Race a Mario Kart or go bungee jumping -- in the middle of Tokyo
Virtual reality could be on the verge of remaking the theme park industry
KEIICHI KAMEI, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- Virtual reality is so transforming amusement parks and other leisure businesses that it could redefine the industry.
Bandai Namco Entertainment on Tuesday showed off a VR complex it will open this summer in Shinjuku, a bustling neighborhood in Japan's capital that already has plenty of entertainment options -- from baseball batting cages to a robot cafe to host bars. And that's not even scratching the surface.
The amusement park will offer more than 10 attractions featuring anime and game characters. The thrills will be designed to excite young game buffs and foreign tourists alike.
The facility will be in Shinjuku's neon-screaming Kabuki-cho district, on the site where Shinjuku Tokyu Milano once stood. The 24-hour bowling alley and movie theater complex closed at the end of 2014.
On weekend nights, young musicians used to hang out in front of the Milano building and entertain passersby. Bandai Namco hopes to recapture the the site's vibrancy -- and add to it.
"We will try to create a new type of entertainment facility," managing director Makoto Asanuma said during Tuesday's announcement.
The grand opening is set for July 14. "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Mario Kart" will be among the titles from which the center borrows themes.
Sit down in the cockpit of the Mario Kart attraction, don the head gear and you'll be suddenly immersed in a virtual go-kart race. When a "kart" goes around a bend, the contraption will careen to create a false sense of reality.
When a kart "jumps," an air-conditioning system will kick in to create a flow of air over the driver's hands.
Since these kinds of rides don't require much space, VR parks can be easily shoe-horned into crowded, high-rent downtown areas.
Bandai Namco is betting that this feature will enable its VR playgrounds to compete with traditional theme parks, which need space and are therefore usually located well away from city centers.
Another advantage is that no large-scale construction projects are required when it comes time to replace attractions.
And VR amusement should fit into the growing tourism trend in which visitors are paying for immersive experiences rather than going on shopping expeditions.
One potential drawback is that it takes a long time to saddle customers into a VR ride. Several minutes are needed to fasten the necessary gadgets and make other preparations to enjoy six or so minutes of virtual thrills.
Tickets are pricey. An admission ticket for the new complex goes for 4,400 yen ($40). A holder can only use it to go on four rides.
Still, Bandai Namco expects the Kabuki-cho parlor to attract 1 million visitors in two years. The company is to open similar facilities, in London and Kobe, this year.
There are signs that VR is creating a new trend in Japan's amusement park industry.
Truth be told, Bandai Namco's VR park will be Tokyo's second. Huis Ten Bosch, a subsidiary of travel agency H.I.S. that operates a Dutch-themed park in Nagasaki, on June 24 will open a VR fun house in the Shibuya district.
The Shibuya playground will have five attractions, including a bungee jump simulator. The admission fee will be 2,200 yen and comes with a one-hour time limit.
A growing number of existing theme parks are also leaning more on VR technology. But Bandai Namco's will be the largest of its kind in Japan.