My first steps into the virtual world of "Richie's Plank Experience" put me in a compact elevator, which then opened onto a ledge with a wooden plank more than 500 feet in the air. I could feel the butterflies in my stomach. I tiptoed across the plank as though one misstep could be my end. When I gingerly stepped off, I could feel myself plummeting toward the virtual pavement.
"Does the ground move too?" I asked. Of course it didn't. But luckily, another mode of the game includes a jet pack that would have let me soar through the city like Iron Man. The folks at Liberty VR in Glassboro were happy to share the realism of "Richie' Plank" along with 26 other VR experiences available at their new arcade within walking distance of Rowan University's campus.
Liberty is one of several virtual reality arcades, lounges, and restaurants that are cropping up across the region and in densely populated areas around the world. Entrepreneurs are investing in high-end equipment and renting out their arcades to families, employers, and anyone else who wants to experience the cutting edge of virtual immersion.
China has seen massive adoption of VR arcades, and New York City has emerged as a hot spot. At least nine VR locations have opened in the greater Philadelphia region, from Langhorne and Glenside to Philadelphia and, soon, Ocean City, N.J. U.S. locations are starting to find their footing, said J.B. McRee, a senior manager of product marketing at Taiwanese electronics company HTC.
As at a bowling alley, customers can rent a lane that fits up to four people. The pricing at Liberty scales from $15 for 15 minutes up to $94 for two hours. Each station, which includes HTC Vive headsets and equipment, an HD television and a high-end computer, as well as wires and lighting, costs nearly $6,000, said co-owner Justice Volz. He said the idea was inspired by students in Rowan's VR Center, like senior Curtis Baillie who will work with Volz full-time after graduation.
Volz, who entered the entertainment business and found success with Liberty Escape Rooms, plans to open a bigger location with more stations and gadgets — and a hot-air balloon simulator — on the Ocean City boardwalk this summer. "We have a knack for fun," he said.
At Liberty, you can stare up at the Eiffel Tower or roam the streets of Disney's Magic Kingdom. "Elven Assassin" seeks to give you a true feel as you reach for your quiver, nock your arrow, and fire at hordes of orcs and trolls that rush toward your base. And games like "Fruit Ninja VR" can be an intense, fruit-slashing workout if you don't mind flailing your arms like a fool.
Liberty uses SpringboardVR as its platform to provide games, experiences, and adventures. Springboard supports more than 250 locations, and COO and cofounder Jordan Williams told Forbes he thinks that number will grow to 1,000 by 2019.
Another entrant is CTRL V, which has 14 large-scale arcades in Canada and which opened its first U.S. location in Howell, N.J., near Freehold. CTRL V plans to open its largest location, in Charlotte, N.C., with nearly 40 individual stations.
And VR isn't just all fun and games — today's pilots use advanced simulations to sharpen their skills in the cockpit. Astronauts experience firestorms and prepare for life in space through a full-scale replica of the International Space Station. At the University of Pennsylvania, neurologists have been experimenting with VR to reduce the suffering of patients with phantom limb pain.
"When you simulate those things, it induces the same type of anxiety, potential frustration, and nervousness," said McRee, "because it's so realistic."
Despite what McRee calls major adoption in the enterprise space, the consumer VR market is still finding its audience. Popular headsets can cost anywhere from $200 to $500, and that doesn't include television screens, high-powered computers or gaming consoles, and subscriptions for software and games.
Facebook's Oculus brand is hoping to change that with its just-launched Oculus Go, one of the first standalone headsets that offers VR experiences without a smartphone or computer. At $199, it's an affordable option but doesn't track users as they move — one of the most immersive and practical features of high-end headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
In Philadelphia, digital media students at Drexel University are finding jobs in the ever-evolving VR industry. Museums are looking for interactive tours, advertisers want to incorporate VR to tout their brands, and game developers are recruiting students locally, noted Valentina Feldman, an interactive designer at Night Kitchen Interactive who also teaches immersive media classes at Drexel.
These programs are changing rapidly, which makes young adults who aren't committed to any process the perfect candidates, said Feldman.
"It changes every single time I teach the class," she said. "There are things I thought while doing my thesis that I would be teaching that are already outdated. Before every lesson, I need to do a lot of research to figure out what the contemporary pipelines are, what other professionals in the field are integrating with success, and what things have failed."
Jason Jerald of VR consulting firm Next-Gen Interactions also emphasized how important it is for people to put on a headset and try VR for themselves.
"You have to actually experience it," said Jerald, whose Raleigh, N.C., firm helps brands like General Motors and NASA incorporate VR into everything from training to design. "It's like trying to describe to you the feeling of love if you've never felt it."
That's why making VR more accessible through arcades and conventions is so important to firms like HTC and Oculus.
Mad Rex in Fishtown has a VR lounge stocked with Samsung Gear VR equipment, as well as an HTC Vive. Its owners consulted Next-Gen Interactions to incorporate VR into its post-apocalyptic theme.
And since Mad Rex also has a bar, you can mow down zombies as you sip from $18 camel bags of tequila punch while sitting in one of the $800 lounge chairs.
And though this sounds like VR's peak application for many, McRee hopes to see the technology in classrooms across the world.
"For me, it would be students in education to be able to take field trips inside of a 30-minute class to places that no longer exist," he said. "Success for me would be VR headsets rolling out in carts in five years to allow students to do these types of unique things."