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A new reality: could VR revive the amusement arcade? | Business

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The rise of the gaming console has left its mark on living rooms and bedrooms around Britain – but it has also hit the high street. There were around 1,000 amusement arcades in the UK in the 1980s, but that number had halved by 2011, according to the amusements industry trade body, Bacta.

Now, the next generation of gaming – virtual reality – is once again making the arcade the prime venue for playing cutting-edge games.

Back at the inception of gaming, fans went to video-game arcades. Japanese coin-operated games like Out Run and Street Fighter managed to draw in players once Pac-Man and Donkey Kong fell away, but they could not beat increasingly impressive home consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation, which came along in the mid-90s, and Microsoft’s Xbox at the turn of the century.

Seaside arcades have clung on as “family entertainment centres” or “mixed entertainment facilities”, full of games aimed at small children alongside rides and attractions.

However, VR Star in Bristol is one of several hundred virtual reality arcades around the UK that are persuading gamers to quit their homes for the high street. They mirror a global trend for dedicated “VRcades” springing up in the US, Japan, South Korea and China. With 380 such dedicated venues now operating around the world, could VR offer the arcade a route back in the shape of so-called “destination gaming”?

While it’s possible to buy budget technology, good quality VR is expensive. HTC’s Vive headset is available for around £599 in the UK, but to function effectively it requires a computer with serious processing power and a high quality graphics card, raising the bar to thousands of pounds. Even then you’re not tapping the full potential of VR gaming.

The driving simulators and shoot-em-ups in VR Star Bristol are further brought to life with motion sensors and high-quality sound, taking the experience to another level. The 360-degree visuals and depth of field take on another dimension when paired with hydraulics and tilting floors. LA-based Dreamscape Immersive’s Alien Zoo experience even uses wind machines to add to the sensation of movement.

“To get the full experience, VR needs what we call SiSoMo: sight, sound and motion,” says Martin Higginson, the executive chairman of British developer Immotion, which owns VR Star. “If you want a truly immersive experience you need high-end components, and for that reason VR will be an out-of-home experience for some years. I’ve spent most of my life in digital media and it is the most exciting thing yet.”

Situated in a modest space in Cabot Circus shopping centre, VR Star was launched to test the waters in mid-December. By the beginning of March, it had admitted 4,000 customers, paying £30 an hour.

The enthusiastic response has encouraged the company to open four more venues in Swindon, Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds. A total of 60 VR Stars are planned around the country, along with units in existing arcades and custom-made rides for brands such as Legoland. Just before Christmas, Immotion announced a £1.3m investment to launch its platforms in Europe and the US.

The units in VR Star play games from a Chinese developer but Immotion intends to run its own titles following last year’s acquisition of Studio Liddell, a Manchester-based animation producer.

“What you see and experience currently is like the early days of computer gaming,” says Higginson. “It’s going to improve rapidly. Those games are 2K [screen resolution] but very soon we will be running 4K with faster processing and better rendering. We will take you on Jurassic rides or helicopter you over the Serengeti and it will blow you away.”

Experts say VR has come at the right time for the arcade business. “Arcades have always had lifecycles reflecting changing innovation,” says Devi Kolli, the head of VR equipment firm AiSolve. “They can’t survive the way they are without reinventing themselves with cutting-edge technology, and we are part of that. The response to VR so far suggests the market is hungry for good products.”

If they are prepared to invest in the new generation of VR, existing arcades could enjoy a return to prominence as gaming destinations, though they will have to compete with dedicated spaces like VR Star.

Jeremy Dalton, a VR consultant at PwC, is more positive. He says the complexity of setting up VR experiences offers an ideal chance for arcades. “The set-up issues with VR provides a perfect opportunity for third parties … and that’s gaming arcades. You just hand over your money and enjoy the ride.”

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BusinessTechnologyTravel & leisureUber

Uber valued at $48bn after consortium secures shares deal | Technology

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A consortium led by SoftBank Group Corp has successfully bought a large number of shares in Uber in a deal that values the ride-hailing/food delivery firm at $48bn (£36bn), Uber said on Thursday.

The price is a discount of about 30% to Uber’s most recent valuation of $68bn. The deal will trigger a number of changes in the way the board oversees the company, which is facing federal criminal investigations, a high-stakes lawsuit and complaints about its workplace culture.

Uber said the deal would be completed early next year. SoftBank and the rest of the consortium, which includes Dragoneer Investment Group, will own about 17.5%, including a secondary share purchase from earlier investors and employees, as well as $1.25bn of fresh funding.

SoftBank required a minimum threshold of a 14% stake of the company to proceed with the deal. SoftBank itself will keep a 15% stake, while the rest of the consortium will own about 3%.

