Virtual reality arcades look just like corporate offices yet they're anything but

Virtual reality arcades look just like corporate offices yet they're anything but

CultureJuly 12, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Real life is so yesterday.

Now, all it takes is to strap on goggles, grab a controller; and suddenly you've disappeared from Earth.

This is the reality of virtual reality arcades.

[In Boulder, Reality Garage co-owner Gregory Sklar provides ukele music while Ryan Done, an intern, plays Star Wars Battlefront.]

The arcades themselves look just as boring as any corporate office owned by Dunder Mifflin would. But in just a couple short hours, in separate virtual reality arcades around Colorado:

- I got goosebumps from zombies that staggered toward me — and blasted their heads clean off.

- I shook with fear while tiptoeing on a plank hanging off a 40-story building — and felt my stomach drop as I "fell."

- Was transported to an African safari, where a water buffalo sniffed me out — and I swear I felt its breath fog up my face.

- I also piloted an X-Wing fighter into a meteor while getting blasted by a couple dozen knock-off Agent Smiths in a seemingly real-life Matrix.

It's nuts. Inside, your virtual hands move just like your real hands do; the virtual you ducks and weaves like your real body does. Tilt your head left, you look left. Look up, you look up. Just like reality. Except, in this “reality,” you're always transporting to some Alice in Wonderland landscape where you're an infinite hero — instead of just looking like a cut-rate Judge Dredd wearing a goofy mask under a drop ceiling with halogen lights.

Of course, I also bumped the controllers against walls, stumbled over chairs, got tangled up in the cords, felt a little dizzy, even claustrophobic, and was always relieved to exit the Matrix and transport back to this dimension.

[In Lakewood, Colorado, Head Games VR COO Nathan Hostetler shoots invisible bad guys while playing Superhot on one of his arcade's three HTC Vive setups.]

It may or may not be the way I experience all my entertainment in the future, as its boosters predict. But as a way to spend a few hours on a Friday night? Virtual reality arcades have got bowling, the movies and staring blankly into the void of the Internet right in their crosshairs as competition.

"As soon as I tried them, I was hooked," says Nathan Hosteler, 31, COO of Head Games VR in Lakewood, Colorado. In its cavernous play space, three stations of HTC Vives let players transport to Arizona deserts, fly through cities, and shoot their buddies in the virtual reality bay next door — all for just $29 an hour, with the first few minutes free.

Hostetler is on the crest of a trend spreading like a virtual tidal wave, as reality arcades are opening up around the globe. The IMAX VR Experience Centre in Los Angeles drew 15,000 visitors in its first three months of operation; IMAX plans to open 5,000 more arcades around the world just like it.

An HTC exec says there are 3,000 HTC VR arcades in China already. A virtual reality "theme park" is planning to open this November in Utah.

At the Reality Garage on Pearl Street in Boulder, they're not just opening an arcade — they're striving to "use virtual reality to do good." That's the mantra of co-owner Gregory Sklar. He says that, by putting people in different realities, you can teach them all kinds of things — from how to box to paint to how to care for endangered species. And it might be a little true. After I petted that water buffalo, I felt slightly more likely to donate to the World Wildlife Fund ... although I just ended up playing Star Wars instead.

It's clear from their basement hangout, where the walls are hung with Hololenses, Playstation VRs, Oculus Rifts and all kinds of other VR gidgy-gadgets — where an intense crew of gamers, programmers and dreamers peck away at MacBooks and Unity Platforms programming new ways to use VR — that these goggles allow you to see some part of the future.

Sklar says that anyone is welcome to check out the Reality Garage. There's not even a fixed price — just a Square reader and a jar where you can donate what you want. (It's Boulder — even the tech nerds are hippies there.)

In any novel about virtual reality, the players always get sucked into the machines and forget about real life. But until everyone has their own VR setup in their houses and so never has to leave their living rooms again, they'll have to come to virtual reality arcades to glimpse the future: and shoot the hell out of as many zombie craniums as they’d like.