In America, we tend to think of VR as an at-home experience. We’re imagine being tethered to a Vive or sitting on a couch with a PSVR HMD strapped to our face. Reports from other areas of the world, especially Asia, suggest a more social, public interface with virtual reality in the form of arcades and other sorts of installations. One Bellevue-based company, VRStudios, takes public VR seriously. They’ve established a track record of delivering impressive experiences that suggest where the future of arcade-style immersive tech might take us.
A few weeks back I experienced one of VRStudios’ projects myself, at Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn. VRStudios worked with the casino to transform a dance floor into a VR play space. Participants don a VRStudios wireless headset and are given a gun. Both pieces of hardware look like a genetic mashup of an HTV Vive and Tinkertoys. My movements were tracked by sensors mounted to heavy-duty rigging and audio was delivered via speakers mounted overhead. The dance floor turned game space was surrounded by tables and chairs where casino-goers could watch my progress on monitors while presumably spending their winnings or drowning their sorrows on cocktails.
I played two of VRStudios’ games at Muckleshoot–a zombie shooter, and a cowboy shooter. While I blasted away at the onslaught of the undead and gunslingers, I could hear people in the room shouting at me to “turn around!” while the audio issued from the speakers above my head.
I was curious to learn more about VRStudios’ other projects, which include a VR experience at Universal Studios Orlando and installations in 11 countries including China and the UAE. I visited their offices yesterday for a round of demos with Chief Revenue Officer Brian Vowinkel, VP of Corporate Communications Teresa Fausti, and audio engineer/rock star drummer Chanel Summers. Weirdly, for me, they occupy an office in Sunset North, a complex where I once worked for Drugstore.com and Expedia. I tried to keep my dotcom flashbacks under control. All that copy writing about feminine hygiene products and cruise ships…
I was led to a room dominated by a steel frame covered in motion sensors that resembled the stage scaffolding of a concert. There was gear everywhere, both custom-built and off-the-shelf. I played two games and experienced a customizable virtual condominium that the startup developed for an enterprise client.
What impressed me most of all about these experiences was just how much space I could wander around in. “Roomscale” still pretty much means “bathroom sized.” But VRStudios’ platform allows for massive play spaces. This, I bet, is going to be one of the key differences between at-home VR experiences and public VR experiences. In public, you can build an environment that fills a 12′ by 15′ space. Or even, conceivably, one as big as a football field.
CEO Charles Herrick popped in and I asked the team what they were learning about how different cultures are adopting VR. Herrick shared that in Dubai, they had to convert the red blood in their experiences green. Their Japanese clients wanted more gore, and the ability to attack each other in multi-player mode. Their Canadian clients wanted less violence in general. (I suppose all bets are off as soon as they experience virtual hockey.)
VRStudios strikes me as a smart team confronting challenges that don’t occur to most local startups. They’re bridging the physical world and the virtual, crossing international borders, translating experiences to fit the expectations of different cultures, and developing projects that promise to change the way we think about theme parks and other public spaces. They report long lines at tech expos where they demo their experiences, and they’re thinking hard about how their platform might benefit a variety of industries, from architecture to aerospace. VRStudios has been at it for longer than most area startups, which means they’ve tried and failed and tried again more than most. I’m curious to see where they take public VR, and I’ll be excited to see just how far they let me wander next time.