First virtual-reality arcade for city

Affordable experience with equipment still too expensive for most to buy

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It may look silly watching someone flail about in the throes of shooting zombies in a virtual-reality software game, but for the player it can be a terrifying — and intensely fun — experience.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/10/2016 (2231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It may look silly watching someone flail about in the throes of shooting zombies in a virtual-reality software game, but for the player it can be a terrifying — and intensely fun — experience.

The interest in the immersive 3D, 360-degree technology seems to be growing at a rapid pace with lots of news about Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR headsets recently coming on the market along with the promise of infinite software possibilities in gaming and research and education.

The headsets are expensive, and the technology is so new it’s only early adopters who are committing to buying the equipment for themselves.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Charith Jayawardana, Left, tries out Winnipeg’s first Virtual Reality Arcade at The Portal with the help of owner Chris Hall.

That’s why Chris Hall believes he’s at the right place at the right time with his recent opening of the Portal, the first VR arcade in Winnipeg and one of only four in the country.

VR arcades are popular in China — there are about 25 in Shanghai — and they are starting to pop up around the world.

Ctrl V, which opened its first Waterloo, Ont., location last June, has expanded to a second spot in the city and is planning for at least another 20 locations this year.

While the concept may be a throwback to the old video game arcade, the experience is much more intense.

“When you put the headset on, you’re in a different world,” said Hall, a transplanted Brit who married a Winnipeg woman.

“When they take the headset off and they’re no longer in the game under the sea or shooting bad guys or shooting zombies — The Brookhaven Experiment is the most popular game so far — it’s a shock to some people to see they’re still on Corydon high street.”

Hall has started the business on his own with a $4,000 HTC Vive headset and some rudimentary monitors and seating space. He knows he’ll be changing the space — shared with a co-op that includes wedding planners — but it has the kind of friendly atmosphere he’s trying to instil.

“The idea is that it is a social experience to play with others,” he said.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Cash gets into the action with Hall as a guide.

Hall is looking into getting a liquor licence so folks can get together and have a beer while watching their friends use a VR bow and arrow to defend their castle in Longbow or enjoy deep-sea creatures in The Blu.

The Portal offers about 15 games, and Hall is adding new ones as he goes.

It costs $40 for two people for an hour booked by appointment only with online booking and payment at www.theportalwpg.ca.

He’s got a large playing space in a second-floor location in the heart of the Corydon Avenue strip with floor-to-ceiling windows that may or may not become a safety hazard with players who may find themselves thrashing about in the course of the action.

The opening, which coincided with one in Regina, also comes about with a fair bit of action in Winnipeg on the VR front.

Last week, a collaboration between the Winnipeg augmented-reality rm ZenFri Inc. and VR startup Bit Space Development released a city-wide augmented-reality scavenger hunt honouring the 25th anniversary of the Cinémental lm festival.

On Thursday night, New Media Manitoba hosted a panel discussion on Perspectives on Virtual Reality with six Winnipeg developers.

Louie Ghiz, executive director of New Media Manitoba, said, “There is a disproportionate number of developers in Winnipeg given the population base.”

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Charith Jayawardana tries his hand at a game.

Ghiz and others are rooting for Hall because the Portal will shine a spotlight on VR applications and get more people interested.

Les Klassen, one of the partners of Campfire Union, spoke at the panel.

He just came back from speaking at the Oculus Connect 3 conference earlier this month in San Jose, Calif. His company’s Lost Cities game is one of the featured games in the new Oculus store.

Klassen thinks Hall’s idea for the Portal is perfect timing because of the newness of the technology and the current hefty price for consumers — about $1,200 for the computer and another $1,000 or so for the Oculus gear, for instance.

“It is a bang-on application for VR gaming,” he said.

“It makes total sense.”

Corey King, the founder of Zenfri, came out with an augmented-reality game about a year before the wild success of the Pokemon Go. He also spoke at the panel discussion and is a fan of the arcade concept but sounds a cautionary note.

“On one hand, anything that allows more people to experience what makes VR so special is good for us in the long term because it helps out the educational campaign,” he said.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Free Press reporter Martin Cash gets fitted with a headset at Winnipeg’s first virtual-reality arcade, the Portal, with the help of owner Chris Hall.

“You don’t understand why everyone is talking about VR until you try it.”

King notes while the equipment is expensive now, like video games, it might not be long before everyone has one of their own.

Hall isn’t too worried. He says he has other plans he’s keeping under wraps for now.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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