As the locks start to get blocked, location-based entertainment (LBE) goes off again, as people want to get out of their house and do something different. There has been an increase in virtual reality (VR)-focused locations, either reopening or launching new experiences, allowing gamers to immerse themselves in movie and video game franchises for the first time. Before the pandemic Sandbox VR was one of the operators that went from doing very well to declaring bankruptcy and then recovering in late 2020. Since then it has expanded and will soon head to the shores of the UK thanks to franchisee Andy Scanlon. VRFocus sat down with Andy to find out why he is so excited about the future of the industry.
Unlike some virtual spaces that use generic platform management systems to offer gamers immersive titles from a number of developers, Sandbox VR is one of the few operators to have its own unique titles such as Amber sky i Deadwood Mansion. They are all designed in-house, so visitors can enjoy a unique virtual reality experience that can’t be found anywhere else, one of the reasons the company was so good before Covid.
Still, starting a new franchise is no small task, especially considering Scanlon’s plans to open several locations in the UK from London. There are cities like Birmingham, Manchester and more. Initially, London will see 2-3 places open during 2021 before going any further.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
So how did you get into virtual reality in the first place?
“Working in technology investments that I loved, took me to Singapore where I worked with entrepreneurs and investors, really supporting them by finding investment companies that were at the forefront of their particular industries, ordering business models and their strategic direction.
“And, in a very simple way, I found myself in a Sandbox VR venue, the one in Singapore, one of its oldest venues. I remember taking out that headset for the first time after that 35 minute experience and the light bulb just lit up. It changed the way we see entertainment, it changed the way we see social leisure. I had been looking at virtual reality for a long time and investing in a couple of companies in the UK and Singapore, but at the time I hadn’t looked at location-based virtual reality space.
“That first experience I had with my partner and their three friends for their birthday, and it was just then that I saw what entertainment could be. I took off my headphones and thought “that’s it”, I can only see how the industry is evolving towards something that hasn’t really been considered by 99.9% of the people on the planet.
“There are about six LBE VR brands in Singapore, so the next day I booked to go see the others, I went to Zero Latency, I went back to Sandbox and that’s when I thought‘ this is the that I have to do “.
So how did you become a Sandbox VR franchisee?
“I contacted Sandbox and I contacted Steve (Zhao, CEO) in Hong Kong and I told my story and I said you thought about sports and this and that, it could be bigger than the 3D that IMAX always promised, a real innovation step in leisure.
“So I probably talked to him for 20 minutes before I said,‘ Have you thought about being a franchise? and I said no, but the moment he said it, I knew he would do it 100%. A couple of weeks later [after looking at the market] I said I think this could be huge in the UK, I’ve lived in London for a few years now, I know what it’s like to do corporate events and make beers after working with your team. If we look at the UK in general in terms of leisure density, it is the highest [outside of China] leisure density; therefore, it is the largest number of places per capita in the world.
“And so I thought Sandbox was the most important player in space; has stood out for the amount of money they have been able to raise, but also for Steve’s direction. Without a doubt, it was the best experience I had of all the virtual reality experiences I had played so far. ”
This deal came in 2020, halfway through the pandemic and halfway through closure, you obviously had a very positive industry outlook for the future.
“Honestly, the way to think about it is that technology in general has been fantastic during the pandemic to keep us connected, but at the end of the day it has always been a remote connection. That’s why phrases like “zoom fatigue” have started to pop up, people are just tired of doing their weekly team meetings on Zoom. So my way of looking at it from a sociological perspective is that the demand for shared group activities has only increased during the pandemic, as we have moved away from each other. Personally, and with everyone I talk to, I feel like when we’re closed, what you really want is to go to the pub with your classmates or do something with your classmates. Therefore, we are not too concerned about the sociological impact of the pandemic, we do not believe it will affect shared long-term social leisure experiences.
“Obviously, we are worried about future blockades, if we can’t be open, that’s a concern. I don’t think Covid will disappear later this year or even next year, but I think it’s an easy hurdle to overcome. First, because of Sandbox, as it has shown throughout its network that most of the sites that Sandbox actually trades above pre-pandemic levels. Second, the actual experience or customer journey that Sandbox offers is highly geared towards maintaining and meeting safety standards when it comes to Covid-19.
“The demand for shared experience has only increased during the pandemic and we want to offer customers an experience they can enjoy with their friends and family. For us, a real project of passion behind the company, building a business that allows “to see people remember why they like to go out and organize things with their friends. Because what we offer is better than anything on the market right now.”
So how will the UK work and what can customers expect?
“Therefore, VR rooms are called Holodecks Star Trek and are about a quarter the size of a zero latency room [for reference]. What Sandbox does very well is that it uses the game and the map to traverse yours [previous] steps to make it look like a different room. Therefore, it is a smaller room, but what allows us is to bring this technology to the city centers, focusing on where the masses are, whether they are shopping malls or real city centers, which most of our competitors cannot do.
“We got the UK franchise that gives us exclusive rights to bring Sandbox VR to this market. We want to launch a large number of sites in a fairly short time, in five years, starting in London, but we’re looking at the whole country. Following one or two places in London, we will try to go to Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, all kinds of big cities where we believe the technology will work well.
“We’re looking for downtown locations of between 6,000 and 10,000 square feet, we’d like to have four to five Holodecks in each location. This allows us to offer multiple start times, we don’t just depend on one or two Holodecks, but people can come and go quite quickly.What we are looking for is to build this social environment where people go and go, there to enjoy virtual reality.In addition to virtual reality, which is not being done at all Sandbox place in the world, currently none of them offer food and drink.We will be the first Sandbox place to offer food and drink, not to offer it, which I think would be a mistake.So we are looking to develop a really futuristic place with a waiter robotic, we want people to have the feeling of entering London 2068, so it’s very fun and very futuristic ”.
Virtual reality has this futuristic vibration, but how can public uncertainty regarding technology be avoided?
“While keeping in mind that you can focus and design your marketing campaigns, you need to make sure you spend more time on education instead of‘ getting to Sandbox VR. ’Location-based RV? what I really like, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m optimistic, is that the lack of awareness of it ensures that the difference between post-experience and pre-experience is greater because people don’t have a clue where to go.
“You can only do it with a high degree of confidence that the product and the experience are good enough. It is not necessary to educate everyone until the ninth grade who knows exactly what he is doing, but he knows that only through word of mouth, that once people do it he will explain it to all his friends and post on social media communication “.
With 14 Sandbox VR locations open worldwide, when will the UK venue debut?
“It simply came to our notice then. We are aiming for the first quarter of 2022, probably a soft launch that is approaching a hard launch at the end of Easter. Then, the number two place during the summer and possibly narrowing a third at the end of the year.