Jamie Kelly is a co-founder and president of VR Studios & VRCade. They’re creating a series of out-of-home VR gaming experiences that can be played in spaces as small as 15’x15′ and as large as 150’x75′. They were at the Seattle VR Expo showing off their latest, custom untethered VR HMD with Time Zombies, which is currently deployed in Dave & Buster’s flagship location in San Jose, CA. Jamie has a lot of passion for full-motion immersive gaming, and he talks to me about his dream of creating the technology that enables eSports franchises and athletic leagues within VR.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.
[00:00:12.096] Jamie Kelly: I'm Jamie Kelly, president of VR Studios, VRcade. And about three years ago, we started this concept of building an out-of-home virtual reality center where people can come and consume VR without having to have any technological investment while maintaining the absolute cutting edge of technology. So lower the barrier of entry and increase the level of quality. And we're starting to realize that now with our deployment at Dave and Buster's with our Time Zombies and our VRcade, where people just walk in and say, what is this? How much is it? Five bucks? I saw someone screaming, I want to try it. And they're able to consume a brand new medium without even having to know what an Oculus is. how to even spell VR, they just see it and we make it accessible. And everything from the hardware that runs it, we integrate, motion capture, any void in the actual hardware chain, like nobody makes wireless headsets, so we had to do that. We handle that, the integration of all of that into game engines, the props that interact with it. the truss that holds the cameras, the operator station that holds the computers, everything from A to Z, you come to us and say, I want VR. And we say, how much space do you have? And we build you a system. And then we pump content into that system from developers who are developing on the Vive, Oculus, et cetera.
[00:01:26.947] Kent Bye: I see. And so virtual reality technology is moving so quickly. How, as a scrappy startup, are you able to keep up with the technological innovations that are happening in, say, something like the Oculus or Vive?
[00:01:38.651] Jamie Kelly: Right. So, even back in the day we knew that there would be no way that you could just settle on a platform and say, this will be good for five years. It's not like the consoles. It had to be adaptable. If new graphics cards come out, if new game engines come out, if new head mounts come out, new technology comes out, it needs to be integrated. So, the entire spine of the VRcade system and the VR Studio system is built on, as soon as something better comes out, we use it. We integrate it. And it's this evolving platform that grows. And it's wonderful for crazy, crazy VR tech. You might build an exoskeleton that costs $100,000. And nobody's going to buy that for their house. But what if we bought 8 for a VRcade and let people use it and built content around it? Why you perfected the exoskeleton technology? Why you started doing research? What do people love? What do people hate? That opportunity exists because there's a brick and mortar store. that allows us tech that you could never afford to be there. And that just goes along with, as new stuff comes, it has to get integrated, it gets tested. Wonderful testbed for wearable subwoofers, or haptics, or things that detect finger motion, all of that stuff, the VRcade and VR Studios system is a perfect playground for that. So it evolves as technology evolves.
[00:02:52.520] Kent Bye: And so do you foresee in the future you may, like you said, let the hardware manufacturing side go and just focus on the content development then?
[00:03:02.322] Jamie Kelly: Yeah, if there was a system by which all of the checkboxes that we have were checked by external hardware, then it would essentially be a blend of, let's say, Oculus, Valve, Subpac, Visisonics, Unity, and Unreal, and you know, boom, there's your system. And you can configure it however you want, and get whatever experience you want out of it, and then we just make content that supports it. But the real value of what we're doing is that we put it in a place where you can physically go to and you can physically consume it without having to invest in any of it, without having to know anything about it. Being able to bring your friends and your family or on the serious side to be able to walk through your new house or to be able to walk through an operating room and understand if this is going to suit you and your nurses or to be able to go into police training or firefighter training. It all happens under the same platform, in the same physical space that you just get up and go to without having to make this huge investment on your own. And you know it's going to be dialed in. You know it's going to be perfect. And you know that we're probably going to have special versions of every component that's in it. And if you liked what you experienced with the sub-pack that you wore, or you liked the gun that you were holding, buy it at the front counter. And there's a retail component as well. It's just a blend of technologies that comes together so elegantly. that we pump content into. And if it came to the point where we didn't have to make the hardware, then yeah, we'd just be making content and deploying these centers all over the place.
[00:04:25.271] Kent Bye: And so yeah, tell me a bit about the tracking that you're using here.
