As virtual reality arcades have gained momentum across the country and the world, locally-based VR Zone DC has expanded its operations over the last year, including opening a site in Rockville, Maryland.
Alex Gerasimov, the arcade’s founder, started the VR Zone in DC as an experiment in 2018. He also owns Insomnia Escape Room, and decided to repurpose local space that wasn’t being used for virtual reality games.
“Our focus was on multiplayer VR games and VR escape rooms for up to five players,” he said. “In 2020, just before COVID hit, we opened a new warehouse-scale, location-based entertainment center called VR Arena in Rockville…and started offering the best in free-roaming VR experiences for teams of up to four players.”
When the pandemic arrived and brought limits on capacity and safety precautions, the company had to choose one of the locations. It ended up keeping the Rockville site open, since it proved to be easier to maintain social distancing. The Arena has remained open, and was expanded in April. Now, VR Zone is also considering reopening the D.C. site.
Currently, the Rockville location offers more than 30 VR arcade games, as well as escape room games. It charges about $49 for an hour of playing on a headset, though the price is reduced if a player books more time. In May, if protocols allow, it expects to reopen the free-roaming arena experiences, in which players wear headsets and move in a larger space. While it has stayed open, the VR Zone clientele has shifted in the pandemic.
“Our audience has been a bit different during COVID than it was pre-COVID,” he said. “Currently, it’s mostly date couples and families with kids and teens. Before COVID, we had far more families, birthday parties, kids, bachelor parties, and company teambuilding events.”
The business is riding a wave of virtual reality adoption that has crested in the pandemic. That has mostly coincided with people seeking experiences at home, yet the team has found a place for its venue, as well.
“Our focus from the beginning was on offering exclusive collaborative experiences that you cannot get at home, even if you have a personal VR setup,” Gerasimov said. “Considering more and more people are using VR headsets at home, this strategy still works well for us.”
With a growing multitude of headsets and technology available these days, VR Arena also offers a chance to explore options.
“We’re VR enthusiasts and try to showcase the best in VR technology,” he said. “We use all kinds of commercially available VR systems, including the Oculus headsets and HTC headsets, which we employ mostly in a custom setup.”
Players at VR Zone DC and VR Arena have the opportunity to try an intriguing variety of VR games. According to Gerasimov, there are music and movement games like “Rythmatic” or “Pistol Whip” (which he calls “a very John Wick type of game”). Others include “Elvin Assassin,” a bow and arrow Elf simulator, or “Arizona Sunshine,” a realistic zombie shooter. Another set of games includes high altitude walks in “Plank Experience” or whale encounters in “the Blu.” For kids, there are games called “Job Simulator” and “Vacation Simulator.”
So far, VR Zone DC and VR Arena haven’t offered genres other than games, though Gerasimov acknowledges “it’s something we should think about.”
“I have a strong personal interest in VR art and I’ve amassed a substantial collection of VR art with classic and modern art experiences,” he said. Unfortunately, so far, we haven’t found a good way to present those to our visitors. Given a choice of playing a fast-paced game or engaging with an immersive art experience, most people at our locations choose games.”
Still, the games go beyond single-player affairs. The free-roaming VR systems at the Rockville location are proving to generate buzz.
“Those systems are attracting more attention,”Gerasimov said. “You just cannot ignore that large 30-foot by 30-foot open space with a weird coloring scheme on the floor and walls. People ask about it all the time and want to try it. If someone is playing in the arena, you see four people moving across the space, shouting and waving their hands. The free roaming system is also the most technically advanced VR system, so we’re very excited about it ourselves.”
The VR escape room games are also a big hit. These involve 2-6 players, and differ from brick-and-mortar escape rooms, where “there are no limitations in space, special effects, or game logic in VR comparable to a real-life escape room,” Gerasimov said.
“For example, in a real-life Egyptian themed escape game, you pass through 1-3 rooms maximum, and there are only so many decorations and SFX that room designers will create to make you believe you are in ancient Egypt,” he said. “In the VR escape room, you navigate through 10 or more different spaces, some of which are huge, and some of which are floating or moving. You climb, shoot a bow, dodge laser lights, and feel real sensations.”
It’s among several ways they’ve gotten creative about bringing people together virtually. In another move to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic and intermittent lockdowns, “We started offering VR parties, where participants could connect in one VR party space, chat and play something together while donning a VR headset at home,” said Gerasimov. “We did a handful of such parties and received a lot of requests for more.”
Especially after a mention in Bloomberg, this interest grew to include requests from well beyond the DMV.
“We received tons of requests to connect participants from different [parts] of the country. But in the end, we decided that the logistics of sending VR headsets to participants across the country and retrieving them was a bit too much and then switched to a new idea,” Gerasimov said. “We developed our own platform that enabled the creation of collaborative escape rooms in a VR-like 3D environment without a headset, just in a browser on any modern laptop or PC.”
This evolved into a separate business line, called RemoteTeamBuilding.io. It offers online corporate escape room teambuilding events on the platform for business clients. In 2020, almost the entire lineup of clients were representatives of Fortune 500 companies, and the team has run several thousand games on the platform over the last year, Gerasimov said.
“We’re currently focusing on taking this idea to the next level. We’re developing a new version of our platform that will allow the development of very interactive VR-like experiences for web browsers,” Gerasimov said. “We think it will be super useful for education, museums, entertainment and other verticals. We’re also planning to add support for NFT tokens, which might be useful for online art galleries.”
It’s an example of a business evolving after a new function emerged in the pandemic.-30-