David O’Connor believes he has a formula to bring virtual reality games to the masses: backpack computers, a really big room, and the chance to play with your friends.
Next month, O’Connor will open MindTrek VR, a gaming arena in Woburn where multiple players can suit up like Navy SEAL team members and explore fantasy landscapes or shoot zombies.
After being rolled out to great hype, VR systems such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have logged mediocre sales in the past year, possibly because they’re clumsy and costly. These systems tether the player to massive desktop computers, and when used at home, they leave players with almost no room to maneuver.
They can easily cost more than $2,000, and only one person can play them at a time.
O’Connor, who previously owned Sky Zone, a pair of indoor trampoline parks in Westborough, Mass., and Wallingford, Conn., said that standard VR is surprisingly one-dimensional.
“I’m not going to say it gets old fast,” he said, “but it gets old fast.”
For MindTrek, O’Connor spent about $1 million to create a more dynamic experience, he said. For now, the company offers a pair of original VR games, each lasting about 15 minutes. The games employ technology created by an Australian company called Zero Latency, which uses cameras to track the movements of multiple players inside a large, open space. The data are relayed to all players in the game, so they can “see” digital images of each other as they play, allowing them to compete or collaborate with one another.
In addition, each player wears a backpack holding a high-powered computer built by Alienware, a gaming computer brand owned by Dell Inc. This mobile computer is connected to the VR headset and stereo headphones. Because there are no tethers, a player can move through the virtual world simply by walking around inside the arena.
“You can see each other, you can interact with each other,” O’Connor said. “It goes from being an isolation experience to being a social experience.”
The arena itself is a one-time warehouse in an industrial park, a big rectangular building with gray floors and walls. But when the VR headset comes to life, players see only the digital “avatars” of their fellow gamers and the three-dimensional images generated by the game.
MindTrek bills itself as “America’s first warehouse-scale multi-player virtual reality gaming arena,” but that might be a matter of interpretation. A company called the Void operates multiplayer VR gaming centers in its home state of Utah, New York City, Toronto, and Dubai.
MindTrek isn’t cheap. Each player pays $49 for a 45-minute session that includes 30 minutes of game time, and the rest an immersive journey through virtual nature.
Games include “Zombie Survival,” a 15-minute session that’s pretty much what it sounds like. Using a bulky plastic game controller shaped like a futuristic rifle, players can blast wave after wave of the undead as they lurch and stagger across an immersive post-apocalyptic cityscape. Freed from tethers, the players scramble across the arena, taking up positions to fend off the next onslaught. They watch each others’ backs, but compete for the highest zombie-killing score.
Next comes 15 minutes of “Engineerium,” a relaxing but mind-bending experience that’s not actually a game. Instead, the players stroll through a watery world inhabited by aquatic life and massive stone blocks arrayed in constantly shifting patterns.
MindTrek delivers plenty of fun for first-time players. O’Connor is so confident of the concept that he plans to open a second location in Marlborough later this year.
But will MindTrek keep people coming back for more?
Lewis Ward, a video game analyst at IDC Corp. in Framingham, has his doubts.
“I could see this working for a few years,” Ward said. But he added that, as with the video arcades of the 1980s, the concept will fade out as more people get VR systems for their homes.
“In the long run, I’m skeptical that this is a sustainable business model,” he said.
O’Connor plans to keep players coming back to MindTrek by expanding its library of games and VR experiences. It will be like a movie theater, where people keep coming back to see the newest releases. And in this theater, the audience will be a part of the show, interacting with the games and with each other in ways they could never do at home. “You’re all in the movie now,” O’Connor said.