The best way to get someone to understand VR’s potential is to get them under a headset. Virtual reality can elicit powerful responses but is definitely a difficult experience to describe. Expos, conventions, in-store displays, and the like are bridges to the curious but still not quite a full-proof means to reach out to the less informed. Enter VR arcades. Arcades are springing up all over the place giving inquiring minds a venue to experience VR and we had an opportunity chat with a gentleman who’s opened a new VR arcade/lounge in Seattle called Portal.
Tim Harader is a digital media professional and president of Hypershow, the company Portal operates under. Hypershow as a company previously developed technology for object-based interactivity in videos but hasn’t been active for a couple years. Then, VR came along and forced Tim to dust Hypershow off. “When I tried it I immediately realized this isn’t just for gamers,” he says. “This is really technology that anybody can enjoy.”
Harader tried VR for the first time back in August of 2016 and again at PAX soon after. “When you first put on the headset and you’re just in the [lobby or lounge] you’re overwhelmed with immersion,” he reflects. After being blown away he then started looking into required hardware and cost, quickly realizing that it’d be out of reach for all but the most enthusiastic. He notes it’s specifically out of reach for the younger demographic. “If you’re a teenager and you’re trying to decide between buying a used car and buying a high-end VR rig, you’re probably buying the used car.”
Instead of sitting back and hoping a price drop would bring VR into more homes, Harader and a small group fully funded Portal. It has undergone a soft open currently, booking 1-hour sessions online with 15-minute sessions available for walk-ins and it all runs on HTC Vive Business Editions. The lounge aspect of the establishment is enhanced with beers from Seattle breweries like Pyramid and other local microbrews.
As described on its website, Portal provides VR experiences “in a sophisticated, but family-friendly environment”. The building has 10 dedicated VR booths of various themes, a standalone set-up featuring Richie’s Plank, and a mixed reality booth so players can be seen moving around virtual worlds by onlookers. Richie’s Plank is set up as an appetizer with all the booths being the main course and it is perfect in that function. Using an actual prop for people to stand on, Richie’s Plank toys with our fear of heights or of falling and shows just how powerful VR can be.
The booths themselves focus on different styles of gameplay and don’t have the same games at every workstation considering that’d be prohibitively expensive from a licensing standpoint. Two of them are kids/newbie themed, one experimental, another fps/gore/horror, with the others being fairly general. The crew plans to swap them out every month based on interest, which they can track by looking at hours played for each booth and experience. Even though they haven’t held a grand open, Harader says they’re already going to switch out the Realities game because there’s simply not much interest in it. Realities take you around the world with virtual versions of real locales and it’d make sense to be distracted by the other more fantastic worlds in other booths.
Like the origins of a lot of new businesses, Tim and his team saw an opportunity that could fill a void. This VR lounge/arcade can drive general awareness of VR. It’s a small business testing the waters but Harader says “if the business model works, we’re thinking about expanding it”.