By : John Gaudiosi | Posted: 10 Oct 2001
Nestled in a 5,000-square-foot office at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, Atlantis Cyberspace, a privately funded company, employs 10 software engineers and has spent the past nine years developing an operating system that president Laurent Scallie hopes will ignite the lulling virtual reality arcade business.
With its prototype VR system, the Abyss, operational in Seoul, South Korea's ZZXYZ in the Coex Mall, the largest underground mall in the world, Atlantis Cyberspace will build and ship five to eight VR systems by the end of next year, including ones on the east and west coasts of the United States, one in Europe and two in Asia.
The first systems will ship early next year, and by 2003, the company expects to put out 14 new systems. Atlantis Cyberspace, which debuted its new VR system in July at SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles, will put the system on display and on sale Nov. 14-17 at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions annual convention and trade show in Orlando.
World Adventure, the Korean company that has the Abyss as the centerpiece for its VR arcade ZZXYZ, might build VR arcades throughout the country featuring 32-pod variations of the game.
The Atlantis system will sell for $250,000 for a four-pod system and $310,000 for an eight-pod system. As many as 32 pods can be coupled together to create self-contained interactive entertainment experiences, or smaller configurations can be placed within current arcades or movie theaters.
The self-contained system includes a teller machine to accept cash or credit cards; a touch-screen briefing kiosk to explain the game and allow for customization; force feedback-enhanced VR pods equipped with guns and 36-inch CRT monitors for spectators to view the action; a 65-inch flat-screen TV or video wall with a roving virtual cameraman to show the overall team action; a mission control setup for operational surveillance; a debriefing station that provides a video of the action and complete statistics; and an online interface that allows consumers to download their mission replay and stats to their home PCs or purchase the PC versions of their VR game for their own PC. A typical game will cost $5 and include 17 minutes of entertainment, including a five-minute briefing, a five-minute mission in the pod and a five-minute debriefing. An eight-pod system will run 80 missions an hour.
"The reason that the VR market never took off was because it lacked a solid business model," Scallie said. "Early VR games were more gimmicky than entertainment, and they failed to drive consumers back after they had tried it once. By leveraging the best 3D content and creating a membership-based business model, I think the VR industry will be able to provide interactive entertainment to moviegoers and mall patrons on a regular basis."
Atlantis has created a VR operating system that it will license to third-party VR system integrators and game developers in the next 18 months. By creating the operating system, Atlantis will allow the various VR companies to focus on specializing various aspects of the hardware. In the past, a VR company had to do everything from marketing to creating all aspects of the hardware and software, which bogged down innovation.
The Abyss was built to turn such current PC video games as Quake and Unreal Tournament into VR experiences. Using proprietary technology, the company is able to take any 3D application or video game and turn it into a VR experience with true depth perception, three degrees of freedom movement (if you tilt your head, the game world inside your goggles tilts) and 3D sound.
Without tampering with the PC game code, which circumvents the need to pay the game publisher or developer anything but $500-$1,000 per year for a commercial site licensing agreement, the content is recorded and synchronized within the pods before it's sent to the players' head-mounted display. Players will see customized scores, names and even the Atlantis logo built as an overlay on top of the game's graphics.
"Once we have the system finalized for Orlando, I want to begin developing relationships with the top game publishers," Scallie said. "I'd like to use the Abyss to debut new first-person perspective video games for an agreed window of exclusivity and then offer the games for home use. In addition, game developers could create exclusive missions and levels for the VR version to keep the players coming back after the game is available on home PCs."
While Quake and Unreal Tournament are available on PCs, Scallie expects other first-person-style games to be configured for the Abyss in the future.
After receiving $1 million in funding from angel investors in March 1998, making strategic alliances with various partners and receiving additional help from the state of Hawaii, Scallie is closing the second round of funding for an additional $3.4 million, which will allow the company to build the systems and assemble a sales and marketing team to sell the product. The company expects to generate revenue from the sales of the Abyss systems, the licensing of the Atlantis operating system and the income from individually owned-and-operated VR centers.
"I see the Abyss as the future of out-of-home entertainment, which will complement the movie theater business," Scallie said. "As much as people enjoy the social experience of watching a blockbuster film, I think people also would like to actually play as the Terminator or Indiana Jones, and VR experiences put them inside of an interactive experience, utilizing all five senses."
Atlantis has tested the Abyss at the U.S. Army's Schefield Barracks near Hawaii's North Shore and the Foxwood Casino in Connecticut. After a year at the Army barracks, 68% of the four-pod system's business were repeat users, including many members that spent more than $1,000 playing Quake and Unreal Tournament, though both games are available for home PCs. The casino test allowed Atlantis to broaden the scope of the audience by creating one-minute basic training instructions for new players and one-minute advanced training instructions for returning players.
In addition to using the VR technology for entertainment, Atlantis is working with the Army to develop military training simulations.