Perceptions can be misleading. I thought virtual reality was just for hardcore gamers; those with overdeveloped opposable thumbs, poor eyesight and tough sounding alphanumeric handles (like “Death2u” or “Tru187”). But Chester’s new independent virtual reality company, Virtual Reality Escapes, is not just about the niche world of gaming, it’s aiming to open up a wealth of escapes and experiences to everyone.
For a start, the decor of 12b Upper Northgate Street is not what I expected. I was thinking it would look like something from Tron, or perhaps a forgotten Laser Quest outpost; lots of garish neon with the occasional cyborg nonchalantly strolling past. But I was wrong, it’s a fantastic, really warm and welcoming place; a large open space, with a mixture of fun Steampunk decor and chic exposed brickwork.
Talking to Alex, one of the friendly and engaging managers, as he enthuses about the potential of virtual reality, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. “Its not just for entertainment, it can be for training or education, in almost any application; from police disaster training to helping educate surgeons.” It turns out the biggest hurdle to people experiencing virtual reality is the cost. The hardware is eye-watering – a good headset can set you back £600, the audio straps are about £100, the computer to run it another £2000, and that’s before the infra red sensors kick in. A designated 2.5×2.5m space is pretty essential too. And if you try and cut corners? Then you can be hit by “the sickness”. Even a 0.01s lag between moving your head and the image catching up is enough to confuse your brain and make you travel sick. “It’s a problem that can happen if a people buy a really good headset, but then try to run it through a MacBook Pro – like putting diesel in a petrol car – it ends badly.”
But there’s so much potential. And that’s where Virtual Reality Escapes comes in – helping people have the best possible experience of virtual reality without the need to sell an organ. The equipment they have is the premium the world of microchips can offer. I don’t understand the numbers and names, but by the third time Alex patiently explains it to me I get the impression that these are machines with some serious pedigree – the computer equivalent of a lovechild between R2-D2 (topical name drop) and Deep Blue on the best day of its life.
And why Chester? This is a Cestrian centric business – Matt (the owner) and Alex are locals; and why shouldn’t it be the first place in the UK for something of this quality and scale? There are six escape spaces where you can digitally wander in your personalised world. Each one is curtained off from the main space with thick, black material – Alex explains that this is so that the infra- red sensors can pick you up better – but I also have a sneaking suspicion that accidentally walking into a curtain is a lot less painful than a wall.
To begin, I have to put on the headset. Needing glasses is not a show-stopper. The headset can either be placed over glasses, or depending on your eye condition – the lens focusing can be tweaked to work for you. But some advice: if you do wear glasses – put on your smallest pair (or contacts) when you come along. It seems that going in without your glasses is very much a case-by-case basis: sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. My colleague wears comedy big glasses (a misguided attempt at fashion) and couldn’t fit them in the headset, but fortunately she was able to see perfectly well in the VR without them.
You’re also given two handheld controllers (think Nintendo Wii remotes who grew up and hit the gym). As soon as the headset is on – the outside world disappears – my controllers turn into hands. I can hear Alex’s ghost voice from outside my world, instructing me on where to look and how to choose from the experiences.
There’s huge variety –Virtual Reality Escapes is powered by Steam – which means they have access to a mega library of constantly updated and original titles (Fallout 4, L.A. Noir and Skyrim are due 2018). In a world where I am regularly paralysed by choice (first world problems are the worst), what are Alex’s recommendations? It all depends on what you want; Virtual Reality Escapes can cater for it. He talks about the 94 year old customer who stopped by to hang out with a blue whale, the father-son team who frequently smite the world from digital zombies, and terrifying house hunting, “Scariest thing we’ve got is ‘Affected the Manor’ – the only goal is to make it through a huge, haunted mansion. I lasted five minutes. You can’t put your hands over your eyes – which really adds to the horror. It changes too, every time you play it the corridors move around.”
Then there are some classic games tweaked to work with virtual reality – one of the most recognisable is the smart phone app, ‘Fruit Ninja’ (Alex confides that Matt once managed to become a world ranking player after an epic 10 hour stint. Impressive but possibly not recommended; there are limited real-world applications to mastering the ability to slice flying fruit).
I start off with a tour of the moon with Buzz Aldrin. Good old Buzz; despite clearly having the better name he let Neil take the immortalising glory. Thankfully he’s a man of ambition and guides me on an immersive tour of how we could colonise Mars. I pass through spaceships, watch 3D solar systems orbit around me, and stand on the moon. Its pretty impressive, and I’m hooked.
Next I try out ‘Space Pirate Trainer’. This is a suped-up version of the arcade classic – the one where rows of aliens slowly creep closer to you – only this time it’s in 3D – and instead of moving a little cannon left and right – the pods are coming for you. I would really recommend spending a bit of time on this, it’s great fast food excitement – flashing lights, shooting guns, morally neutral destruction and explosions. Perfect for a first delve.
It isn’t long before I revert to type, casting aside any educational, or life affirming experiences – it’s time to shoot zombies. Arizona Sunshine is the most popular game at Virtual Reality Escapes and it’s easy to see why. I’ve always fancied myself as a post apocalyptic saviour, and finally this is my chance to show what all my years of drunken planning/ rambling at house parties was for. It does not disappoint; the level of immersion is simply breathtaking, and interacting with the world is on another level – from picking up objects, or opening gates, to crouching down, to putting ammo clips on my belt. It’s all so impressive. Sadly my planning was not is flawless as beer has led me to believe: I only survive 20 minutes until I am a brain entree.
There is no upper age limit- and the journey experiences are proving perfect trips for older customers. At the lower end Alex recommends about 6-7yrs old is the youngest – principally because the experiences can be so realistic – distinguishing why parents have suddenly disappeared can be a bit disorientating. Also due to the headsets not fitting smaller heads quite right (sometimes a beanie saves the day). None of the games are age restricted but the team are perfectly qualified to advise parents on what’s involved (having selflessly played all of them through).
There’s a scenario for every demographic and occasion here; something for a rainy afternoon, a pre-night out, parent-child bonding, a hen do, a date, a distraction while parents can shop, or a route to international fame and fortune (a la fruit ninja).
I loved my time at Virtual Reality Escapes – it’s a new and really unique venture that definitely adds to Chester, and the quality they deliver is summed up in the ubiquitous 5 star reviews from Trip Advisor and Facebook. This is an amazing enterprise, and it’s so accessible even someone with my underdeveloped thumb musculature can enjoy. Give it a go; perceptions can be misleading!