The LBVR shootout: The Void vs. Spaces VR (report from opening night at first Silicon Valley location)

Opening night at Spaces VR in San Jose, California

Silicon Valley got its first VBVR on Friday night with the opening of Spaces, which is located inside the Cinemark Theater in Oakridge Mall, and its new game “Terminator: Salvation VR.” Read below for my family’s analysis of it vs The Void’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” but first let’s talk about Spaces, since this is the first weekend Silicon Valley has gotten to play anything like this.

You can get tickets here.

Spaces is a VR game you play with three other players. I took my family Friday night, and the short of it is they all loved it, thought it was great use of technology.

But on the ride home we started comparing it to the Void, which we had recently experienced in Los Angeles, and it did have some areas to improve on. This was good preparation for the kind of work I’ll be starting up again in March, when we turn on “Infinite Retina,” a new business I’m working on with a few other people in the spatial computing arena.

VC firm A16z kicked the LBVR war into high gear with an investment into an LBVR startup just a couple of weeks ago. LBVR stands for “Location Based Virtual Reality,” which generally means a store you go into to experience new kinds of entertainment properties (usually games) on high end VR gear you can’t get for home use.

For these things you pay $15 to $30 per player, which gets a bit expensive for a family of four, like we were.

As we walked in with our electronic tickets, we were greeted by a nice looking storefront, with both happy customers who were getting out of the experience, and folks like us who were getting checked in. Checking in here meant typing your name, user name, an email address, and taking a face scan, which as we saw on the monitors, was used inside the game on top of your virtual being. Pretty cool technology from the start. More on that later, because it’s one of the real differentiators between the Void, which is the best known LBVR.

I previously played the Void in New York, where I did its Ghostbuster experience and recently took my family to the Void’s Ralph Breaks the Internet experience. More on the differences in a bit.

Inside we had sensors put on our feet and hands, a heavy backback/vest, and a VR headset, which I recognized as an altered Oculus Rift headset (it had bigger pads around the face than mine).

A kind staff explained how it worked, showed us an intro video that got us ready for the game inside, and walked us into the experience. Once in we had to find our battle stations (my son and I went to the wrong stations since I didn’t notice that stations had a name on them, and once in you name was locked to the device you were wearing.

Which meant I was fighting next to an avatar that looked like a short version of me and I was playing as a tall nine-year-old. It was entertaining to my wife and I, but Ryan, my son, wasn’t so happy about that. He was happy, though, that his user name won the game. I guess I’m more violent than a nine year old, or, at least better at hitting Terminators with guns.

The game play? Well, in 15 minutes you don’t get much. You basically get walked onto a virtual deck, think like an airport tarmac, where you can test out your gun that gets handed to you there (it’s cool, recoils and everything) and blow various things up by shooting at them for a couple of minutes getting ready for the real game. After the warmup period, we get walked onto an elevator-type platform, and get transported into the game, where we basically have to shoot as many Terminators as possible, and put together a fuel generator and aim a laser system to blow up a Skynet satellite dish.

For more details, see Dean Takahashi, who is my favorite writer on VR gaming topics, and his experience playing it here.

As we were getting out of our suits I started a live Twitter stream, which you can see here, so you can see the resulting video and my kids’ first reactions.

The Battle between Void and Spaces

In reading a bunch of reviews I realized most of the journalists haven’t been in any of the other LBVRs. Since my family has already been in the Void, we broke down the differences for you.

One huge difference between the Void and Spaces is the Void forces you to walk into different experiences, and gives you basically three different games to play. Spaces had you get into a little craft which delivered you into the main game experience, and took you back, but it really was only one game experience, shooting Terminators and doing a simple task of putting a nuclear pack into place, then putting another machine’s powersource in place, holding a lever, and pushing a button, then aiming a beam, all to save the world. I didn’t find the gameplay all that important or interesting, but shooting Terminators was fun. The haptic gun was awesome, I think it was a little nicer than the one I used in Void, but it didn’t matter that much to overall experience in either place.

