Virtual reality makes a return to your local mall as COVID restrictions lifted


Sandbox VR is designed for small groups to experience virtual reality together.

VR sandbox

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Steve Zhao’s business was promising until last year. His company, VR sandbox, had taken over a number of retail spaces, and people would visit so they could shoot zombies, cross swords with pirates in search of treasure, or explore distant planets as members of a Star Trek crew. They would do all of this by meeting in groups of no more than six people, in rooms of 600 square feet. There, they would put on virtual reality headsets, attached backpacks, and arrays of sensors on their hands and feet.

the coronavirus changed all that of course, effectively shutting down his business while his clients were quarantined. “We thought, ‘Oh boy, that’s it, we’re done,’” Zhao said. Over a year later, as the world’s economies slowly reopen with every vaccine shot in people’s arms, Zhao’s business is growing again.

Sandbox VR immerses you in full-body virtual reality with a backpack, toy gun and hand / arm sensors. The games can accommodate up to six players at a time.

Scott Stein / CNET

Since reopening in the spring as states began to lift restrictions, its 11 stores in the United States, Canada and Asia have seen ticket sales and foot traffic surpass pre-pandemic levels, said Zhao. And now his business is on track to turn a profit next year.

“I think this platform is something people want – immersive, social and bodily experiences,” said Zhao, 38, who started making games in college. “We try to create experiences where you build meaningful relationships with your friends.”

Zhao’s commercial bump is the latest in a series of anecdotal signs that the video game industry, and especially virtual reality, could hold promise in the reopening new economy. Over the past year and a half, many of those in lockdown mode have flocked to video games as a means of escape and entertainment. In May, people were still gaming and spending around 40% more money on smartphone and tablet games than before the pandemic, according to surveys from the IDC market research. And in a separate survey, only around 25% of gamers said they plan to reduce their gambling habits as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.

People seem to be looking for other entertainment besides games. High octane action film Fast and Furious 9 surpassed $ 70 million in ticket sales on its opening weekend, the highest for a single film since December 2019 (although total box office revenue is still down from before the pandemic ). The economy as a whole is also showing positive signs, with a rebound in employment and a surge in retail sales.

Although many small and medium-sized businesses have closed in the past year, including Zhao’s competitor The Void, Sandbox VR plans to expand beyond the locations it currently owns, particularly in Chicago. , Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hong Kong. At the end of July, it will add Shanghai and Las Vegas, bringing the total number of corporate and franchise sites to 13. The company charges up to $ 51 per person per ticket for the one-and-a-half-hour experiences up to, which include training set up.

Lewis Ward, an analyst at IDC, said he was skeptical of most of the location-based virtual reality companies he had heard of before the pandemic, mainly because it seemed difficult to make money with it. which seemed to be a little fancy. But he also said the social element that companies like Sandbox focus on could make a difference.

“The idea of ​​a social outing with your friends that is paintball-like or something, it can be exciting,” said Ward. But what will make the difference in the long run are loyal customers. “It has to be distinctive enough to keep bringing people back. “

Los Angeles-based KTLA TV reporter Rich DeMuro recently tried Sandbox VR’s Deadwood Mansion, which pits your group against a horde of zombies. “You quickly forget that you are in a room in the mall,” he said in a July 4 report. Holding his VR headset in his hand after 25 minutes facing the digital walking dead, he said the experience was “very intense”.

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The equipment includes a backpack computer to power the helmet.

Scott Stein / CNET

Survive virtual reality

Last year, Sandbox VR requested more than $ 754,000 in loans under the U.S. Pandemic Paycheck Protection Program to primarily pay staff salaries as global economies shut down. The company has also started coding contract work for other game makers to help them pay the bills. Zhao said he also works with owners and has started experimenting with franchising his business. Yet he eventually had to file for bankruptcy, lay off around 80% of his staff of around 100 at one point, and cut the wages of those who remained. The company requested an additional $ 241,000 in P3 loans in March, again to cover payroll.

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The line of Sense Balls help Sandbox video games track where you are in the real world.

VR sandbox

To help customers feel comfortable with the idea of wear a helmet that someone else had worn In the midst of a pandemic, Sandbox VR employees wear masks and gloves, and the company said it disinfects and disinfects using government-recommended disinfectants. The company also says customers should wear masks if they haven’t been vaccinated; the employees wear masks anyway.

Sandbox VR also initially spaced client appointments further apart to reduce the chance of contact between groups, and it added disinfection stations to be used before and after each experiment.

“We wanted the guests to feel like this is a safe space,” Zhao said.

It also hopes to expand the types of experiences Sandbox VR offers. Currently it has five, ranging from a horror survival game to a futuristic one-on-one sword fighting game. But he’s also interested in making games where clients could be a wizard using magic, or find out what it’s like to be a monster with many arms. the development required, he said, “takes a while.

In the meantime, he hopes people will continue to seek out new kinds of entertainment as they get used to returning to life outside of their forties. And he believes delivering experiences like his, in small groups, will be key.

“We are not presenting ourselves as VR,” Zhao said. “We take people to different worlds.”