All it took was one visit to a virtual reality arcade and Eric Kazda knew what he wanted to do next.
A programmer by trade and president of local digital marketing firm Quantum Dynamix, Kazda was on vacation in February of 2018 at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for the fearsome Polar Bear Plunge. After his icy dip, he made his way to Escape Reality Virtual Reality Arcade, which impressed him so much that by the time he arrived back home, he already had a scheduled meeting with a realtor to open up an arcade of his own.
Just one year later, that vision has come to life in the form of Lancaster Virtual Reality Lounge in the lower levels of the Keppel Building on North Queen Street.
In the last decade, VR has exploded in popularity as the technology catches up with the imagination of its developers. Companies such as Sony, Valve and HTC have released headsets and controllers for casual use, which has lowered the barrier of entry to the world of VR as low as possible.
“If you’re in a business with emerging technology, you have to be ready to find out what the next thing is going to be, because it will get old,” says Kazda from behind the counter of LVRL.
Currently, the space has eleven HTC Vive set-ups, with room for three more. After talking to other VR arcade owners, Kazda found that almost all of them said that they wished they hadn’t sequestered each gaming area between physical walls, so at this arcade, each space is partitioned with a black sheet so that the area can be changed depending on party size. As an old-school gamer, Kazda hopes that LVRL will become a truly family-friendly hotspot downtown.
“I recently had a family come in who had driven from New Cumberland for a vacation from Pittsburgh, and they drove downtown just to try out VR for the first time,” explains Kazda. “The mom and daughter had a great time, but the grandmother of the family resisted for a while until her family convinced her to try it out. She said she had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, so we pulled up Google Earth VR and she visited the Grand Canyon. She loved it.”
Currently, interested parties pay for the experience by 15-, 30- and 60-minute intervals as a way to try out multiple games in one session. During our interview with Kazda, we tried both “Beat Saber,” which is a rhythm game that tests your timing and hand-eye coordination, and “Arizona Sunshine,” a deceivingly titled zombie survival game. It was in the latter that this reporter almost immediately began sweating and swearing as the realistic zombie horde approached from all sides.
Obviously, the allure in any type of arcade is its variety, and LVRL currently offers 50 games at a time, though they are cycled in and out often. Aside from games, there are “experiences,” such as the aforementioned Google Earth VR, which allows the user to visit anywhere on the planet instantly. Other experiences allow people to swim with dolphins or walk on a small plank between multi-story buildings to face fears of heights.
Outside of the obvious business-friendly mindsets of his new friends in the Keppel Building and 300 Block of Queen, Kazda is hoping one day to partner with local universities to offer students the possibility of creating and workshopping their own games as a sort of game-development incubator hub.
With such a new business model, Kazda is open to just about anything when it comes to using the space adequately. Recently, he’s investigated the possibility of VR-related treadmills and racing simulators. Most bizarrely, Kazda is hoping to secure the rights to “To Be With Hamlet,” a virtual reality take on the immortal play that finds users walking alongside Hamlet as the events of the tale play out in real time. Thanks to the malleability of the space, Kazda hopes for both individual players and groups looking for a left-of-center evening.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a somewhat older gamer, but for a long time, it seemed like you could only play most games online,” says Kazda. “There’s just something about being in the same room playing games with your friends.”