New Virtual Reality Arcade Brings Immersive, Social Experience

Hartford Courant

Walk through the door of Spark VR in Vernon, and you'll see four spaces partitioned by a curtain, a projector screen on the back wall of each one, and a person strapped into a headset with joysticks swinging their arms around. Strap on the headset, and you'll be in an entirely different world.

Connecticut's first virtual reality arcade opened in May in Vernon, and allows users to experience VR technology that is currently too expensive and impractical to have in the home. Co-founder Joe Eilert, an engineer for General Dynamics, came up with the idea last year, and at the time, did not know of any other virtual reality arcades. Since then, others have popped up around the country, but Spark VR is the first in Connecticut.

Virtual reality has existed for about 30 years, and when most people think of VR, they picture a cardboard headset and a static video taken on a 360-degree camera. The VR used by Spark VR is known as interactive roomscale. It requires more physical space for users to participate and is interactive in a way that VR formerly was not.

Eilert and his fellow co-founder Matt McGivern described their vision for the arcade as similar to a bowling alley, only cooler.

"Your [virtual reality] bowling alley might involve zombies," says McGivern, who works for Pratt & Whitney.

Each "lane" has a high table with four bar-stools and a microphone for guests to speak directly into their friends' headsets while watching them play. Beyond that, the space is minimal, with a desk to sign a waiver at the front and a vending machine in the back. Eilert says the atmosphere has created a much more social experience than they originally expected.

"If there's more than one zone going at a time, people are going to the other zone, even if they don't know who the people are," Eilert says. "I didn't expect it to be quite that open."

The games and experiences range from mini-golf to zombie hunting to brewing potions as a wizard to a high-tech version of racquetball. Beyond games, users can explore Google Earth and other passive VR, including one experience in which the user is standing in a sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean while a blue whale swims by, mere feet away.

Customers are introduced to the technology with a brief tutorial in the VR space, which shows them how to use the controllers, move around, and not accidentally wander beyond the borders of the space and hit something in the real world.

First-timer Aaron Bergeron was impressed and planned on returning.

"I'm kind of a techy guy so I knew that they had the headsets but I had just never had one on my head," Bergeron says.

The arcade is not just for those who already play video games, Eilert says. Because it's a full-body experience, he says, it's much more natural to learn the technology.

Jenee Jordan says she is not into video games, but regularly comes to Spark VR. She enjoys watching her friends play, and the movements they make out of context.

"Just the laughter alone, I would pay $40 just to watch him play," Jordan says, while watching her boyfriend play a climbing game.

Jordan lives in Manchester, and says it's easy for her to come to the arcade frequently, but she says she would still come if it was farther away.

The owners say they already have repeat and even regular customers and expect their customer base to increase when UConn students return in the fall.

Because McGivern and Eilert both still work their day jobs, the arcade is only open Thursday and Friday nights, as well as weekends. They said they hope as their audience continues to grow, that the arcade will become a full-time endeavor.

Gamers heading to Spark VR, at 425 Talcottville Road, can reserve a time online or just walk in. It is open Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 6 to 11 p.m; Saturday, noon to midnight; and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Space is available by the hour. $40 per hour for groups of one to five people. Parties for the entire space start at $300 for a minimum of two hours. Ages 10 and up. sparkvirtualreality.com.

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