Using a virtual reality headset feels the way you might imagine astronauts feel on their first space walk.
It’s just a complicated pair of glasses, so there’s nothing restricting your arms, legs or hands, but still — those precious appendages start operating under a different set of rules. Take a few real-world steps forward, and in the headset, you’re looking off the edge of a construction crane, down onto New York City streets alarmingly far away. Stretch an arm forward and ghostly hands float into view, moving like they’re your own — but these arms can lift statues and throw them like they’re toys. It’s a strange, consequence-free power trip.
Out-of-body experiences don’t come cheap, though: assuming one already owns a gaming PC with enough guts to handle convincing resolutions and frame rates, headsets are still expensive: the HTC Vive had a $200 price cut in August and still runs $599. That the cost is so prohibitive is one reason why Chad Toney, owner of Gadsden’s new VR arcade, Virtual Realms, set up shop.
“A lot of people aren’t quite sure what virtual reality is,” said Toney. “But once we bring them in and show them what virtual reality has to offer, they’re awestruck.”
Toney hatched a plan to bring VR to Gadsden in June, opening up in August at 208 S. Second St., where blues bar Rue Bourbon Blues once was. The arcade still has many of the bar’s features, like exposed brick walls, big stage lights and a fancy, wood bar where snacks are sold.
For $20 for an hour or $10 for 30 minutes, visitors can strap on an HTC Vive headset, with 4k resolution and 60 frames per second, and check out other worlds. Curtains wall off different “rooms” where players can hook in to one of the company PCs running a variety of games from online game service Steam, and do anything from shoot zombies in “Arizona Sunshine,” visit the bottom of the ocean in “TheBlu” or take Spider-Man’s web-shooters out in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Games range in maturity level from kid-appropriate wonderlands to grim, grown-up sandboxes. Parents can consult with Toney to find the right content level. Non-players can watch gameplay on monitors in the individual play rooms.
“As a parent, I was tired of saying there’s nothing to do here,” said Toney. “I wanted to make this a place that was going to be family-oriented, in a safe environment.”
Toney said he wants to see local organizations make use of the arcade for training and teaching purposes, using software that will allow medical students to examine virtual cadavers, or elementary school students to travel in time to Pearl Harbor and ancient Rome. Truck drivers can use trucking simulations like “American Truck Simulator” to practice long hauls across the country using true-to-life maps — or blast robots in “Raw Data.” Truckers like to have fun, too.
Toney said he believes his arcade is a step toward more new, innovative entertainment.
“Gadsden is really starting to pick up with new ideas and leading toward new frontiers,” he said.
Virtual Realms is open at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday and noon Saturday for walk-ins, and Monday through Wednesday for party reservations. Visit virtualrealmsgadsden.com or call 256-438-5525 for more information.