Why did GSC install a VR Gaming setup in their cinema?

I don’t know about you, but the cinema-going experience in Malaysia to me has always felt very similar to my airport-going experience. In the most ideal situation, I’d want to arrive there at exactly the right time–not too early, not too late–go through “security” with no issues, and get into the cinema just as the movie (or the trailers) start. I don’t ever think of the theatre itself as a place I’d like to hang out in, the same way I don’t ask people to hang out at the airport. It’s just not that kind of institution.

But what if I told you that it was. Or at least, that cinemas like GSCinemas (GSC) are trying to turn their theatres into that “third place“. Now, what if I told you that one of their strategies to do that is with virtual reality (VR) gaming. Sound ridiculous? Yeah, I thought so too, but GSC seems convinced, that’s why they invited me to check it out.

OK, but what is it?

This VR gaming setup is called the VAR Box, and right now there’s only one GSC theatre that has this setup–the GSC in Cheras’ “brutalist” mall, EkoCheras. Now, when I got there, I was expecting actual boxes, but instead I’d say that it looks a lot more like one of those dancing game booths in like your classic arcade.

In any case, the setup here looks pretty straightforward. It is designed to support VR shooters, so there are a pair of VR goggles that are hooked up to a big monitor, with sensors mounted up top to track your movement. There’s also a controller in the shape of a gun that you will use to shoot all the baddies in the simulation. The monitor up front basically displays what you’re seeing in your VR headset for the public to see.

Now, I’m someone who gets really dizzy when I play games in VR. I remember trying out the PSVR system once and was nauseous for pretty much the rest of the day. I’m not sure why, but VR games make me feel like throwing up so I was a little apprehensive going into this VR simulation. Still, I was assured before heading in that the system being used here is legit. It’s provided by a company called VAR Live, who are apparently the leading VR entertainment provider, and they’re running on Oculus VR which is again one of the leading brands in the VR space.

Strapping in the first time was pretty straightforward. There was a guy there from VAR Live to help me out so I was really just along for the ride. Whether there will always be someone here at GSC when this opens to the public remains to be seen, but the instructions on how to operate the entire system is printed at the bottom of the display so it shouldn’t be too confusing. Headset on, he handed me the “gun” and it had a good amount of weight to it.

As you can probably tell from the photos, it’s not a wireless solution. But, all the wires run upward into the machine so they don’t really get in the way of your movement. And, since this isn’t one of those VR experiences that you walk around in, I don’t think you’ll have much of an issue with the cables–I sure didn’t.

When the game started, I was immediately impressed with the tracking, display and refresh rate of the headset. It already looked and felt way better than what I experienced on the PSVR (I know, not really a high benchmark, but it’s the one I have had the most experience with), so there was no sudden onset of nausea.

Using the gun itself, however, took a little getting used to. I’m most familiar with using peripherals like the keyboard and mouse so I didn’t take the whole aiming thing too seriously and started firing from the hip. I don’t know if you’ve ever fired anything before but shooting from the hip isn’t very accurate so I missed a whole bunch of shots right off the bat. It wasn’t until I properly took aim with the gun that I started hitting the shots.

And once I started doing that, I was pleasantly surprised with how accurate everything felt. I could immediately tell when I was going to miss and when I was going to hit, so that was a really satisfying experience. I don’t think it’s quite as precise as if you were to shoot something in real life, but I’d say it’s close enough that I can see a world where people get competitive about this.

The gun controller itself also clicks when you pull the trigger so you get that tactile feedback, and the delay between your input and what happens in-game is negligible to me. Plus, a nice touch is that you reload the gun like you would with those classic arcade shooters, so it’s a cool little throwback.

Will anyone actually play this?

That, I think, is the million dollar question, and it’s one that I honestly can’t answer right now. While the apparatus felt pretty good (not nauseating) in the minute or two that I spent with the machine, the game itself left quite a lot to be desired. The game I got to try out was called Double Tap and it’s honestly nothing more than a virtual shooting gallery. GSC tells me that this time-based shooter will have a leaderboard and online multiplayer capabilities so you can compete with people around the world for the highest scores.

Sure, that sounds neat in concept, but that also sounds a lot like what an arcade basically was. And we all know what happened to arcade games. Is dressing the same formula up in a modern suit going to change much? It’s kind of hard to say especially considering how modern competitive shooters are played. With this VR setup, there’s no movement and no PvP, so I can’t really see a future where people get truly hooked on something like this.

But, I guess the competitive setting is just one facet of this discussion. Maybe this will appeal to the casuals, right? Well, I will say that after trying this once, I was looking forward to giving it a second go, but it’s hard to say if that novelty will last beyond the first couple of times. So, if we were to look at the casual people, maybe the handful of people who would be interested in squeezing in a game or two before their movie starts, the biggest deciding factor here would be the price.

As of right now, GSC has told me that they haven’t set a price for how much this would cost for people to play, but it will operate on something like a token system. That being said, I have heard unconfirmed rumours that it could be priced around RM10 per game–which sounds a little steep for me.

At the end of the day though, would this help with GSC’s goal of trying to evolve their cinemas into someone’s third place? It’s…a little hard to say at this point, but my gut tells me that it’s a no. For starters, it just doesn’t feel like the kind of social activity that would draw people together in the same way something like a mamak would. Besides, in the modern age, our third place is quickly becoming something that resembles a WhatsApp chat group than a physical location.

What do you think of this? Let me know in the comments below.