By | December 30, 2023
I Had a Blast Playing 'Squid Game Virtuals' in a VR Arcade - But Here's Why I Probably Won't Be Back

Groups of up to six people can play different games in Sandbox VR arcade locations around the world. (Sandbox VR Photo)

After years of hype, virtual reality still hasn’t reached mainstream consumer adoption. But it helped my group of friends have tons of fun earlier this month.

We spent a weeknight at Sandbox VR in Seattle, one of more than 45 locations worldwide where the San Francisco-based startup offers virtual reality experiences for groups of 2 to 6 people.

VR arcades are not new, although the technology has improved over the years. Sandbox survived pandemic shutdowns and is now growing rapidly after raising $37 million two years ago. It added 12 locations this year with plans for more in 2024. Its investors include firms such as Andreessen Horowitz and celebrity investors including Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Kevin Durant.

Inside the Seattle-based Sandbox VR location, where customers can experience the popular Netflix show “Squid Games” as a VR game. (GeekWire Photo/Taylor Soper)

After our group arrived at the South Lake Union location in Seattle, we spent 15 minutes training and setting up. It takes some time to attach motion sensors to your wrists and ankles and get comfortable wearing the vest and headset, all powered by HTC technology.

We moved into an empty room lined with overhead sensors. We strapped on our headsets and soon saw each other as virtual avatars. We laughed and commented on how trippy it was to be together in a physical space but interacting in this sort of “metaverse”.

Sandbox offers a range of games it develops in-house, including “Squid Game Virtuals,” one of the company’s newer experiences based on the popular Netflix show. It launched in September and quickly became popular, generating $4.5 million in revenue for Sandbox in two months.

“Squid Game Virtuals” goes through various mini-races, just like in the show, but instead of being eliminated, you get revived if you accidentally move too much in “Red Light, Green Light” or fall through the glass bridge.

There was a small error to start but a few minutes later the Squid Game started.

Players collect points throughout the experience and a winner is chosen at the end. There’s a fun element of both teamwork and potential sabotage that keeps things interesting.

The motion-capture technology worked quite well and accurately sensed your body movements – the key to making something like this really work.

After 30 minutes of gaming, we took off the headsets and watched video replays of our experience. We had a lot of fun—which seems to be a common review, according to Mason McKean, a Sandbox employee who helped our group.

“My favorite part is seeing people come in from tech companies who are mainly introverts or usually more reserved, and seeing them come out of the experience with this big smile on their face,” McKean said. “You can tell they’re excited and relaxed and unwrapped a little bit, which is wonderful.”

(Sandbox VR Photo)

I would love to come back and try all the other games Sandbox has to offer. But I probably won’t.

Sandbox typically charges $50 to $55 per person for just 30 minutes of play. (Editor’s Note: GeekWire received free entry for this review.)

This may make sense for companies looking for a team building event, or large groups celebrating birthdays or hen parties, which are advertised on the company website.

But for me it’s just too high a price for too little return. VR is definitely cool, but $50 can go a long way at a traditional arcade, pinball machine, or other forms of live entertainment. Or I can invest in my own VR headset and play at home.

Whether Sandbox continues to grow remains to be seen. There are several competitors in the Seattle region, including Hive VR, Dimension XR, and Zero Latency.

Tim Harader, a longtime Seattle tech executive, founded a VR arcade company called Portal with his wife in 2017. The company, which had locations in Ballard and Bellevue, announced plans to close earlier this year.

Portal’s business grew and reached profitability just before the pandemic began in 2020, which hit brick-and-mortar retail and entertainment venues hard given indoor gathering restrictions.

Portal founder Tim Harader (right), circa 2018, inside his VR arcade that shut down this year. (GeekWire File Photo/Taylor Soper)

Harader cited other pandemic-driven effects — people staying home more and the shift to remote work — as well as increased labor costs that contributed to Portal’s demise.

He is not sure if the VR arcade business is sustainable going forward.

“For venue-based entertainment venues, it’s a balance between reaching your maximum capacity versus your operating costs,” he said. “It might work in some places but not in others.”

Offering food and drinks can help increase revenue, he added.

Other venues in the Seattle area that offered VR arcades have shut down in recent years, including VR Go, Virtual Sports and Odyssey Virtual Reality.

Harader, a former longtime Microsoft executive, is now vice president at Librestream, which develops augmented reality technology for industrial companies.

While there are some established enterprise use cases for VR and AR, the consumer market still lacks a breakout app, and headset sales fell nearly 40% this year, according to CNBC.

Even with Apple poised to release its Vision Pro headset next year and Meta continuing to invest heavily in the sector, Harader believes we’re still years away from mainstream consumer adoption. The technology is simply not good enough, he said.

“When you think about the necessary power and the battery life and the visual clarity you need for a device that you’re going to wear for more than an hour or two — nothing is there yet,” he said. “They still need to develop better battery technology, better display technology and more powerful computing.”

In the meantime, companies like Sandbox — which opened a new development studio in Vancouver, BC this year — will try to attract customers to their locations. In a statement to GeekWire, Sandbox CEO Steve Zhao said that people “are drawn to immersive experiences and VR is a channel for that.”

“You see companies continue to invest in VR,” he said. “There are a lot of people everywhere who are wary of this venture because immersion is something that players want and is a natural progression.”

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