When schools and work suddenly went virtual during last spring’s pandemic lockdown, Tim Dunaway and Andy Bauman saw opportunity. “Everyone’s at home, there’s not much to do,” reflected Dunaway, who along with Bauman owns Emergent VR Encounter in Spring, Texas. “It’s a new norm — and you can monetize it.”
Fast forward nearly a year, and the virtual reality arcade has diversified its offerings from games and recreation to customized educational experiences. Students aged 8 and up are taking immersive virtual reality courses in everything from music to science to robotics; vocational trainees can experience the simulated experiences of being a civil engineer, chef, auto mechanic, store clerk or museum curator. “We were sitting here thinking, ‘Everyone’s home schooling now,’” recalled Dunaway. “If you want to tour the great Wall of China or dissect a frog, here’s a way you can get that experience.”
As the pandemic increasingly keeps Americans indoors, virtual reality is evolving accordingly. The future is likely to involve all manner of virtual experiences, from educational simulations to meetings, models and other corporate applications. Meanwhile, a technology born out of gaming offers more ways than ever to explore new, adventurous worlds — all without leaving the safety of a sanitized room.
At Emergent VR Encounter, Dunaway and Bauman piloting customized school-age experiences based on S.T.E.A.M. — the educational acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Dunaway is convinced virtual reality will also soon facilitate job training, simulate interviews, and more. “Just think about architects and engineering firms,” he enthused. “If you’re a home builder, you can send your client of virtual walkthrough of a house before it’s even built.”
Already, the company has come a long way from its beginnings as a family fun center with laser tag, shoot-’em-up games and the like. “Our business model has completely changed,” noted Dunaway. Recreational foot traffic remains a challenge — but more parents are inquiring about Emergent’s educational offerings, which already comprise 25% of bookings. “I think the educational side is about to take over,” Dunaway said.
At Heroes Virtual Reality in Roseville, Calif., Manager Alonzo Nash sees a trend toward more tailored physical experiences. Haptic feedback is among the cutting edge technologies that simulates physical vibrations and offers tangible sensations whose applications potentially go way beyond gaming. “You’ll be able to do movies, chat, interact with other people in virtual reality — it doesn’t really have to be games,” Nash said.
Heroes has been upgrading its equipment over the past year. New additions including multidirectional treadmill-style installations to simulate walking, along with a rotating chair for flight and driving simulations. The facility also offers premium stations that allow for touch controls with individual finger tracking.
After two pandemic shutdowns in the state of California, Nash has been heartened to see foot traffic return. “Business is definitely picking back up,” he said.
For a combination of reasons — including public hesitation, municipal shutdowns and capacity restrictions — revenue has taken a hit across the industry over the past year. In Hurst, Texas, Shane Foster estimates recent business is down as much as 75% from pre-pandemic numbers at Fixation VR, which he co-owns with Joan Treadaway. “We’ve had to re-envision our whole business model,” Foster said.
Fixation VR cut its staff substantially, and currently opens by appointment, with employees working on call. “We open up if we get a single booking,” said Foster of the 5,000-square-foot arcade, which opened three years ago. “Even for just one person, I call a staff member and we open up. That’s how bad it is. There’s a lot working against us, but we’re better off than some.”
For Foster and Treadaway, both IT consultants in their 50s, Fixation VR has been a labor of love. They drew on their mutual knowledge of business and technology to open the arcade three years ago. “We had a passion for this industry, and decided to give it a go,” noted Foster, who has his own computer firm and several side businesses. “We really believe this is the future. As technology continues to advance, the VR of today versus five years from now — it’ll look completely different. It’s delivering on the promise of virtual reality that I dreamed of as a kid.”
Nathan Ghinazzi, another VR operator, sees a future of “very intimate and detailed experiences, the kind you cannot have at home.” At Mass VR, which Ghinazzi owns in Skokie, Ill., a customized system allows up to 16 people to play together, using wireless headsets to explore a “limitless virtual environment” in four 8,000-square-foot arenas. And while six-foot distancing prevails in the real world, “in the virtual world, you can high-five,” Ghinazzi added.
As he prepared to reopen in mid-February, Ghinazzi said he has retooled the infrastructure so that different parties will never physically interact — and even players in the same game can stay a thousand feet apart. That will be a different scene from pre-pandemic times, when Ghinazzi recalled long lines out the door on weekends.
As the internet gets stronger, Ghinazzi envisions a future where people might choose between shooting virtual baskets at home, or shooting hoops in person at the gym. The pandemic technology explosion, he explained, has made people more comfortable with virtual worlds. “People are coming in more often, accepting the idea of what we do,” Ghinazzi noted. “They’re realizing it’s not a gimmick.”
And even though the entertainment is virtual, the social bonding can be real. “Once you try VR, you want to get your father, your grandfather all playing together,” said Dora Ramos, owner of Exitus VR in Houston, Texas. “It’s a way to get out of the house with other people.” As pandemic fears recede, Ramos is welcoming more families eager to make an afternoon of it: “Business is still down, but people leave very happy.”