The investment is seen as a sign of support from the influential investors for Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took the job in August and has helped negotiate the deal. Uber is losing more than $1bn each quarter and a cash infusion is critical.

Uber said it would use the investment “to support our technology investments, fuel our growth and strengthen our corporate governance”.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on Thursday that the deal would be successful, citing unnamed sources.

When the deal is completed, the company will make governance changes, including expanding its board from 11 to 17 members including four independent directors, limiting some early shareholders’ voting power and cutting the control wielded by the former chief executive Travis Kalanick.

“The stockholders did the smart thing,” said Erik Gordon, an entrepreneurship expert at the University of Michigan’s Ross school of business. “The price is less important than locking in the governance changes and securing the support of the world’s most powerful technology investor.

“If the stockholders hadn’t taken the price, the value of the company would have been battered by a return to stockholder infighting and the possibility of Kalanick’s return.”

Rajeev Misra, the chief executive of SoftBank’s Vision Fund, a $98bn tech investment vehicle, will join the Uber board, along with a second representative from SoftBank. Misra said SoftBank had “tremendous confidence in Uber’s leadership and employees”.

The board at Uber, which is planning an initial public offering in 2019, made their final concessions to pave the way for the SoftBank deal in early November.

The SoftBank founder, Masayoshi Son, has taken a keen interest in ride-hailing companies around the world and already has sizeable stakes in China’s Didi, Brazil-based 99, India’s Ola and Grab Singapore, all of which have competed with Uber.

The investment comes after a year of troubles for Uber, including a lawsuit by Alphabet Inc’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, that alleges trade secrets theft, and federal investigations that include possible bribery of foreign officials in Asian countries and the use of software to evade regulators.

Over the past year, a former employee’s charges of endemic sexual harassment led to an internal review, the mayor of London said he would strip Uber of its licence and Uber revealed it had covered up a major hack.

In June, Kalanick was forced to step down, although he remains on the board and is still one of the largest stakeholders.

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Dara Khosrowshahi: who is the man chosen as Uber’s next CEO? | Technology

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The man designated as Uber’s new chief executive left Tehran for the US aged nine on the eve of the Iranian revolution, and became a driving force behind the success of the online travel company Expedia.

Dara Khosrowshahi, who was chosen ahead of Meg Whitman, the chief executive of HP Enterprise, and the former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, is expected to join the ride-hailing company after 12 years at the helm of Expedia, during which time it made a series of acquisitions and took on a dominant role in the travel industry.

In an internal memo seen by Reuters, Expedia’s chairman, Barry Diller, said nothing had been finalised, but “having extensively discussed this with Dara I believe it is his intention to accept” the Uber post.

Khosrowshahi, 48, emerged as a surprise appointment after a two-month search by Uber to replace its co-founder Travis Kalanick, who resigned after a string of controversies.

The Iranian-American’s task will be to steady the ship and restore confidence in a business that looked primed for global dominance but has been beset by struggles including legal challenges and allegations of discrimination.

The San Francisco-based company was valued at $68.5bn (£53bn) last year, although its perceived worth has slipped since then. Senior executives have departed, while the company has faced accusations of sexual discrimination and harassment, and legal headaches including an intellectual property dispute with Waymo, the company operating Google’s self-driving car.

Khosrowshahi’s predecessor resigned in June following pressure from investors, after video footage was released by Bloomberg showing him berating an Uber driver who had complained about the difficulty of making a living. The company’s reputation had already been harmed by the descriptions in a blogpost by a former employee of a workplace rife with gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

A review of its workplace culture by the former US attorney general Eric Holder recommended that Kalanick’s role be reduced. At least 20 employees have been sacked over complaints including discrimination and bullying.

Accepting the Uber job means Khosrowshahi is likely to have to forgo about half of an expected $95m loyalty bonus that was announced by Expedia in 2015 to tie the chief executive to his post until 2020. The payment in company stock came on top of a $1m salary and annual bonuses that have run to several millions.

After his family left Tehran, Khosrowshahi grew up in New York state, spending six of his teenage years raised solely by his mother after his father was detained in Iran, having returned to take care of his own father.

The young Khosrowshahi started a career in finance after attending Brown University. He moved from the investment bank Allen & Company to management at InterActive Corp, which acquired Expedia and appointed Khosrowshahi as chief executive in 2005. Since then, he has been involved in several mergers and acquisitions, including buying Trivago and Travelocity. He has also sat on the board of the New York Times Company since 2015.

While Kalanick was briefly a member of Donald Trump’s advisory council before an Uber boycott prompted his resignation, Khosrowshahi has been an outspoken critic of the US president, particularly over his proposed travel ban. He said his family had been lured by the American dream “and now, our president is trying to pull it away from people of a certain origin and religious belief. I find that sad and very much against what our founders set out to build.”

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