was, unfortunately, an absorbent foam material which is unacceptable for out-of-home use. Optional accessories including a vinyl face cover and the Deluxe Audio Strap fortunately overcame some of these limitations, yet it still takes time and effort to get the headset adjusted comfortably. Fortunately, these devices do fit comfortably over most contemporary prescription eyeglasses.
In 2018 HTC followed up with the 2nd VR Awards Headset of the Year winner, the HTC Vive Pro, which included increased resolution (1440×1600) and FOV (98°) as well as the integration of the previously optional features of the Deluxe Audio Strap by including over the ear headphones and a headset adjustment dial.
That same year, DreamCraft Attractions took things a step further and won IAAPA’s Brass Ring Award for their DreamSet modular HMD adapter for the HTC Vive and HTC Vive Pro. Like the removable headset liner of the DisneyQuest HMD, the DreamSet is a durable, washable headset guests can put on and adjust while in the queue, which then quickly attaches by magnets to the display of the HTC Vive after they are seated in the attraction. Using this system in the Busch Gardens’ Battle for Eira 59-seat VR motion theatre, they were able to achieve a throughput of almost 1000 guests per hour.
LBE XR Headsets in 2022 and beyond
From the Virtuality Visette used in the first VR arcades games in the 1990s, to the HTC Vive series which became the leading choice for LBE VR attractions through to 2021, we have seen tremendous advancements and occasional setbacks with respect to LBE supporting features.
The number of potential headsets continues to grow, as existing lines are improved through iteration and newly designed devices are introduced. Exceptional tethered VR untethered VR, and even AR headsets are now available with impressive feature sets at reasonable price points. In part two of this series, we will explore how well suited the latest XR headsets are for LBE and summarize recommendations for future stationery and free-roam attraction hardware.
Part two of Best XR Headsets for Location-based Entertainment is now available to read here.