The game in the Void was more memorable for my family.

Void was more fun because of the more varied gameplay and a more developed storyline and better use of physical scents and air moving. Spaces tried, sprayed water on you when you shot the watertank, but not quite as satisfying. Spaces also put more sensors on you, including some on your feet. This took a little longer and is a bit more awkward because staff need to put stuff on your shoes. Not really a task I would love to be doing all day long. Maryam did note that the technology seemed more advanced in Spaces, and she thought that putting your own face on your virtual character was a nice touch.

Little Touches Get Noticed

Upon getting out we were emailed a photo. Void printed one out and handed it to us. I thought that was a nice touch. Spaces let you buy a copy of the video of you shooting, but the storyline wasn’t all that interesting (you see the video in my video over on Twitter).

Anyway, long story short, the Void came off with a little better brand in the end, and because I’ve already gotten to experience two things in it (and I want to experience the third) while Spaces only has one, I think the Void is way ahead in building a brand that people will want to come back to again and again. I could see replaying the Void .

This game didn’t get me to go “holy f**k that was amazing” but they didn’t screw up, so if they come out with a new experience I’d certainly go back for that. In terms of business, Spaces got nice PR this week, because it does deliver the magic of VR of embodiment and immersion very well, and does give you stuff IMAX didn’t: something you can not do at home, even if you are a billionaire (group-based VR, with physical immersive devices, AKA guns and rails that you touch).

Intellectual Property is Hugely Important

Choosing the right intellectual property partner is going to be important in the VBVR businesses. Terminator is not a current movie. Our kids, 9 and 11, haven’t seen one yet and I can’t even remember which one was my favorite.

Compare to Star Wars (which, while isn’t really current, is a much more important franchise than Terminator), Ghostbusters, and Ralph Breaks the Internet.

These are brands that kids and parents connect to emotionally in a warm way.

Terminator just has a shooting and a dystopian affordance. Not nearly as fun, nor does it appeal from curb nearly as well. In fact, we walked by their storefront in Irvine and it just didn’t convince me to get excited for that reason. Ralph Breaks the Internet and Star Wars have much better “curb appeal.”

But, Spaces wins in Silicon Valley this weekend simply because it’s the only one here. So, if you want to play VR in San Jose you only have one choice. For now.

The technology was a little more exposed in Spaces than in the Void, but my family didn’t care about that (I notice such things, because I’m constantly looking for new tech). I saw screens that were running the system (software keeps track of where each of the four players are, and lets a staff member interact with you while you are in).

The Void and Spaces similarly had things you can touch (for real) in the game, which adds to the magic of immersion. Your mind buys into these things much more if, in virtual reality you see a rail, and you can touch it with your hand.

The Void had used rails and other devices to convince you to move around, from virtual place to virtual place, better than Spaces had. But that not sure that’s very important to building a business or a brand here. I think mostly these will be judged by overall fun factor, which they both deliver on, even if the Void does win, and intellectual property that gets crowds into these experiences. Here the Void is a huge winner with my kids, the Terminator experience just didn’t give us the same warm feelings.

My kids also remembered the cuteness factor of the Void. In it we shot pancakes at bunnies, at one point, and the air smelled of maple syrup. Maryam appreciated that more, too, since the kids weren’t playing with real guns, shooting real-looking bullets.

I did notice that a marketer was asking lots of questions as people got out of the experience, which shows the kind of attention that these companies are putting into getting customers back, along with having good reports for the VCs who are shoveling money into these unproven businesses.

Will they win your money? They should, they are a ton of fun, and it is very rare that anything gets my kids, not to mention Maryam (I’m her husband), excited by entertainment enough to get them to talk to me on the ride home.

Next weekend we might be going to Los Angeles to hit up a few others my partners want us to see, so expect more reports.

How will you judge these? Let me know on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.