Tech couple takes the (real) plunge with Ballard virtual reality arcade

Realizing that the cost of virtual-reality game systems is out of reach for many people, a Seattle couple opened a 10-booth VR game arcade in Ballard that lets gamers experience virtual reality by the hour.

 

High in the air — balancing on a narrow, wooden plank — you can look down at the city far below. One misstep, and you’ll plummet to the street.

 

Except you’ll really just land a couple inches off the plank, which stretches out in the corner of Ballard’s newest arcade, one that comes with a twist. The optical illusion is part of a virtual-reality game you can play at Portal, a VR arcade.

No pinball machines or Big Buck Hunter grace this arcade — instead the open-space building on Northwest Market Street has 10 booths with plush, padded walls. A monitor outside each shows the games taking place within a headset in each booth.

Portal is owned by Page Harader, a graphic designer, and her husband, Tim Harader, a Microsoft business-development manager. The arcade charges players by the half-hour or hour to come in, put on a VR headset and experience the world of virtual reality using more than 30 games.

Virtual reality burst onto the scene in a big way last year when Facebook’s Oculus and HTC’s Vive launched the first wide release of their VR headsets. Several iterations from other companies followed, including quite a few that make use of a viewer’s cellphone as the primary computer. Cellphone VR is much cheaper but also less powerful and less immersive.

 

The power of a Vive or Oculus — which makes it feel as if you are actually part of the digital environment — is out of reach for many people because of the price. The Vive costs $799 and the Oculus Rift $598, and that doesn’t even include the powerful computer that drives them. That can set you back at least another $1,000.

 

That’s where the Haraders come in. As soon as Tim Harader experienced virtual reality for the first time, using a Vive at a gaming conference last September, he knew it was going to catch on.

“I was just blown away,” he said.

But he also quickly realized that many people wouldn’t be able to buy the technology — price is a deterrent, as is space. VR headsets often require you to block off a large amount of square footage as the playing field.

Tim Harader compares it to the introduction of 3D video. Not many people have invested in 3D televisions, but they happily don 3D glasses at movie theaters. VR will be the same way, he figures. People are interested in the new technology but need a place to come together and play. He and his wife leased the space in Ballard in January and bought 11 HTC Vive headsets, along with powerful computers to operate them. The space is somewhat sparse: a lounge with comfy couches and chairs, a snack bar that sells chips and beer, and the padded booths.

It’s the virtual world at the arcade that’s more dramatic. Inside the booths, players have a 360-degree view of a different world as soon as the headset is turned on. The booth padding has already come in handy. One of the most popular games in the arcade is called “Drunkn Bar Fight,” and people have often hit the soft padding while taking a swing at other virtual bar patrons.

Players also enjoy “Elven Assassin,” a game where you shoot orcs with bows and arrows; “Smashbox Arena” which is a bit like futuristic dodgeball; and Google Earth, which isn’t a game but lets you explore places around the world from a bird’s-eye view.

 

The Haraders expected the arcade to be popular among teenagers when it opened April 1, and it has been, but the largest group of visitors has been people in their 20s and 30s. People in their 50s and 60s have checked out the space as well, Harader said, and it’s becoming a popular spot for birthday parties. Players will often come in groups and cheer each other on, congregating around the booths to watch friends wear the bulky headsets and react to unseen obstacles.

“We recognized VR is also a spectator activity,” Tim Harader said. “It’s hilarious.”

The arcade is the first of its kind in the city, and the Haraders had difficulty finding anything similar closer than Toronto.

 

Portal charges $19.95 to play for 30 minutes (after you complete a 10-minute tutorial), or $29.95 for an hour.