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Seattle's First Virtual-Reality Arcade Opens
Outside the March rain fell, but inside this room I stood atop Vesper Peak, Washington. I looked up at the sun while marveling that I couldn’t fall off my cliff perch into the glacier-fed lake below me. I wasn't alone, though: I had a robot dog as a companion, whom I reached down to pet with my hand controls.
I had escaped into this world via a virtual-reality (VR) game at Portal, Seattle’s first VR arcade, where my daughters and I got the opportunity to preview its offerings before it officially opened on Saturday, April 1. At its space in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, Portal has 10 VR booths, which line three walls; each three-sided booth is lined with black pads and designed for advanced, room-scale VR experience.
Portal aims to be family-friendly: Children ages 8 and older can play most of the games at the venue, and kids of all ages are allowed in a lounge area.
For the uninitiated, VR gaming is a computer-generated environment that lets users experience a different reality by visually separating them from the space they physically occupy while feeding images to them through two small lenses, according to a VR report by CNET. Users slip a wraparound headset that covers their eyes and pop headphones over their ears before entering into a 360-degree VR experience.
The sensory experience is full-body. Once I learned how to use the two controllers during a four-minute introduction video, I played Fruit Ninja. My controllers were now swords, and I gleefully sliced bigger-than-life, cartoon-style fruit. It was a kick to feel like I was physically slaying produce with swords; here was a cool way to burn calories!
Then I plugged into an extreme version of armchair travel while playing Postcards (the game where I stood on Vesper Peak). I stood on a cliff I’d never dare step foot on in real life, enjoyed the sun during this mostly sunless winter. I played archery atop a castle. I found that, although I dislike playing video games, I loved being in a VR world. I liked being able to physically move my body while escaping from daily life.
Portal's real-world roots
Portal cofounder Tim Harader, a Ballard resident and full-time employee at a local technology company, hatched the idea of opening up Portal with his wife Page after he first tried VR in August 2016.
“It’s such an immersive experience, putting on this headset and experiencing this ability to move around in this virtual world that responds to you. You look up and see the sky and look down and see the ground. It’s kind of like having kids, you can’t understand it until you do it,” says Harader.
"It’s kind of like having kids, you can’t understand it until you do it."
When the couple begin plotting top open Portal, there was only one VR arcade in North America, in Ontario, Canada. Now, the lounges are starting to pop up across the United States. Portal is the first arcade in Seattle, although Virtual Sports in Tukwila has some VR booths and there’s a VR installation at Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn.
VR as social sport
Portal is designed to be an environment where people feel comfortable hanging out even if they aren’t playing.
“As a mother, I wanted a space where I could go and enjoy a cup of coffee and spend a few minutes with friends,” says Page Harader. Tables and a few chairs and couches dot the center lounge area, which will sell beverages and prepackaged snacks and candies. When summer arrives, outdoor seating will be available, too.
As far as specific offerings for families, two booths up front and right next to the lounge are designed specifically for children, with family-friendly games. Games in these booths include Hoops VR, a basketball free-throw challenge game, The Impossible Travel Agency, where users visit a magical world set to music, and Roomscale Coaster, with players dodging and ducking while flying through a sci-fi platform (see a full list of Portal's games).
My teen and tween daughters found the VR experience thrilling. And I enjoyed watching them slay fruit, visit fire-red planets in our solar system and walk in a national park in Iceland. Because here's the other surprise about VR: It's a spectator sport. Most booths can be seen from the lounge area. Guests can see and hear players and outside each booth; there’s a high-definition (HD) video display screen that shows viewers exactly what the player is seeing.
My kids are already planning a return visit. My tween loved standing in other countries while petting a robot dog. My teenager loved that playing VR was a physical experience and is hoping that it counts as a parent-approved workout. She’s already asked how much renting a room costs, calculating how many babysitting hours she’ll need to log.
If you go …
Parental alert: As you might expect, Portal does include a few violent shooter or horror games in booths where the video screens are less viewable from the lounge area. Players ages 8 and up are allowed in every booth but children are not allowed to play the age-restricted games in these booths; and kids under 13 need to have a parent with them at all times. Best bets for families are the two family-friendly booths, where all games are suitable for kids ages 8 and older.
Where: 2601 N.W. Market St. Look for free two-hour parking in front of Portal and free, unlimited parking on Market Street half-block west of Portal, and paid, four-hour parking on Market Street.
Admission: VR booths are booked in one-hour increments (plus an extra 10 minutes for setup and tutorial). Play by yourself for $29.95 an hour or split booth time with others for $39.95 an hour. Book in advance or drop in. Also available: a non-reserved, approximately 15-minute VR experience for $9.95.
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 2:30–10:30 p.m.; Friday, 2:30 p.m.–midnight; Saturday, 11 a.m.–midnight; and Sunday, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Snacks: Portal is still working out its snack menu, but plan to offer a range of sodas, beer, Keurig coffees, hot chocolate, tea, single-serving sized bags of chips, pretzels and popcorn, as well as movie-style candies and ice cream bars.
