Virtual reality puts fresh spin on arcade culture

By Austin Spearman

When was the last time you went into slow motion to spray down a horde of flesh-craving robots?

Or when was the last time you went skiing down Mount Kilimanjaro?

In a small space on College Street all of that and many more realities are just a headset away.

Michael Chabot’s ordinary trip to Toronto took a turn for the extraordinary when he was transferred out of his world and into the land of virtual reality. “It was something I haven’t tried before so I was pretty excited.”

The long corridor of padded rooms greeted Chabot as he paid the man that would be his guide to a multitude of virtual realities. A headset and controllers were his gateway from a cold afternoon on College Street at VRPlayin. After a few uncomfortable moments he adjusts to his surroundings and begins his journey of shooting down hordes of evil robots. “It felt like a scene from I Robot, and I was Will Smith saving the day.”

It felt like a scene from I Robot, and I was Will Smith saving the day.

The experiences went up from there. Next up was the journey from a single-celled organism to a full-sized human called Life of Us. “With this game I really felt that I was part of that other world,” says Chabot. He transformed from a single-celled organism into a flying, fire-breathing pterodactyl.

“Knowing I was on the ground safe but still feeling like I was flying was such a surreal moment.”

The Sundance Film Festival award-winning game completely immersed Chabot to a point of losing touch with his own reality. This, along with many other experiences, are part of the new wave of arcades that are taking over the city’s gaming scene.

Long before these immersive experiences and trippy gaming spots existed, a simpler time in video games defined the atmosphere, community and high scores on your favourite game. These arcades used to be a showcase of the latest and greatest tech in the gaming industry that at one point generated billions. Places like Tilt and Get Well have already managed to carve out a name for themselves with their retro games and a healthy dose of nostalgia. These niche bars have managed to bring the arcade life back to a mainstream crowd but now the torch has been passed onto the new school of virtual reality.

In the VR game Sprint Vector, players run, jump and even fly to beat each other in an inter-dimensional race. (Image courtesy of Survios)

These new VR bars offer a unique space for friends to come in and rekindle that feeling of leaving your house to explore a new virtual world.  These “VRcades” provide community access to their state of the art technology and are fully capable of reviving the once nostalgia-based arcade industry.

With recent investments of approximately $14 billion in 2017 according to the International Data Corporation, the VR world looks to take a serious foothold in the video game industry. This investment will help them compete with the number one trend in video gaming: E-sports.

Sweeping from Asia to North America, e-sports has even captured the attention of the NBA to create its own league.

With only a 9 per cent interest in Canada for VR according to a 2016 AOL report, the industry faces the task of showing the difference between simply playing on a console versus being fully immersed in the game.

Knowing I was on the ground safe but still feeling like I was flying was such a surreal moment.

VRPlayin manager Colin Snelson believes that the best experiences are offered at VR bars over attempting an at-home setup. “Somebody could go out and buy one of these but what they can’t do is play with 10 of their friends,” says Snelson. One of the reasons their store opened in the first place was the lack of multiplayer availability in VR. You can recreate a cheap version of the setup at Snelson’s location for around $2,500.

For their setup, they use infrared sensors in the controllers, helmets and corners of the VR booths to create a virtual mesh for the player to exist in. This top-of-the-line technology allows for an environment in which that classic arcade atmosphere thrives. “We built it as a venue and as an experience centre,” says Snelson.

His store offers a wide range of game selections that allow for each person to find what’s right for them. From being immersed in a claymation film, to shooting an Uzi and swinging a katana, their game selection allows a variety of unique experiences that cater to everyone.

VRPlayin is just one of the many virtual reality establishments that have popped up in the GTA in the past few years.

Sprint Vector is a multiplayer parkour VR game that puts players on a flashy, brightly coloured race track. (Image courtesy of Survios)

Leading the new wave of the revival and upgrade of arcade culture in the city is the colourful and space-age looking House of VR. This vibrant two-story cube-like building reflects the futuristic technology that it houses and is more like an art gallery than an arcade, explains founder and CEO Jonah Brotman.

“We do a lot of stuff that showcases VR as a really cool technology and not just for gaming.” One of these showcases was the VR empathy series created by Brotman. This simulation allows you to walk off the streets of Toronto and into the shoes of a fleeing Syrian refugee hearing the cries of relief as they reach safe passage.

The future of VR ranges so much further than gaming; even the recent winter Olympics was able to be fully broadcasted in the forum. House of VR stays close to the formula of pushing the boundaries with their inclusion of art exhibits that use VR to add another dimension to the art.

“We do a lot of different events that push it out of that gaming mindset,” says the CEO.

As much as Brotman’s space is an arcade, it is also an event and group experience centre. Through corporate retreats, educational weeks for kids, or interactive exhibits, the House of VR takes the traditional arcade experience and expands it to something much more than playing a game because Brotman says focusing solely on gaming might not be enough to keep them in business.

These VRcades are creating spaces for any average Joe to come in from their mundane life and be transported into a virtual world where they can do the impossible and experience the ineffable. Michael Chabot’s first-time journeying into the virtual universe only left him wanting more. “It’s an experience that I’ve never had before and am craving to have again.”

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