When most people think about virtual reality, they likely picture someone with a cardboard apparatus over their face and a phone hanging from the end. Or maybe a dark room where someone sits, alone, completely immersed in their video game experience.
This is indeed VR, but only a very small sliver of it. But because most people only ever see VR in TV commercials or referenced in movies, that’s all they know. That was all I knew of it, at least, so I visited two local VR parlors to see how it is being used in the real world.
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Located in St. Louis Park, a stone’s throw from downtown Minneapolis, REM5 VR Laboratory was founded by Amir Berenjian and Travis Hoium in the fall of 2018. A garage-style door opens to the parking lot, and inside it’s spacious and bright with several people milling about. Minus the headsets, it looks like a bar—complete with a list of wines and beers.
“Most people don’t understand VR,” Berenjian says. “They might not be interested in trying it because they think it’s just for kids and gamers. So, the sophisticated trick we have is we offer really good beer, pizza, and entertainment. People understand those things.”
All this helps in REM5’s mission, which is to bring VR to a larger audience—and to show people it’s not just something to do in your buddy’s basement. “The social part is the one that always really surprised people. We get folks who call in and say ‘Okay, we want to do a birthday there, but what are the other kids going to do?’” Berejian explains.
REM5 offers 20 unique experiences run from 10 pods, plus an area for large groups—perfect for those birthday parties or, say, a work outing. The experiences are focused on being first-time-user friendly, replayable, and quick, which ensures that everyone gets a turn and can get excited about playing, Berenjian and Houim say.
As fancy as all the equipment seemed, Houim explained that VR systems can be bought for personal use from Amazon. However, to keep current with the headsets, graphics cards, and everything else necessary for playing, a person would regularly have to spend thousands of dollars. That’s where places like REM5 come in. “We also take a lot of the headache out of VR,” Houim says. “Things break—we have the expertise in house to fix that. If you run into those problems at home, you might be SOL.”
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On the other side of town, located next to Lake Monster Brewing in St. Paul, is Voxel Virtual Reality Parlor. Where REM5 feels like a brewery, Voxel feels more like a lounge: black velvet curtains separate each space, soft lighting illuminates everything, and music pulses in the background.
Voxel was founded by Jeff Trinh-Sy and Matt Tande in 2016. Originally a three-bay operation, they expanded to six bays soon after opening. Voxel recently opened another location in Minnetonka, continuing their expansion.
As I walked in, Trinh-Sy was deftly dodging walls and slicing cubes, trying to put up a new high score on “Beat Saber,” one of the parlor’s most popular experiences. It wasn’t until he’d finished and took off the headset that he noticed I was there. “That was part of the draw when we first got into it—how quickly we can forget the real world exists,” he says.
Voxel offers nearly 30 experiences at its St. Paul location and has something for everyone—not just for people that want to shoot at things and watch them blow up, Trinh-Sy says. The company is also set up so that they can bring the VR to you; their mobile units can be set up anywhere. “That was my vision when I opened this—that people are going to want this at their event,” he says, listing graduation parties as an example of such an event.
Most of the time, the bays at Voxel are filled with customers seeking out the experiential side of VR. But Trinh-Sy says custom development (360 tours, training simulations) is becoming a bigger and bigger part of their business. He adds that he also sees a more technical crowd (think engineers and developers) roll through, eager to share ideas with one another. It’s something Trinh-Sy encourages, noting that he wants anyone and everyone involved in advancing VR to come to Voxel to visit, share ideas, and discuss whether their ideas can be made into a “virtual” reality.
“It’s more than games,” Trinh-Sy says. “The more people realize that, the more developers will develop for that, and the more companies will take it upon themselves to build outside the game world. That’s what we are excited for.”
At both parlors, excitement about what the future of VR will bring is apparent. Applications in architecture help designers stand in and tour buildings before they are built. The technology can even be used for empathy training: there are VR that allow users to experience homelessness, or to travel as a black person in the Deep South during the 1960s. “It’s a life-changing experience, as cliche as that sounds, to see the whole possibility of things out there,” Trinh-Sy says. “If you don’t have someone to bounce that excitement off of, it kind of dulls it.”
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I experienced exactly that following my first VR experience at REM5. Standing in one of the pods with a VR controller clutched in each of my sweaty hands, I slashed blocks in time to a beat, stood on a sunken ship as a whale swam past, and created 3D art to the tune of my favorite song—all while confirming what Berenjian had told me earlier: “Nobody looks cool doing it, and it’s fun to share that with people.”
Taking off the headset, I finally understood the hype surrounding VR parlors, and believed the parlors’ owners when they say that it’s here to stay.