Parties: Rooms for parties can be rented during normal business hours, and after-hour party rentals are available too. The Haraders envision Portal as a place for corporate and team building events, too.
Say Hello to Portal: Seattle’s First (and Only) Virtual Reality Arcade
Just beyond the entrance of this unassuming building in Ballard, your life as you know it, is about to change. In less than an hour, this venue will allow you to travel to space, risk your life walking the plank high above a busy city, get lost in a snow storm and finish off a few zombies in an old mine shaft. While this scenario isn’t a dream, it isn’t completely reality either. It’s a virtual reality! Read on for the inside scoop on the new VR arcade to hit Seattle.
photo: Jeff Totey
Welcome to the New Reality
Tim Harader opened his VR arcade, Portal, on April 1st of this year which showcases his talents. Harader has a background in software development and construction which might sound like an odd combination, but it came in handy when he created this new entertainment center with multiple booths and a lounge. Each booth comes equipped with a variety of VR games all set within different worlds just waiting to be explored.
Guests are fitted with a helmet-like device that covers their eyes, headphones and two controllers for their hands. (Psst… the helmet is tight-fitting and doesn’t let any light in.) And what one sees is not a picture, but a 360-degree environment. If you turn around, the setting does not, but the surround sound adds to the illusion. For safety, each booth has padded walls which is a welcoming sight for parents. Harader would like to push the experience even a bit further by combining environments where physical and virtual realities intersect. And one of Portal’s headlining attractions, Richie’s Plank Experience, does just that.
photo: Jeff Totey
Walking the Plank
Richie’s Plank Experience is set up near the front the shop where those walking by can get a glimpse of the action. This short animated attraction feels amazingly realistic. You begin by physically stepping on a wooden platform that is only about two to four inches high. The game instructs you to take an “elevator” to the top floor where there is a wooden plank for you to step out on over busy traffic below. In the real world, there is also a real wooden plank (also about two to four inches tall) to step out onto.
The game totally plays tricks on you with competing thoughts. On one hand you know that you are totally safe while fighting feelings that you might actually die. Oh, and if you happen to tumble off the real plank (there is an employee to help that not happen) your game character will fall to the ground and you’ll hear angels and harp music signaling that you didn’t make it.
photo: Hsiao-Ching Chou
Fun for One or a Group
Like the Holodeck featured in Star Trek, Portal is equipped with games for single players who just want to get away and multiple players who want more of a party experience. One of the most popular group games is Smashbox Arena which is featured in just about every booth of the place. “It’s kinda like dodgeball or paintball,” says Harader. “It’s three on three and you are in these different miniature worlds and you pick up these balls and you throw them at each other. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a real family-friendly game. It’s just a great experience.”
Other games are considered co-ops, “meaning that the players need to cooperate together in order to obtain a goal,” says Harader. “The goal of [Elven Assassin] is to kill all of the Orks that are storming the castle.” Psst… players are able to communicate with each other through their headsets.
Designed for Kids of All Ages
Portal is one of those rare places that caters to all ages at the same time. Unlike the arcades many parents used to attend as kids, Portal doesn’t blast music and annoying beeps and sounds throughout the whole building. “Instead, you’ll enter an atmosphere of comfortable coolness” says the Portal website.
Portal features both kid-friendly games like the larger-than-life Fruit Ninja and others that are not like the scary Ghost Mine Train where players hunt zombies in an abandoned amusement park ride and group game, Drunken Bar Fight. So, whether you are planning a day with the kids or a night out with other parents, there is something for everyone. Note: Currently, there are no “adult only” times, but that could change if there is a demand for it says Harader. Also, no alcohol is allowed outside of the lounge area.
Watch Others Play!
Just when you think this place couldn’t get any better, it does! Portal has a great feature where those waiting to play can enjoy watching what the player is seeing on multiple HD video display screens. One booth is set up like a green screen where those sitting in the lounge, enjoying snacks and beverages, will not only see what the player sees but also see the player actually interacting with his or her virtual environment. Too cool!
photo: Hsiao-Ching Chou
Good to Know
1. You can try Richie’s Plank Experience for just $4.99.
2. 15- and 30-minute sessions are available anytime for walk-ins. For one-hour sessions, please book your appointment online.
3. There is free two-hour parking available in front of Portal.
4. Portal is available for birthday parties, corporate events and more! Check their website for the deets.
Portal – Virtual Reality Arcade & Lounge
2601 N.W. Market St.
Seattle, Wa 98107
Reality is Virtual in Ballard at Portal
Michael King, King 5, Seattle
One of just a handful in the world, the V-R arcade offers 10 padded booths where gamers can play alone or with or against others online or in the booth next door.
There are shoot 'em up games for sure against aliens, zombies, mummies and various monsters. But you can also explore the world with Google Earth. There's even a paint game where you surround yourself with color.
© 2017 KING-TV
Owner of Seattle’s New VR Lounge Wants To Drive Awareness of VR
The best way to get someone to understand VR’s potential is to get them under a headset. Virtual reality can elicit powerful responses but is definitely a difficult experience to describe. Expos, conventions, in-store displays, and the like are bridges to the curious but still not quite a full-proof means to reach out to the less informed. Enter VR arcades. Arcades are springing up all over the place giving inquiring minds a venue to experience VR and we had an opportunity chat with a gentleman who’s opened a new VR arcade/lounge in Seattle called Portal.
