Will virtual reality be e-gaming’s next big thing, or is it just an illusion?
By Steven Ribet
Virtual reality was touted as the next big thing in the 1990s. But it flopped after it became clear that existing technology, for consumer purposes at least, was not up to producing a convincing experience. Two decades on faster computers, better screens and graphics, and improvements in motion tracking sensors have prompted a second push. Samsung and Taiwan’s HTC have both launched virtual reality head-mounted displays (or VR headsets) for the consumer market.
Later this year Sony will follow suit. So two British e-gaming firms are taking advantage of these developments to bet that for gambling, VR is a technology whose time has come.
“The idea is that you’re more involved. Everyone wants to be that footballer on the football pitch; to see it from that point of view. And instead of just betting on your team, crossing your fingers and hoping things are going to happen, you can actually impact the outcome,” says Steven Rogers, COO of Digital Games at Inspired Gaming. “With VR you’ve got money riding on yourself. We’re crossing over from passive observation to a skill-based product.”
Inspired has achieved a turnover of about US$160 million as a leader in virtual sports. In some 30 countries including the UK, Italy and China, betting shops use its software to allow players to wager on 90-second matches of sports including tennis, football, horseracing and motor racing. It’s pretty much like a HD computer game, with a choice to bet on players (or teams or horses or drivers) at different fixed odds. In Italy, where Inspired has a 95% market share, its virtual sports bring in a quarter of the turnover of betting shops where they feature.
Last year, Inspired signed a 15-year exclusive deal with Mike Tyson. Virtual sports fans will be able to bet on a range of opponents pitted against the boxer in a new product launched in September. A few months later they will also be able to don a VR headset and slug it out with Iron Mike themselves.
The gaming company travelled to the boxer’s personal gym in Nevada to develop its Virtual Rush Boxing game. Mike Tyson put on a special suited covered with tracker dots and sparred with his trainer. Inspired’s engineers erected a huge motion-capture rig around the ring, kitted out with over one hundred cameras. They also gave him a full body scan, to model his physique and facial features.
Beating Tyson will win players the game’s jackpot, with odds at perhaps forty to one. (The chances of your average punter lasting more than ten seconds in real life would, after all, be somewhat below average.) Inspired also worked with a range of lesser fighters, to offer players a stable of twelve alternative opponents at better odds.
Inspired is also developing a VR horseracing game, although it won’t be interactive. Players will see a race through the eyes of their chosen jockey; looking ahead at the track, looking behind (hopefully at all of the other horses) or looking to the side at spectators in the grandstand, without controlling the horse.
After launch, Rogers doesn’t foresee Virtual Rush Boxing or other VR games on offer at betting shops. “I can’t see a 55 yearold in the UK donning a VR headset,” he says. “I’m not sure if the industry is ready for it. Even self-service betting terminals are a relatively recent addition to betting shops.”
The most popular context for play he reckons, will be online; as in young men having friends around on a Saturday, in the same way as they would to watch a soccer match. Social consumption could be a big part of VR gambling. Rogers says, “The social aspect always comes up when we ask players what they like about our products; meeting mates at a betting shop for chat and banter. I’ll bet you that Liverpool will beat Man U. That sort of thing.”
Casino gaming is therefore an obvious application of VR. “The casino experience brings people together,” says Rogers. “Imagine sitting at gaming table in Las Vegas with a girl dealing cards and friends playing each side. But in reality one of your friends is in North Wales and the other is in Bangkok. And you’re not getting ripped off for drinks.”
Perhaps this line of thinking is behind Microgaming’s choice of roulette as its first VR development product. The Isle of Manheadquartered e-gaming creator invited visitors to London’s ICE trade show this year to put on Samsung Oculus Rift DK2 headsets. Once so equipped, they found themselves sitting on an asteroid, with a robot croupier manning a roulette table in front and, if they turned their head around to look at it, a giant planet hovering behind. Each headset was fitted with a Leap Motion 3D Controller; a kind of “touchless mouse” that detects and maps a user’s hand movements in threedimensional space. A player in this way could reach out his or her hands, which appeared, robot-like in VR, and place bets on the table.
“The product was devised by our research and development team, who are tasked with looking three to five years into the future and experimenting with disruptive technologies,” says Microgaming’s Head of Product Channels Neill Whyte. “Mass adoption is what the industry is waiting for. Remember, mobile was talked about for many years before its tipping point was reached. What we’re doing with wearables feels very similar to how we approached mobile; we are preparing for what could be around the corner.” Whyte says his company is “working on several other exciting concepts, including the use of online slots” on the Samsung VR headset.
Virtual Reality promises more intense, more immersive gaming experiences to a “Imagine sitting at gaming table in Las Vegas with a girl dealing cards and friends playing each side. But in reality one of your friends is in North Wales and the other is in Bangkok. And you’re not getting ripped off for drinks.” generation that has grown up with all of the bells and whistles that modern consumer technology can provide; such as Xbox games consoles and giant, 4K televisions. But is it here to stay? Or will it go the way of 3D TV and Google Glass? And for gambling, does it really have something lasting to add?
Of course the honest answer to this can only be that we don’t know. Steve Rogers says Inspired has invested “in the low millions” so far as part of “innovation in a measured approach.” “I’m skeptical,” he says. “I’m not going to go down the route of developing all of our games with VR in mind.”
Says Rogers, “You develop one or two cool products, get user groups involved, and then see how the market reacts. There is a speed at which you can evolve and you have to take the player with you.”