[00:04:28.455] Jamie Kelly: Sure, it's optical motion capture, which gives us the absolute lowest latency and the absolute highest fidelity. And then we wrote special software that pulls the data faster than the standard VRPN pushes it. So we're able to get it extremely quickly and that results in an ultra low latency experience. So the way that you're tracked is through passive IR markers. And we put those markers on anything, whether it's a gun, or a backpack, or right now it's just the head and the gun. There's no backpack currently, there's no need for it, we've integrated everything into the headset that we've had to build ourselves. And then you build weapons, props, whether it's a dummy prop like a sword, where all of its position is just tracked in real time. or whether it's an intelligent prop that has button presses and reload and all of that. And we integrate that as well with wireless headsets that deliver surround sound audio running off of a computer that has NVIDIA graphics cards in it, which is connected to multiple displays so that people outside can see it. It's just an integration of a bunch of tech. But essentially, it's motion capture running on a very powerful machine, which is beaming directly to your eyes over our proprietary wireless low-latency headset.
[00:05:33.953] Kent Bye: I see. And maybe you could describe to me the experience that you've developed here and then other ones that you're in the process of developing.
[00:05:40.832] Jamie Kelly: Sure, so this is Time Zombies, and Time Zombies is, you're standing in a courtyard and zombies come at you and you shoot them, which sounds incredibly boring, but because of the allure of VR, the immersion, the fact that we got the blowing trees, we have the binaural audio of things talking to you, and you have your prop track perfectly, and you can walk, and you can duck, and you can lean, you feel a massive sense of presence. The music, the pacing, all of that stuff, the ability to understand that I need to point this gun correctly at a zombie's head or it's going to get me, and then eventually just be overrun by these things and have your personal space invaded, it causes people to scream and freak out all the time, which is wonderful. And they come out all sweaty. We clean it, hygienic headset, you know, very big deal. And it gets a very, very strong emotional reaction. But it seems like a waste. It seems like, why are you doing a first person shooter with zombies? This is VR, make something new. And the reason is, you have this learning curve of people who don't want to try something brand new. Tell them to survive the zombie apocalypse at Dave and Buster's, and it's five bucks, and they totally get it. Especially after they saw their friend scream their pants off, and they saw their friend's high score. So by using all of these very, very relatable things, we're able to create a piece of content that you don't need to understand. You just need to say, I know what that is and I want to live that. I want to experience this new medium and that's why it's zombies. New content will include voice activated magic for either wizard battles or just flat out drawing in 3D space and having a magical, wonderful experience to cowboy duels with two players at once where they your ability to quick draw and trick the player and juke with your body actually carries over to actual third-party content that people all around us right now are actually making and they're making pretty much the exact same fundamental design philosophy choices that we are and it'll take a couple minutes to bring their content over. So that whole side's about to explode, especially thanks to Vive, which is 15 feet by 15 feet. You have a wire, but design a game around it. What if you could cut the wire? What if you could have multiple people? What if you could have it in 30 by 30 or 40 by 40? So content is going to start flowing very, very quickly.
[00:07:48.462] Kent Bye: And for the Dave and Buster's experience, what is the range of sizes that you have designed for there?
[00:07:53.742] Jamie Kelly: So Dave & Busters is very cost-conscious on the amount of use of space, and they wanted the smallest. We said 15x15 is the absolute smallest, which is very limiting considering that you have a gutter space for the cameras, and you don't want drunk people hitting their hand on the truss. So it's a limited box, but it hits enough of those mental checkboxes that it's still an amazing experience. And it can grow in any size. And because we're such a young company and because everything's custom, if they said we want a 15 by 50, then we'd make content for a 15 by 50. We had a theme park that reached out to us and said, we want 16 players. We want eight capture volumes. We want two users each. What do you have for content ideas? And we reached out to all of our VR friends and said, here's the limitations. What would you make? And we got back ideas that made us so giddy and so happy. that we just wanted to see them made. They were such good ideas. And that theme park insisted, we want something that you can't get at Dave and Buster's. And that was very interesting. And then it becomes a question of budget and space and everything else. But what you can make is absolutely custom and absolutely limitless in terms of actual content.
