In a building that once housed a discount women’s clothing store and was the headquarters for the Zionist Organization of America, 12-year-old Carter Radmiller stood in a dark room, blowing away zombies.
His eyes were pressed snugly against a virtual reality headset, and both of his hands gripped plastic controllers, while his avatar stood on a rocky outcropping, firing bullets and hurling grenades, dismembering the hordes of undead mutants that lumbered toward him from every direction.
A few feet away, his mother, Eileen Radmiller, watched Carter’s progress on an enormous monitor. The two of them were in town from San Francisco for vacation. It was frigid outside, and they had spent the whole day at VR World on East 34th Street, which bills itself as “the largest virtual reality experience center located in North America and the Western Hemisphere.”
Ms. Radmiller said this was their first encounter with virtual reality, and that they had played most of the dozens of games VR World has to offer. “It’s amazing how quickly he picks it up,” she said.
While she watched the screen, a game called The Brookhaven Experiment told her son that he was 75 percent accurate with his weapons. “I know I shouldn’t say it because it’s so gory,” she added, “but the zombie game is probably my favorite.”
VR World is one of at least seven virtual reality centers that have cropped up across the city in the last two years that allow anyone to walk in off the street and experience a technology that seems to be finally entering the mainstream.
A Goldman Sachs report from 2016 compared virtual reality (“which immerses the user in a virtual world,” as defined in the report) and augmented reality (“which overlays digital information onto the physical world”) to “the PC and the smartphone,” and predicted that hardware and software sales could reach $182 billion by 2025.
And this past June, the city announced a $6 million investment in a 15,000-square-foot “hub for virtual reality and augmented reality” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which the de Blasio administration says will create more than 500 jobs.
Despite its promise, VR and AR technology is still evolving. The equipment is clunky and the setup is fairly elaborate.
“It’s very expensive, it’s hard to set up, and there’s a learning curve,” said Igal Nassima, a programmer and the founder of Superbright, a firm that creates VR and AR experiences for a variety of clients.
“It’s due to the commercial failure of the VR headset that you’re seeing these people use this moment to take the medium to the public,” he said. “It’s like the early days of PCs, where we had internet cafes.”
Superbright recently developed an immersive virtual reality experience for the Museum of Sex, and Mr. Nassima described the challenges of introducing VR to the uninitiated.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into; you have to have a certain amount of trust to go into this experience,” he said. When people put on the headset, Mr. Nassima explained, it’s isolating. “Even though they’re in a virtual world, they’re suddenly blindfolded.”
“And it’s not very good for social settings, right?” he added. “Like, one of the most exciting things in an arcade is you want to hang out and talk to your friends. If you go to a VR arcade, you’re disconnected, you’re completely isolated.”
To counter the perception that virtual reality is only for hard-core gamers, and to create a livelier atmosphere, VR World employs trippy lighting, ’90s dance hits, and a fully stocked bar. Guests sign up for different games and experiences by tapping an iPad. When one person’s turn (which typically lasts five to 10 minutes) is over, the next person in line (who has been given instructions by an attendant), straps on the headset and enters the matrix, whether it’s sky diving, rock climbing or slicing watermelons with a samurai sword.
VR World is right next to the Empire State Building, and a steady stream of tourists flows through the two-story space. For sanitary reasons, visitors must wear white cloth eye masks to wear under the headsets, and many see little point in taking them off in between turns, giving the place an air that is both mysterious and goofy — Sleep No More meets Dave & Buster’s.
If VR World and others try and cater to the public at large, Hubneo VR Lab, located on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side, cultivates a more underground vibe.
Industrial gray floors, harsh fluorescent lighting, and low ceilings make the ground-level space feel like the church basement it once was. There is no Top 40; there are no $12 cocktails. A couch sits glumly at the back of the room. A small translucent sign in the window lists the lab’s hours below a drawing of a neon-blue spaceship.