Tim Harader is a digital media professional and president of Hypershow, the company Portal operates under. Hypershow as a company previously developed technology for object-based interactivity in videos but hasn’t been active for a couple years. Then, VR came along and forced Tim to dust Hypershow off. “When I tried it I immediately realized this isn’t just for gamers,” he says. “This is really technology that anybody can enjoy.”
Harader tried VR for the first time back in August of 2016 and again at PAX soon after. “When you first put on the headset and you’re just in the [lobby or lounge] you’re overwhelmed with immersion,” he reflects. After being blown away he then started looking into required hardware and cost, quickly realizing that it’d be out of reach for all but the most enthusiastic. He notes it’s specifically out of reach for the younger demographic. “If you’re a teenager and you’re trying to decide between buying a used car and buying a high-end VR rig, you’re probably buying the used car.”
Instead of sitting back and hoping a price drop would bring VR into more homes, Harader and a small group fully funded Portal. It has undergone a soft open currently, booking 1-hour sessions online with 15-minute sessions available for walk-ins and it all runs on HTC Vive Business Editions. The lounge aspect of the establishment is enhanced with beers from Seattle breweries like Pyramid and other local microbrews.
As described on its website, Portal provides VR experiences “in a sophisticated, but family-friendly environment”. The building has 10 dedicated VR booths of various themes, a standalone set-up featuring Richie’s Plank, and a mixed reality booth so players can be seen moving around virtual worlds by onlookers. Richie’s Plank is set up as an appetizer with all the booths being the main course and it is perfect in that function. Using an actual prop for people to stand on, Richie’s Plank toys with our fear of heights or of falling and shows just how powerful VR can be.
The booths themselves focus on different styles of gameplay and don’t have the same games at every workstation considering that’d be prohibitively expensive from a licensing standpoint. Two of them are kids/newbie themed, one experimental, another fps/gore/horror, with the others being fairly general. The crew plans to swap them out every month based on interest, which they can track by looking at hours played for each booth and experience. Even though they haven’t held a grand open, Harader says they’re already going to switch out the Realities game because there’s simply not much interest in it. Realities take you around the world with virtual versions of real locales and it’d make sense to be distracted by the other more fantastic worlds in other booths.
Like the origins of a lot of new businesses, Tim and his team saw an opportunity that could fill a void. This VR lounge/arcade can drive general awareness of VR. It’s a small business testing the waters but Harader says “if the business model works, we’re thinking about expanding it”.
Remember the days when arcades were the places where kids could play the coolest video games? No? Well, now you can get in on that experience, this time with immersive virtual reality adventures instead of Frogger and Pac-Man.
“Our primary target was twentysomethings, tech workers,” said Tim Harader, a technology evangelist who founded Portal in league with his wife, Page. “But what we found is that the target market is just all over the place. Whether they’re 8 years old or 80, they’re all just blown away.”
Portal’s vibe is different from the arcade environment of the ’80s. “You won’t hear a cacophony of blaring arcade sounds here,” the establishment says on its website. “Instead, you’ll enter an atmosphere of comfortable coolness.”
Ten room-sized VR booths provide space for players to strap on HTC Vive headsets and roam through gaming environments ranging from mountain peaks to a deliciously scary “Walk the Plank” experience. Prices range from $4.99 for walking the plank (with free tryouts for VR newbies) up to $39.95 for two or more players to reserve a booth for an hour.
When you’re not playing, you can hang out in Portal’s lounge, have a snack or a beer, and watch what others are doing in their virtual worlds – thanks to the HD monitors set up outside the booths. One of the booths has an open, green-screen setup that gives spectators an even better idea what players are experiencing.
“Watching the people in the booth, and watching what they’re seeing in the booth, is very entertaining,” Tim Harader told GeekWire.
He said VR is currently better-suited for custom-designed arcade environments rather than the home. “The reason we started this is, we tried VR in the summer, and we immediately realized it’s financially out of reach for most people,” he explained. “Also, there are space requirements.”
Page Harader, a part-time graphic designer and full-time mom, said she wanted to create a place that’s suitable for the whole family. “It’d be nice to be somewhere just to hang out with your friends,” she said.
The lounge area is open to all ages, but the VR experiences are limited to ages 8 and up. Parents have to accompany kids younger than 13, and some of the games are too intense for the little ones.
To catch the after-school, after-work crowd, Portal is open from 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with extended hours on Friday and Saturday and a noon-to-6 shift on Sunday. Players can make appointments, or just drop in.
The arcade opened on April 1, and the clientele includes gamers as well as regular folks who just want to explore Google Earth in virtual reality. Gretchen Geyer, a 65-year-old newbie who happened to be in the neighborhood, strolled in and walked the plank today during her first-ever VR experience.
“I’ve gotta come back,” she said afterward. “This is really cool.”
"We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
- Walt Disney