[00:09:06.349] Kent Bye: Yeah, there was a part of the time zombies experience where I wanted to just run away and start running backwards, but yet there's part of me that knew that like, oh, but wait, I don't really know where I'm in the space. I don't want to just like run backwards into a wall. And so there's this kind of a challenge of designing an experience like this, where you want to keep the enemies in your field of view, but yet be able to move around. So how do you kind of design for that to prevent people from just like smacking into the wall by running backwards?
[00:09:35.127] Jamie Kelly: So we were actually extremely concerned that that would happen at Dave & Buster's all the time. And what we found is our transparent wall that shows up as you get closer to it, it becomes more opaque, worked incredibly well. Surprisingly well. We don't know how it worked that well. But we spent weeks at Dave & Buster's and nobody ran into the wall. They always respected it. They always knew there was audio cues and visual cues for them and it worked. which was a wonderful, wonderful relief for us. But then the question is, how do you make content that doesn't require people to freak out? How do you make content where they're not always running or getting a jump scare because something snuck up behind them? Could that be fun? Could that be compelling? And the way that we design stuff is, what is the emotion that we want? Is it wonder? Is it fear? Is it exploration? Is it creativity? What is it? And in that small space, what can you do? And just like back in the day with the NES, you had this incredible hardware limitation, but you had artists and musicians and game designers who were able to use it and make really, really amazing things within that limitation. And that limitation comes from the real world. We only have X amount of space. So you would make it based on what they want. What's their age range? Do you want blood? Do you not want blood? Do you want things where people stand still? Do you want them to be active? Do you want them to be sweaty? All of those things. And the strange thing is, people don't know what they want. Because this whole thing is brand new. So it's kind of up to us to be like, try this. And then try this. And then try this. And it's a wonderful learning experience for everyone. Meanwhile, people are getting the crap scared out of them at zombies. So everyone wins.
[00:11:08.251] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess you've been thinking about this room-scale mechanics for a while, and so what are some of the things that you've prototyped, different mechanics that you found to be really effective that you can't do in, say, a Vive or even a sit-down experience in the Oculus?
[00:11:22.253] Jamie Kelly: So, we can track anything. And there was a point where I was tracking my feet, individual left and right foot. And by putting markers on my shoes, I could have representations inside the experience of my feet. And I was able to program different behaviors to my feet with relation to the floor. And the simple one was, when my left foot touches a panel, it turns on. And when my right foot touches it, it turns off. And immediately right there you start thinking, what could be the experiences that you could have? What sort of things could you attach to your body? Could it be not just on the floor but also on the walls? It would be a puzzle game. We started experimenting with stuff like that, experimenting with voice commands for magic to be able to hold down a button and cast a spell. which feels amazing. To be able to draw in 3D space, multiplayer duels where two people are standing five feet apart in real life, but in the game they're 15, 20, 30 feet apart, and to be able to create all the rules around that so that nobody really bumps into each other or hits each other. We've experimented with remote controlling things like cars and helicopters and jets while you're this giant around this landscape. We have UI elements, pushing and pulling, twisting, turning, changing materials, changing textures, changing time of day by grabbing the sun and moving it. Just on and on and on and on. But as fun as it all is, it comes down to what do people want? What will they pay for? What makes sense? What's scalable? And knowing that we can do all of these things is half the battle. Because that's the big question too is, is it possible to do X, Y, and Z? So we've done tons and tons of positional things as well, the ability to move through a larger space, which is critical in architecture, and we do a lot of architecture stuff. You need to be able to move beyond your 30x30. So we have point-and-click teleport, where you can choose where you want to be and drag your avatar around. We have predetermined nodes, we have maps that you can click on. My personal favorite. And I got to find a way to make this just comfortable for everyone is what we call hybrid motion, where you have a gun or a prop that has a D-pad or a joystick on it, and you hit up on that D-pad or joystick and wherever you're looking is forward. And you have left and right to strafe and then down as well. And you have your own small capture volume. And you're able to move around just like in any first-person shooter, even though you're standing still. But once you get to a corner, you lay off the control stick or D-pad, and you get into your human motions of ducking and leaning and peeking around the corner, sticking your hand around the corner and blind firing, all of these crazy laser tag things combined with a completely digital world. And when you're done, you turn around and you hit up on the stick again. You're able to go down an entire hallway and aim with perfect precision with your right hand while your body moves forward. And there's all sorts of crazy ways to break that. If I'm walking backwards in real life and I hit up on the stick, what happens? How sickening is that? Is that something that we just let people do and figure out? Is it something that we need to kind of innovate? Or do we create IP around it that's so compelling that nobody cares? Who cares? I don't care. This is so good. I want eight-player multiplayer. I can do that right now in the VRK with me and my friends. I don't care if I can break it. I just won't break it. And then that leads into other things like, OK, you can walk up to a box and not walk through it. Wonderful. No cheating. But what happens if you stick your head through it? And we have a system against that where it's this invisible hand where suddenly you just can't move forward and it feels like, no. And it's all of these questions of user interface and control and what people are going to feel sick in and what they're not going to feel sick in. And we've tried almost everything that we can think of. So it's a very long-winded answer. We've tried a ton.