But Hubneo offers what many other VR centers do not: custom-made racing machines, treadmills and a flight simulator to deepen the immersive experiences, which tend to last longer than a typical game.
Climbing into the driving simulator transports you from Hubneo’s sterile confines into a rumbling car on a European racetrack, the growl of the engine blasting into your headphones. As the virtual speedometer climbs, a human driver’s jaw will clench involuntarily, or relax into a grin. The steering wheel feels heavy with the friction of the tires on the asphalt, and the machines are sensitive to what’s happening on the track. If the driver skids into a curve, the driver’s stomach lurches too.
Nan Wen, 18, an attendant who was overseeing Hubneo on a recent Saturday night, assured the gamers that mild motion sickness is common for first-timers, though a customer has yet to actually throw up on his watch.
“We have one regular who comes in, she can stay on the flight simulator forever,” Mr. Wen said, “but she can’t get on the racing machine.”
Adam May, a graphic designer originally from Melbourne, Australia, said it was precisely these simulated G-forces that kept him coming back to Hubneo at least once a week.
“These machines are the best that’s been built so far,” Mr. May said. “You ever heard the expression ‘flying by the seat of your pants’? You get all of the sensations on your bum, and you can’t get that on a normal machine.”
Mr. Wen estimated the cost of one of Hubneo’s racing machines at around $15,000, and Hubneo is among the pricier VR spaces in town — $25 per experience, or $80 for four. At VR World, a two-hour pass costs $39.
“People get to know about us from their friends and from the community of gamers,” Ilya Polokhin, Hubneo’s chief executive and founder, wrote in an email. ”We don’t rely on and are not really interested in random foot traffic.”
Mr. Polokhin said that Hubneo has angel investors, which may help answer the question: Can virtual reality survive New York’s cutthroat commercial rents?
Michael Deathless, one of the owners of another virtual reality space on Orchard Street, Jump Into the Light, said that the landlords on his block were expecting exorbitant rents. A 1,200-square-foot retail space next door is listed for $12,000 per month.
“We just got a reduction, our landlord is so nice,” Mr. Deathless said. “But it’s still a ton of money. We are paying the bills, every week it’s getting bigger and bigger, but it’s a ridiculous way to try and make money.”
Mr. Deathless, who is originally from Boston — and whose name is listed on his LinkedIn page as “Deathless” — said he is a software developer and compared Jump Into the Light to a kind of software incubator. He too, is working with partners and investors.
“The people with an angle, they’re going to survive,” he said. “The people who just think they’re going to have an arcade and make a lot of money — it’s not going to happen.”
Kishore Doddi, 36, who owns vrbar in Dumbo, said he has not taken on any investment money, and relies on curating larger corporate events and birthday parties to make rent. He noted that the first pop-up VR lab he started, in Park Slope in 2016, catered almost exclusively to families with children. Mr. Doddi said he wants to maintain that same inclusive spirit at his new location.
“I do love VR, and I do think there’s something to changing people’s perception of it, and I do want to always keep it accessible to the public,” Mr. Doddi said.
As for whether New York’s brick-and-mortar virtual reality spaces will remain fixtures of the city’s streets, or will go the way of the oxygen bar, Mr. Nassima, the VR programmer, said it depends on how quickly the technology can evolve.
“The generalist arcades will slowly fade away,” Mr. Nassima said.
A possible future may be unfolding in art galleries like Transfer, located in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Kelani Nichole, who runs Transfer, commissions virtual reality pieces from artists that push the boundaries of the medium beyond solo gaming.
“I think we’re going to move past that really quickly,” Ms. Nichole said, “and we’re going to see more interesting ways for people to be more social with VR spaces.”
Multiplayer VR experiences are still in their infancy, and are mostly geared toward seasoned gamers, but the possibilities seem encouraging.
“What if you can go bowling with your friends in different locations across the world through VR?” Ms. Nichole said. “What does it mean to have a shared experience with another person and can that be fully virtualized?”
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