Swing lightsabers, create solar systems at Metro Vancouver's first VR lounge
The first time Alex Chua dipped his toes into high-end virtual reality, he became a convert.
"I'll be honest with you, I just thought it was going to be a big screen in front of my face," Chua said. "I figured, OK, I've seen that stuff before. Big whoop."
But slipping on a pair of goofy-looking goggles and some headphones, he found himself transported. Suddenly he could step into the Star Wars universe, stare out from the summit of Mount Everest, or stave off swarms of attacking zombies.
Months later, Chua and his friend Charlie Shi, who both graduated from UBC's Sauder School of Business just this year, launched UNIVRS, the first virtual reality lounge in Metro Vancouver.
Their vision: to bring cutting edge virtual reality to the masses.
While VR is becoming increasingly popular – a forecast released over the summer estimated it would be a $162 billion industry by 2020 – it remains relatively niche, apart from comparatively simple and less immersive experiences people can try out on their cellphones.
One massive barrier is cost. The top-of-the-line consumer headset, the HTC Vive, costs thousands to set up at home, if you factor in the price of a PC powerful enough to run it.
But Chua and Shi's lounge, located on No. 3 Road in Richmond, is full of Vives, as well as eager staff ready to hold customers' hands through their first forays into VR.
"We're not an arcade," Chua said. "An arcade is like, you have money, you go play. We want to be there for the customer through every aspect of their journey, from the second you step in the door to the second you step out."
This is, in part, because they believe VR can appeal to just about anyone, not just gamers. Chua said he's found that even people who aren't particularly tech-savvy find exploring virtual spaces intuitive.
"To be very transparent, I'm not a gamer myself. I'm an audio-visual guy, and I gave it a shot and it turns out it's not even like gaming. It literally feels like you're just being transported," Chua said.
"On a winter day you want to go to hot-and-sunny Hawaii? Go ahead. You're a huge Star Wars fan and you want to get transported there, go play with some lightsabers? Go ahead."
How does it work? VR headsets create immersion by letting users control where they look; turn your head to the right, your view of the virtual world shifts to the right. Throw in a pair of headphones pumping out 3D audio and suddenly your brain can, to a surprising degree, be deceived.
The Vive takes it even further than competitors like the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR by adding what's described as "room scale" virtual reality – allowing users to walk freely within a defined area, exploring virtual objects from any angle.
One application that takes full advantage of room scale is Google's Tilt Brush, which allows people to paint 3D creations in a virtual studio. Another is the Universe Sandbox, which lets people create solar systems, manipulate planets, explode stars, and toy with gravity in a beautiful and soothing simulation of space.
Both are among the experiences on offer at UNIVRS, where groups can take turns testing the VR waters in a dedicated booth for $39 an hour. The only way to truly understand the sensation of VR, Chua said, is by trying it for yourself.
“It's incredible how just goggles and a pair of headphones can make you feel like you're in a whole different reality,” he said. “It’s immersive, it’s entertaining, it’s great.”
Over the past few years, escape rooms, the real-life gaming experiences where people team up to solve puzzles under pressure, have exploded in popularity, to the point where there are at least a dozen across Vancouver and Richmond alone.
Chua and Shi's business was launched just this month, and it's too early to say whether VR lounges will take off the same way – but the young entrepreneurs are already working on expanding their business.
"We are opening our second location in five to six months in Vancouver,” Chua said. “We've got some magic up our sleeves for that one, so stay tuned.”