We tested video games in virtual reality, s(t)imulators of sensations

Estimated read time 6 min read

MindOut, a Parisian arcade dedicated to virtual reality, on February 9th. MindOut, a Parisian arcade dedicated to virtual reality, on February 9th. CHRISTOPHER MORIN / IP3

Crouching, in a shooting position, arms outstretched in front of her, she screams: “To the right! Beware! It’s going to explode! No! No! “The young woman is however agitating alone in a small protected space. She seems to be on edge. A large black mask fixed on his skull covers the entire top of his face. There is a wire from it, connected to the ceiling. On the right, on the left, behind removable partitions, other helmeted people are also shouting loudly, intermittently. “Be careful! ” “They’re coming! They’re coming! “On the street, on the other side of the window, passers-by stop, taken aback, to observe this ballet of hydrocephalus creatures in their individual boxes. This new futuristic hobby has been part of their Parisian present for a few months: the virtual reality arcade. MindOut opened at the end of April 2017, in the center of Paris, rue de Turbigo. Since then, two other rooms of the same kind have followed in the capital, about twenty in the major cities of France, on a model that has spread to Asia (China, Japan), Canada and the United States in the last two years.

Pause and go back, to better understand: today’s forties played Pac-Man in arcades until the mid-1990s. Then, everyone got equipped for the home video game, the rooms went out of order. The MindOut and other “Virtual-this”, “VR-that”, which are currently swarming in France, represent the next generation of arcade rooms. That of the immersive video game, virtual reality headset (HTC Vive or Oculus Rift) on the head. As the history of technological innovation repeats itself, the creators of these new entertainment areas for adults intend to fully exploit the short decade, before miniaturization and cost reduction, which separates us from diving into the virtual without leaving the living room.

“We can’t explain it, we have to live it”

“Today, a headset and the computer to run it cost around 1,800 euros. In six months, the technique will have been improved, the equipment will have to be renewed. And in order to play, you need at least 9 square meters. So purchases by individuals remain marginal,” explains Romain Lesaffre, the founder of MindOut, a microelectronics engineer formerly employed at Decathlon. So he takes the bet: arcades dedicated to virtual reality, “there will quickly be a lot of them …” But why would we come en masse to spend 15 euros per half hour for a digital alternative reality? “We can’t explain it, we have to live it,” replies the bearded thirty-year-old, who guarantees the “wow effect”. Annoying blah-blah, we say to ourselves. Until you have the mask with fleece inside and integrated screen on the nose. “Wow,” indeed. We have to admit it. The realism is striking. We had assured not to suffer from vertigo. And there, suddenly, with our feet resting on disjointed boards above the Grand Canyon, we regret this inconsiderate assurance.

Whether we turn around, step back, crouch, the emptiness is always there, perfectly reproduced. There is no choice but to climb to the nearest rock face by making the best use of the round controllers we have been given, which appear with our hands on the screen … Ruddy, disheveled, once the helmet is removed, we leave this more real-than-life climbing session in better dispositions to hear the boss of the place affirm :

“We can take you anywhere, you will feel like you are there. »

“The grip is easier than for a video game”

The same amazement for Laura and Hélène, 24 and 29 years old, who extract themselves from two of the nine boxes that grid the 200 square meters of the room “as after a sports session, exhausted. We get into it right away, it’s great this immersive feeling! And the grip is easier than for a video game”. Shooting games, flying over big cities, underwater exploration, extra-vehicular trip into space, drawing, sculpture, puzzle games, sports of all kinds, car racing or spaceship on a seated station – a large bucket seat that is not dynamic, in order to avoid nausea … Some 300 customers take the helmet elsewhere, every week.

They are initiated and then guided by voice, during the game, by the staff of the room who observe on screen all the current developments. To contemplate these customers alone in their box and their imaginary world, certain episodes of Black Mirror, the frightening British series of anticipation on new technologies, come to mind. “From the outside, it can seem isolating,” admits Mr. Lesaffre. But customers often play in multiplayer, they see each other in the game and talk to each other. They are less alone than in their teenage room. And anyway, they don’t play for more than an hour. After that, they are happy to take a break, in general. »

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With an attendance “ahead of forecasts”, he intends to “deploy a network of three to five theaters within the year”. One of its two Parisian competitors, VirtualTime, rue d’Aboukir, is experiencing the same start with fanfare. The American businessman, Wladimir Singer, who inaugurated the place in May 2017, insists on the scale of the potential market: virtual reality “is not reserved for technophiles. The typical customer is between the ages of 20 and 40. But we have grandfathers and their grandchildren. And parents who bring their children saying that they spend too much time on violent games at home. 40% of our games are contemplative, creative or riddles”. Between now and September, the businessman will open four more rooms in the Paris region. He even expects sixty before 2020, in France, Europe and the United States.

In Rennes, Nicolas Fort, 27, who launched Virtual Game in July 2017, will move this summer from 30 square meters in the city center to 740 square meters on the outskirts. It has the ultimate in technology: the virtual reality treadmill (Virtuix Omni), which allows you to run in the game. Soon, he thinks, players will even carry the computer in a backpack, moving, helmeted but freed from any cables, over the long distances offered by giant parks, as there are already in Japan. Romain Lesaffre, for his part, imagines future gyms where we will really sweat in a virtual environment. To hear them, it is obvious: a new world is opening up to the players.

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