The King's Headset: Is VR The Next Big Pub Sport?

By James O Malley on at

Often when you go to the pub, it is to escape a dull reality - but now thanks to company called The VR Concept there’s no need to drink yourself to oblivion - you can simply strap on a HTC Vive headset instead.

Yep, forget trying to play pool with a couple of wonky cues, or the frustrated muttering of the old regulars as you fumble with darts - co-founders Oli Lane, Anthony Nixon and Henry Clarke are instead trying to make virtual reality the next big sport you can play while feeling a little tipsy.

The company has its origins last summer when Oli bought a HTC Vive. Having been thinking about starting a VR company, Oli and Henry hosted a couple of pop-up events in coffee shops and sold tickets on Eventbrite, just to see if anyone would come. They were successful but there was still one problem: the lack of permanent home.

And this is when they unexpectedly met IT infrastructure specialist Ant. Having spent the summer climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, he was moving back to London. After being let down by a landlord, last October Ant was forced to stay in an AirBNB.

This rental belonged to Oli, who has a background in designing propulsion systems for satellites. And the pair quickly discovered they were both interested in the potential for VR. Oli first showed Ant the Vive - and then let him in on the business plan. “I took him through the spreadsheet and I was like, ‘Tell me when this gets boring’ and he was like, ‘It’s not boring’”, Oli remembers.

Oli, Henry and Ant.

“We got started so quickly because the hole I had in my business case that I couldn’t work out a good location”, he explains. “Because if you want to rent a shop you’ve got no customers coming already, you’ve got a huge overhead of setting the shop up and all the rest of it, so it seemed a big, daunting plan.”

“But Ant knew the owner, or the manager, of [the pub]. So Monday we [set the business up], Wednesday we came in to have a look at this and Ant was like, yeah this would be perfect – look at this big space, wouldn’t that be perfect for it? Thursday we got in touch with the manager, Saturday he came over to my house to play VR and was like, ‘this is amazing, when can you start?’ And we were like, ‘Straight away’.”

It snowballed from there, with the pair quitting their day jobs over the next couple of weeks. But it was only when they realised that the pub was open for 50 hours every week that they needed to start hiring staff too.

So today the company has its first location at The Four Thieves near Clapham Junction, which appears to be the perfection location for such ambitions: Though the ground floor of the (enormous) pub appears fairly conventional, head upstairs and what would have perhaps once have been described as a function room has been transformed into, effectively, an amusement arcade where beer is allowed. There’s traditional arcade games, such as Time Crisis, a remote control car racing track (think Scalextric but massive), and a couple of escape rooms. So perhaps VR is the next logical step.

The Setup

The setup is relatively simple: The company has constructed two VR booths hooked up with the HTC Vive’s tracking cameras - and the two are networked together for multiplayer gaming.
So which games are they picking for people to play? “Basically our rule is that if it’s more than one button, it’s probably not going to work”, says Oli. “When we started 99% of our customers had never played VR before and probably now it’s three quarters [...] and the turns are in the region of five minutes.”

So nothing too complicated then - he gives the example of how even the reload mechanism in zombie game Brookhaven could be a bit too fiddly for a newbie. One game they’ve found works particularly well is Bomb U!, in which the two players have to pick up and lob bombs at each other in order to try to destroy the ground the opponent is standing on. It’s super simple, and somewhat reminiscent of Wii Sports, in the sense that it is easy for newbies to learn - but it could also conceivably get rather tactical with experienced players. Given this, and the short games, it is pretty much perfect to dive into between pints.

This said, if you are a more hardcore player then they also offer event hire and the like. So if you really want to play something tougher, they might be able to accommodate you.

And this made me wonder: Isn’t there a risk VR could go too mainstream? Aren’t the company in a strange position where they need VR to be big enough for there to be a development eco-system of games and tech, but if everyone has a VR headset in their house, isn’t the appeal of gaming in a pub lost?

“It is difficult”, Oli concedes - but he also thinks that the company has a unique proposition. “The reality is you need quite a lot of space. If you look at that, that’s a nice, comfortable space to play VR in.”

This is the company's inflatable pop-up booth.

He’s not wrong - the Vive needs a 3x3m area for optimal working conditions - something which is rarely found in a normal London flat. Oli also believes that there will always be a market for premium experiences - and believes that his company is better positioned than the average individual to keep up with new technology, whether it is faster computers or foot tracking.
So according to Oli and Ant, it all sounds like the business is going rather well. The fast pace that characterised the early weeks of the business has not let up. Since I first met them in January, just a couple of months ago, they’ve completely rebuilt their entire stage in the pub from scratch, and have developed inflatable pop-up VR booths for use at conferences and festivals: They even took their booths to the Brit Awards after party.

The Future

So what’s next? Could heading down to your local to enter the Matrix soon be commonplace? The pair revealed that they’re currently working on opening a second location in North London (though they wouldn’t tell me exactly where). The Laine Pub Company, which owns The Four Thieves is also pleased with how VR is performing - which could see it rolled out to other locations too.

And there’s also plans to improve the gaming experience too. Ant and Oli also want to introduce a VR gaming league, in which different pubs compete with each other virtually - with all of the action streamed over Twitch. Ant tells me that he envisions real, physical flags, hanging outside of pubs to indicate that the local team is currently the champions.

The Simpsons predicted this.

And as you can see from the photo at the top, the existing VR booths have been decked out in green paint to enable “mixed reality” video production in the future.

There was just one final thing I was wondering about. Er, what about all of the drunk people? Can you be too pissed to play?

“The pub.. this isn’t a pub where people get completely shitted. People come and have a few drinks and people have a good time with their friends”, Oli explains. “So generally we don’t have that problem because that’s not the kind of pub that we’re in. If someone is completely wasted they can’t really work it and they won’t have fun.”

When they first started, there was a worry that they needed to have a formal policy, and have staff trained specifically to deal with it. But as it turns out… that according to Oli “6000 customers in it’s just not an issue at all”.

A surprising well done to the Great British public.

So could VR in the pub be the future? Perhaps it is time to put down the pool cue, and pick up a HTC Vive instead.