[00:14:51.067] Kent Bye: And yeah, I'm curious if VRcade is going to set up your own physical space to be able to kind of dog food and test and iterate and test out stuff, or if you're going to just license these out to Dave and Buster's and hope for the best.
[00:15:03.873] Jamie Kelly: Yep. Perfect question. So the original plan is build an arena the size of this room, which is a huge room. We would love to build 150 feet by 75 feet or bigger and allow eight players at once to move around that space or more. And by having that, you create the ability to have real-life Halo, real-life Call of Duty, real-life first-person shooter, where you're actually running and you're actually jumping. And it's a huge scale. And it's the place where exoskeletons come into play and fighter sims come into play. And if you want a system, you go to the VRcade and you look at it and you're like, wow, can I get one of these in a 20x20? Yes, you can. Here's the games that are compatible with 20x20. Go bigger, you can have these. Go even bigger and you can have these. You can see that all the technology works. You can see what people are willing to pay for it. You can see how much fun everyone's having. You can see how everything integrates together. You can see it work at this place. But this place isn't just a demo and sales center, it's the VRcade. And the reason that this whole thing exists is because I wanted to create eight player, huge room scale deathmatch. And that goes even further by saying, You have these players who pay to play. You run tournaments to find out who's really good. What if you took the top four in Seattle and the top four in Los Angeles and you pitted them against each other? And each of them had their own huge VRcade. And over the network, they're able to fight each other in real time. You've now created a sports league. You've now created sports franchises. Sports franchises that people like Monster and Intel want to actually participate in supporting and sponsoring. And you now have the e-sports mentality, but you're an actual athlete that has to actually run and jump and get good at calling down thunder and throwing sticky grenades and all of these skills that have nothing to do with the real world. But in the VRcade, you're a rock star. And you have to be fit, and you have to be fast, and you have to be smart. And everyone's watching you. And they can look at the game through your eyes for the first time. They can see you from a top-down view. They can consume this sport. And whether it's Quidditch, or Tetris, or Halo VR, it all happens in a VR arcade. And all you had to do was have the ambition to go be an actual athlete, train, and go pay to participate in tournaments. That's what I want to build.
[00:17:18.235] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:17:24.370] Jamie Kelly: I think like anything, like any medium, it's going to be abused. I think there's going to be a lot of people that rely on it way too much. I think it's going to be the scapegoat for a lot of things, a lot of problems. There will be a lot of studies about how people who are being born now, who never lived in a world without virtual reality, versus people who did, what that looks like on the human psyche. All of that stuff's going to happen. The ultimate potential, I think, is going to be collaboration. I think it's going to be people being together, working together, whether it's just emotional, like the way that we have Skype right now, or whether it's business, the way that we're anticipating to do, you know, architectural East Coast, West Coast, or whether it's gaming, like what I just described, it's going to be people coming together to do stuff. And, like Ready Player One, the question is, will it ever get to that curve where the virtual world is more appealing and more real than the real world, and will the real world just fall to crap because nobody cares about it anymore? So the potential really, really depends on how people receive it, how it's mandated, how it's governed, how many people abuse it, what technology is available, like all of that stuff. And it's just way too early to tell what's going to happen. But I think the biggest potential is going to be collaboration on a bunch of different fronts.
[00:18:40.575] Kent Bye: Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:18:44.397] Jamie Kelly: Hopefully within the next year or so you'll be able to go out and enjoy VRcade experiences and start your training to be an actual esports athlete at the VRcade and fight against people all over the world in a variety of different experiences that you have no idea you even want to be a part of yet.
[00:19:02.923] Kent Bye: Awesome, great. Well, thank you so much. Thanks. And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.