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Come Out and Play

We are entering a whole new era of entertainment – one that fuses our own world with infinite virtual opportunities. The location-based experience company The Park VR is spearheading this move toward blended socialisation

Words Katie Kasperson

Gone are the days of old-school arcades, drive-in movie dates and bowling tournaments. With gradual advancements in digital technologies – including artificial intelligence (AI) and extended reality (XR) – the way we socialise is changing.

Peter Vindevogel, CEO of The Park Playground, is at the forefront of this transformation. With a background in sports, technology and M&E, he’s witnessed how things like streaming services have revolutionised the way we interact with media.

“Throughout my career, I have worked at the crossroads between technology and entertainment, experimenting to discover how tech can enhance the user experience,” he begins. “The story of The Park VR began around 2017, after discussing what the future of entertainment would look like – and the exciting possibilities in different domains.”

Now, The Park considers itself an entertainment company that ‘connects people through immersive experiences in VR’. With 13 locations around the globe – including two in the UK – The Park VR caters to ‘groups of all sizes and people of all ages’.

Open to all

The Park VR offers seven location-based experiences (LBEs) to visitors – whether they be a family with children, a group of friends or a team of colleagues. “Our overall goal at The Park VR is to create entertaining, interactive and inclusive experiences for all groups and ages, not just gamers and tech enthusiasts,” states Vindevogel.

The LBEs range from VR-enhanced escape rooms all the way through to free-roam battles and rescue missions, each lasting around an hour. Ideally, there’s something for everyone within The Park’s portfolio.

The newest launch, titled The Break-In, is a VR escape room which integrates AI-generated art. Released in October 2023, the LBE “immerses teams of two to eight players into a fully interactive and personalised story,” according to Vindevogel, “regardless of how many times they take part. On arrival, players will answer some questions as a team, which will dictate what the artwork looks like when it’s rendered in real time.”

Another escape room, aptly named Don’t Scream, combines visuals with auditory tracking technology to measure each player’s ‘audio output’ – or the number and volume of sounds (screams) they make.

This software is an apparent first for VR LBEs, resulting in a ‘uniquely immersive and captivating experience’ for those who dare take part, with more screams equalling a lower score. “This interactive audio tracking concept adds an extra layer of excitement and challenge, pushing players to hold their nerve in the face of spooky creatures and eerie forces,” claims Vindevogel.

Besides escape rooms, the Park offers battles, adventures and other themed experiences classed by genre – like horror or sci-fi. Another 2023 addition includes NanoClash Focus, “an LBE free-roam VR experience that immerses teams in an interactive sports battle,” Vindevogel describes. This activity more closely resembles a traditional VR-aided video game, ‘showcasing the potential of esports in this space’.

The Park VR is, in some ways, reinventing what gaming means to the average person. By combining a welcoming environment with intuitive, beginner-friendly games, The Park is bringing a statistically male-dominated niche to the masses. Vindevogel emphasises this point: “Half our customers are women,” he asserts.

Tech specs

The Park VR takes a fully wireless approach, ensuring every experience is mobile and free-roaming. Each activity uses HTC Vive Focus 3 headsets, which work with or without controllers and offer 5K resolution, a 120° field of view and adjustable interpupillary distance (IPD). The headsets also feature 3D spatial audio with directional speaker design for total immersion.

“We understand that virtual reality can seem like a daunting concept for some,” says Vindevogel. But using the HTC Vive headsets, he promises a ‘natural feel’ without the weight of a traditional backpack or the infamous cyber-sickness associated with VR goggles. That said, if the experience becomes overwhelming, a staff member is always on hand for support.

“If you’ve never experienced VR before, you’re not alone, as 90% of our visitors haven’t either,” claims Vindevogel. The Park VR is designed for (almost) all ages, with seven years old being the minimum cut-off and 30 being the customer average. Though it markets itself as a destination for school trips and youth groups, The Park is suited to birthdays, team-building exercises, stag and hen parties – any kind of social event. Certain locations and activities are wheelchair-friendly, so those differently abled can still enjoy what VR has to offer.

The beauty of AI and XR is the ability to be tailored to each individual or situation – meaning that each visit to The Park VR will stand on its own. For example, with NanoClash Focus, “operators can set the amount of rounds and durations per session, or even adjust it live,” explains Vindevogel. “It could be set to a shorter time frame with more rounds to better suit someone with less experience.” And, because NanoClash Focus also integrates AI-generated avatars, visitors can participate as a different player each time so the novelty never wears off.

Fun of the future

Thanks to companies like The Park VR, the future of entertainment looks increasingly virtual. Vindevogel predicts that “immersive technology is going to get more affordable, powerful and – from a practical perspective – the hardware will get lighter.

For location-based entertainment, these factors combined enable a future where experiences will be more immersive and comfortable – just like wearing a pair of glasses.” This, he thinks, will lead to increasing engagement from broader audiences.

Vindevogel is not the only one with an eye towards what’s coming. Just last year, “Apple entered the space with the launch of its headset, the Vision Pro, which created a new category for extended reality,” he argues. “Apple is just one of the key players alongside Sony, HTC and Meta, who are continually innovating and improving the quality and comfort of VR headsets – and are looking for new ways of entertainment for users.”

The Park VR and many other LBE organisations rely on developers and manufacturers to support their business operations. This year, Vindevogel expects to see ‘companies and creative minds develop new possibilities to keep up with the competition’, citing Meta’s Quest 3 headset and HTC’s Vive Ultimate Tracker as two products pushing the boundaries.

When we think of virtual reality, we often imagine Ready Player One-esque specs and people stumbling about in space. There’s an incentive to blend the real and virtual worlds more smoothly via products like mixed-reality glasses.

“Recent technology developments mean that mixed reality is in a better shape to accelerate and will be adopted across the masses,” suggests Vindevogel. The Park VR plans to adjust its offerings around these potential advancements, adopting the latest technologies and staying at the forefront of innovation.

“We’re at a really exciting time as a company,” Vindevogel enthuses, “as we’re looking to continue our rapid growth across the UK and European markets, with strategic plans in place for international expansion.” The Park’s latest openings in Birmingham and Leeds have brought a revolutionised social experience to two major cities.

The company isn’t stopping there – rather, it’s launching a system solution which ‘allows any leisure location to quickly and easily integrate The Park’s range of VR experiences’. An early adopter includes Park Hochsauerland, one of Center Parcs’ German locations. By ‘adding immersive entertainment experiences to its portfolio’, Park Hochsauerland is modernising the family holiday, while The Park VR is enjoying a wider audience.

On the up

With any growing business, it’s essential to consider the day-to-day logistics. “We had challenges in the beginning when it came to organising our operations,” admits Vindevogel, “particularly when we started to scale our locations.” Years later – and with sites across the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – The Park VR runs smoothly, having developed a system which only requires staff to work when there’s a booking, keeping ‘costs low and optimised’.

Though you need to book in advance, The Park VR can accommodate most schedules; it’s open seven days a week, available for larger groups and offers full venue hire. Some locations even include catering and an in-house bar.

If The Park VR sounds like an appealing business endeavour, potential partners can file a franchise form to apply for venue ownership. With planned openings in Asia and North America – and the business still picking up speed – there’s no time like the present.

With virtual technology unmistakably on the rise, we can expect entertainment like The Park VR to become more accessible and commonplace. As the technology evolves, the experiences will improve, making VR more comfortable and, more importantly, convincing.


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