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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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Vancouver Mall arcade brings virtual reality to the masses

VR Junkies opened nearly a year ago

By , Columbian business reporter
4 Photos
Ricky Watkins of Illinois takes aim while playing the zombie shooter VR game “Arizona Sunshine” at VR Junkies in Vancouver Mall. The game is one of the most popular titles at the arcade, in part because it allows cooperative play for multiple visitors.
Ricky Watkins of Illinois takes aim while playing the zombie shooter VR game “Arizona Sunshine” at VR Junkies in Vancouver Mall. The game is one of the most popular titles at the arcade, in part because it allows cooperative play for multiple visitors. Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

If you’ve visited a major shopping mall in the past couple years, you might’ve noticed a new type of store that’s been popping up: virtual reality arcades, with rows of headsets to let players try out the latest and greatest virtual reality games.

I’ve seen a few of them here and there, but I’d never been to one, so when the VR Junkies arcade company reached out and asked if we wanted to tour its Vancouver Mall location, I volunteered to check it out.

I should disclose up front that I’m one of those weird early adopters who owns a VR headset at home, so I can’t really offer an outsider’s assessment of the technology, but I was curious to see how the arcade would stack up.

And from a reporter’s standpoint, I also wanted to learn more about the emerging VR arcade business, so I stopped by Dec. 20 to chat with store owner Mike Rowe and some of the staff about the arcade and the VR industry — and to try out some of the available games.

A new twist on arcades

The Vancouver Mall arcade is nestled in a small storefront at the east end. Its relatively sparse interior emphasizes that visitors are really here for the headsets.

Seven cubicles line the walls, each with about 50 square feet of spongy mat-covered floor space, walled off from the next by a sheet of black plastic attached to a metal frame. The plastic has some give to it, which Rowe explains is very much by design. That’s because when people are wearing a VR headset and moving around energetically, it helps to have walls that are a bit more forgiving.

“I’ve had a 14-year-old run full speed into one,” Rowe says. “It just bounced him back.”

Before I go further with the description, I should probably throw in some background on VR for those of you who aren’t giant nerds. There are dozens of different VR headsets from companies like Google, HTC, Sony and the Facebook-owned Oculus, and most of them have hit the market in the past three to four years. They all operate based on the same principle: They place a screen a couple inches from the user’s eyes, but divided in half so that each eye can be shown the same image at a slightly different angle, mimicking the way human eyes see in three dimensions. The headsets are equipped with motion sensors so that when the user moves their head, the system adjusts the image on the screen to create the illusion that the user is looking at a three-dimensional environment that surrounds them.

The difference between the various headsets lies in their underlying computing power. Some headsets are self-contained or use a smartphone as the screen, and are typically able to show VR videos and simple games. But higher-end headsets rely on connected game consoles or desktop computers to supply the number-crunching power to run complex video games.

Each cubicle at VR Junkies is equipped with a Vive headset and two accompanying wireless controllers. The Vive is produced by hardware manufacturer HTC and software company Valve, which also operates the online gaming service Steam. VR Junkies’ arcades use Vive headsets so they can access the VR catalog on Steam, Rowe explains.

The headsets are powered by gaming PCs mounted overhead, which track the headsets and controllers through a pair of infrared sensors mounted at opposite corners each cubicle. The headset itself is connected to the system through a cable that runs up through a pulley on the ceiling, allowing the user to walk freely without cords in the way.

Virtual reality headsets are frequently marketed to individual home consumers, but Rowe says part of the appeal of the emerging arcade model comes from cost savings. Each booth’s gaming PC comes in at about $1,400. Add the cost of the headset and controllers, and the price of a similar setup at home could easily top $2,000 — and that’s before buying any games.

The arcade boasts a roster of more than 60 games, most of which the arcade can acquire at a discounted rate, Rowe says, because VR Junkies’ parent company can make deals with developers. The player costs start at a dollar per minute, although longer time slots are discounted. There are some special discount days and loyalty promotions, but generally an hour will set you back $45. So is it worth it? I’ll let you know what I think at the end of the story.

Test run

I can’t accurately write about the arcade if I haven’t tried it out myself, right? So we head over to one of the vacant booths and store manager Hiram Farnworth helps me put on the headset and hands me the controllers.

The lights come on and I’m standing inside a virtual control room, with a screen full of game options stretched in front of me. The control room is for the pros, Farnworth explains, so they can switch games without having to take the headset off. But the arcade staff can help VR newbies by selecting the games themselves using a keyboard attached to each booth.

In this case, Farnworth starts off by loading up “Beat Saber,” one of the arcade’s most popular games. The game shows a series of red and blue blocks — representing musical notes — that fly toward me, and the goal is to chop them using a pair of virtual laser swords. The sword hilts are “mapped” to the two controllers, meaning the swords in the game mimic the movements of the controllers in real life.

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I have to reiterate that I have a VR headset at home — and I’ve played “Beat Saber” before. So I can’t exactly call it beginner’s luck when I make it through the first song pretty easily.

Still, this version is notably different because it offers so much more freedom of movement. My own setup is a PlayStation VR headset, which is sort of the midrange option; about a third the cost of what’s in the arcade booths, but less powerful. It also tracks user movement using just one camera, and there isn’t enough space in my apartment to stand very far from it, so I usually have to stay rooted in one spot to make sure I don’t stray outside the camera’s field of view.

