It has been decades since I set foot inside a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant--eateries promising family fun don't really cater to gentlemen in their early 40s unaccompanied by children. So my memories of the place tend to be frozen-in-amber recollections of skee-ball machines, whack-a-mole games, and audio-animatronic animals singing along to songs about pizza.
As it turns out, this view of the Chuck E. Cheese experience is woefully outdated. Chuck E. Cheese is wrapping his little mouse arms firmly around cutting-edge gaming technology in the form of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
On Wednesday, the restaurant chain announced it would introduce an Oculus Rift-based game to select markets. A Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in Dallas gets first crack at the VR headset; later this month, 15 more locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area will add Oculus Rift technology along with six restaurants in Orlando and eight more in San Diego.
The Oculus Rift is probably most closely associated with the slew of driving simulators and dogfight games, but the fare that Chuck E. Cheese's parent CEC Entertainment has in mind is a little more kid-friendly. The company is testing out a virtual Ticket Blaster game, in which players don the virtual reality headset to enter a 360-degree environment filled with virtual tickets. As Chuck E. Cheese himself floats around you, you try to grab as many of these virtual tickets as possible; the headset registers the number of tickets you grab, and you can redeem them at the restaurant's merchandise counter. (Hopefully, the prizes at the counter have gotten a 21st century overhaul as well.)
The Oculus Rift isn't a commercially shipping product yet, so this game will be running on prototype hardware.
CEC developed the virtual Ticket Blaster game with the help of Reel FX, an animation and digital experience studio that's been working with the Oculus Rift since its days as a Kickstarter project.
"The Oculus Rift is sort of one of those ways that we can extend new technology into our stores and be a leader and be the first to the marketplace and provide an experience for kids they just can't get anywhere else," said Jeremy Blaido, senior director of marketing and communications for CEC, in a video accompanying the Oculus Rift announcement.
And that's the interesting thing about this bit of news. (Well, that and the fact that Chuck E. Cheese has gotten an extensive makeover from when I used to patronize his pizza parlor.) It's still early days for the Oculus Rift and its suddenly growing number of rival headsets. Obviously, headsets like these will be a big part of gaming going forward, but look for Oculus (and its new owner Facebook) to push for even wider uses, whether it's for watching movies or collecting arcade tickets while a virtual reality mouse cheers you on.