Virtual reality games arcades are springing up around South Africa, and the technology behind it is racing to keep up, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
On the first floor of the hip new Workshop17 collaborative workspace at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, a motley collection of makeshift curtains and partitions make for a stark contrast to the stand-up banners that describe their purpose.
“Virtual Reality Arcade: Get your game face on,” reads one banner. When you get your head around the low-tech appearance of the area, and your feet around the maze of cables on the floor, you realise that it harbours a high-tech secret.
For the moment, this is almost the only place in South Africa where one can try out the full extent of mainstream virtual reality (VR) experiences, using the full range of high-end virtual reality headsets. The VRcade, as it has been branded, presently offers six VR experiences, using the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headsets.
The action ranges from the typical outer space shoot-em-up to an exhilarating mountain-climbing expedition, to a deep-sea encounter with whales, giant squid and jellyfish. And, of course, zombie and robot wars, as one would expect in any self-respecting VR gaming ecosystem. All of it is, not surprisingly, more high-tech than the appearance of the arcade itself.
But that is about to change.
The reality is that these are early days. The pop-up appearance of the arcade speaks to both its status as a typical start-up, and the fact that it is has been waiting for suitable premises. A section of Workshop 17 has been earmarked, but the bureaucratic wheels of the V&A Waterfront seem to grind more slowly than a 19th century sluice gate.
Once the VRcade’s new home is ready, visitors can expect an experience right out of the future, says Zach Joubert, founder and managing director of VRcade.
“We’re having custom VR boxes built, with padded walls and cables from the ceiling so that you’re not stepping on them. Our plan is to ride the VR wave, so we’re now trying to source wireless VR sets, and we want to get VR treadmills.”
The technology is evolving more rapidly now than at any time in the past two decades. When the first VR machines arrived in South Africa in the mid-1990s, they were large enough to fill a small room, and the gaming experience was severely undermined by harsh pixellation, meaning one could almost see the pixels or graphic elements making up each scene.
Now, the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headset allows a far superior experience to be packed into a Samsung Galaxy S6 or S7 smartphone clipped to the front of the device, with no computer connections required. However, the versions of the phone available in South Africa are not as highly optimised for VR as those sold in the USA.
At the AfricaCom telecommunications expo in Cape Town last week, this message was brought home at a stand that seemed completely out of place amid numerous enterprise and infrastructure players. Qualcomm, the American company that makes most of the computer chips used in smartphones today, was demonstrating how one would experience the Gear VR using a chip intended for VR.
The headsets used the version of the S7 edge being sold in the USA, with a Snapdragon 820 chip: the current high end for mobile processors. The experience was noticeably better than the “South African version”, which uses an Exynos 8890 chip, as do the versions sold in Europe, Korea and Canada. Compared to the S7 edge with an Exynos chip, the Snapdragon version sees almost no lag between tapping on the control panel on the side of the headset and seeing the action playing itself out on the screen.
“That’s how you’re meant to experience the Gear VR,” said James Munn, sub-Saharan Africa vice president of business development for Qualcomm. “The massive demands of the technology demand a more powerful chip, and Qualcomm is committed to meeting the highest mobile demands.”
One problem that the chip can’t solve, though, is the persistent presence of apparent pixellation. This is puzzling for the typical user, who expects to experience high-definition visuals, and is still confronted by what looks like a fine grid overlaying the images.
“That’s because it’s so close to your face,” says Ruan Stahnke, who provides technical support at VRcade, and is working on his own VR game as part of a year-end project for his games design studies. “To avoid it, you have to use 4K – ultra high-definition – which I imagine will be the main thing they push for these headsets in the coming years.
“The Gear VR has high theoretical resolution, but the phones can’t push those graphics. It’s also going to challenge the limits of graphics cards. This is going to get very expensive, so it may not happen immediately.”
While we wait for the future to arrive, though, the VRcade will be offering a semblance of it.
“We started this as a fun project on the side and it quickly became a Frankenstein in terms of time and resources it demanded,” says Chery Simson, co-founder and operations manager of VRcade. “It’s not easy to operate, so we spend a lot of time figuring it out.”
Both Joubert and Simson are lawyers, who were studying part-time for their Masters degrees when they received a request for proposals from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. They pitched the idea of a VR arcade that would bring back the concept of social multiplayer gaming that once inspired thousands of games arcades.
“We were invited to join a three-month start-up incubation programme,” Joubert recalls. “We very quickly realised we didn’t have the time, and Chery agreed to run it full-time. I still work as an advocate and do this part-time.”
Now, the VRcade is about to make another leap into the future: it will launch in Midrand at Vodaworld , as part of the rebranding of Vodacom’s flagship retail mall. Several competitors have also emerged. Blue Ocean VR has opened doors in Johannesburg’s Bedfordview suburb, with a range of experiences using the HTC Vive headset. Meanwhile, back in Cape Town, Virtualworld has set up a Vive-based VR shop in Claremont.
School holidays cannot come soon enough, as the arcades wait for the crowds to arrive.
“We’re very feast or famine,” says Joubert. “Some days we get more people than we can cope with, and other days are very quiet. During school holidays we’re booked out every single day. The real challenge is scalability: having sufficient resources to meet the demand when it comes.”