But with this setup, I can go anywhere. I can sidestep obstacles instead of having to awkwardly lean over, and I can swing the swords any distance and in any direction — all while trying not to think about how hilarious I probably look in real life. And on the semi-frequent occasions when I stray too close to one of the real-world walls, a transparent wall pops up in the game to warn me.

After “Beat Saber,” Farnworth cycles the system through three other games, all of which I’ve heard of but never played before: “Job Simulator,” “SuperHot” and “Arizona Sunshine.”

“Job Simulator” is exactly what it sounds like: It tasks the player with completing a series of mundane actions relating to various professions. In this game, the real-world controllers appear as a pair of floating hands that I can open and close by pushing buttons. The game casts me as a chef in a kitchen, charged with retrieving bacon from a nearby fridge and cooking it on the stovetop to serve to customers.

But after burning my first piece of bacon, I decide to start ignoring the objectives and instead see how many other things I can do in the kitchen. It turns out nearly every object in sight can be moved around in realistic ways, so I start experimenting.

I try to see how many foods in the kitchen can fit inside the countertop blender. I also make a valiant but unsuccessful attempt at juggling virtual oranges. And at Farnworth’s suggestion, I toss the burned bacon into a nearby fish tank, where it’s promptly devoured by what turns out to be a school of cartoon piranhas.

“SuperHot” is where I start to run into trouble. The game casts players as a John Wick-style action hero, dodging bullets and punching their way through hordes of featureless mooks. The game slows down time in the surrounding environment whenever the player stands still, so the idea is you can carefully plan your movements in advance to stay ahead of the bad guys.

Unfortunately I seem to have a tendency to do exactly the wrong thing: Every time one of the bad guys charges at me, I immediately speed up — and then so does he, resulting in me dying fast and frequently.

Last up, Farnworth switches me to “Arizona Sunshine,” a shooting game in which the player makes their way through country landscapes overrun with zombies. This one tends to be the most popular title for adult players, Farnworth says.

” ‘Job Simulator’ is what the kids play here most,” he says. ” ‘Arizona Sunshine’ is what adults play.”

At this point I decide I’m having too much fun and need to call it a day. This is a work assignment, after all.

Emerging industry

The VR Junkies brand was founded in 2016 and features 11 locations. It’s one of dozens of VR arcade companies that have popped up in the past few years — including at least two others in the Portland-metro area — as the overall VR industry continues to grow. In a February 2018 market report, the video game research firm SuperData estimated that consumer VR revenue was $2.2 billion in 2017, but would reach $19 billion in 2021.

The report also points to growing interest in VR technology among a number of industries beyond just video gaming, including education, health care and retail, noting that companies like Walmart and Lowe’s have shown interest in VR applications to aid in safety and job training.

At 71, Rowe is a bit of an outlier in the VR arcade industry — most of the other stores in the VR Junkies brand are owned by people in their 30s, he says. But the store’s customer base has also shown an unexpectedly wide age range, he says, with everyone from kids to grandparents coming in to give the games a try — often together as families. And even among the younger crowd, the full VR setup is often a new experience.

“I hadn’t even played a VR game until I started here,” Farnworth says.

Rowe became involved after he happened to bump into a representative from the parent company and became interested in the arcade concept, despite having no prior experience with VR. He previously worked for 21 years as an engineer for the human resources software company Automatic Data Processing.

“I retired as a software engineer and was looking for a business (to get involved in),” he explains. The overall cost of setting up the arcade was around $70,000, Rowe says, including the storefront lease and hardware. The Vancouver Mall location was once home to a traditional arcade, Rowe says, so it was already wired with the dozens of power outlets needed to support the VR machines.

The arcade opened in February with an initial five booths, and added two more a few months later. The additions are separated from the original lineup and can be closed off for groups, Rowe says — the arcade has become a popular birthday party location for kids between the ages of 8 and 12.

The Vancouver arcade is quickly developing a regular customer base, but Rowe says at least a third of its visitors are newcomers who wander in from mall traffic. Most of them haven’t tried VR systems before, so the store’s play sessions are often geared around trying several games in a row.

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Some of the games allow for battles with multiple players, each in a different cube with their own headset. But many visitors also enjoy taking turns and watching, Rowe says, which is why each cubicle is equipped with a couch by the entrance and a TV on one of the walls that shows the game from the player’s perspective.

“Virtual reality is actually a spectator sport,” he says.

The verdict

OK, so I said I wanted to see how the arcade stacks up compared to a home setup. And the answer is pretty easy: the arcade is the winner — in my case, anyway. I can’t speak for other players with more extensive home setups.

The more relevant question is probably whether I think the arcade is worth the price of admission, particularly for people who are new to VR or don’t have full-scale home setups. That’s a trickier one to answer, because we reporters usually try to keep our opinions private and make sure our own voices stay our of our stories.

But I already told you I’ve got a VR setup of my own at home, and I wrote this entire story in my own voice, so I suppose in this case there’s no hiding my enthusiasm for VR games. With that in mind, I’ll leave it at this: Compared to the price of a full home setup, $45 for an hour at a VR arcade seems like a pretty good deal to get the true VR experience.

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