Virtual reality took a giant step into Canada's mainstream in June 2016 with the launch in Waterloo, Ontario, of Ctrl V, the country's first virtual-reality (VR) gaming arcade.

Disclaimer: this video links to a third party source. This video is not hosted by the Government of Ontario and there may not be a French version or transcripts available.

Hardcore gamers and first-timers alike can walk in off the street, strap on an HTC Vive headset and immerse themselves in one of 23 games, from Space Pirate Trainer to Cloudlands Mini Golf.

"The response has been fantastic and much broader than we expected," said Ctrl V's co-founder and CEO Ryan Brooks in a recent telephone interview.

"Because we're located right across the street from the University of Waterloo, we thought students would be our biggest market, but that hasn't been the case," he continued. "About 40% of our customers are older, in the 25-49 age group. We're also seeing parents who drop off their kids for a game session then stay around to watch. Pretty soon, they're trying it out themselves."

VR at a real-world tipping point?

As a disruptive technology, VR's potential has always been just over the horizon. Recent hardware and software breakthroughs have made VR more accessible and affordable.

Oculus Rift, the first consumer-oriented VR headset, began shipping in March 2016. Within a few months, HTC, Samsung, Google and others were marketing VR headsets and controllers at increasingly lower prices. In October, Sony released a PS4-compatible VR bundle (headset, hand controllers, camera, cables, etc.) retailing at CDN$699. Two weeks later, Microsoft announced a Windows 10 VR headset priced at US$299.

The headline-making success of the augmented-reality (AR) game Pokémon Go – with 500 million downloads and counting – also fuelled consumer interest in reality-altering technologies.

Has VR reached a real-world tipping point? According to Forbes magazine, industry analysts are predicting that global sales of AR and VR devices will skyrocket from 2.5 million in 2015 to 24 million in 2018.

Ctrl V a living lab for VR development

For Brooks and his partners, a big part of the reason they launched Ctrl V was to make VR better and more accessible.

From the beginning, they worked with the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo, which is a cross-disciplinary research centre that explores the human side of games and game-related technologies. For Waterloo researchers, Ctrl V provides a digital Petri dish in which they can study VR gamers in action.

Ctrl V also works with VR developers who want to beta-test their games in a real-world environment. "Once a month, we have 'dev days' where developers can live-stream video coverage of people playing their games," Brooks said. "So far, we've worked with developers from the UK, the Netherlands and Australia."

"Although we've started with gaming, our goal has always been bigger than that," Brooks said. "Training simulators, medical diagnostics, architectural walk-throughs – the potential for VR is huge."

And if VR innovations continue at their current hyper-pace, that potential will be very real, very soon.

Emmy Award-winning VR in Ontario

A growing number of Ontario's digital gaming and video production companies are playing at the leading edge of VR content and tech development.

Secret Location, a Toronto-based marketing services firm, won a Creative Arts Emmy Award in 2015 for its Sleepy Hollow VR production, the first Emmy ever awarded for a VR project.

Other Ontario tech start-ups are pushing VR's hardware and software boundaries. Sulon Technologies, backed by AMD, demonstrated the world's first all-in-one, tether-free, "wear and play" headset for VR, AR and spatial computing at the 2016 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco.

And Liquid Cinema's software tools, developed in collaboration with partners that include Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, can make VR authoring and cross-platform distribution cheaper and easier.

November 23, 2016

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