Imagine being so nervous about walking along a ledge at the top of a snowy mountain that you have to tell yourself not to look down at the arctic valley below. You remind yourself that in real life you’re tiptoeing in a carpeted second-floor room in North Miami. Such was my experience with the mind fuck known as the Virtual Arena in VR Park.
The virtual-reality arcade is the newest addition to Ninja Lounge, a sports and recreation center that is part of Dezerland Park, and offers more than 50 games. The Virtual Arena experience lasts up to 45 minutes (including ten minutes to strap on the headset, backpack, and sensors), and the VR Escape lasts up to an hour, but most games are in the five-to-seven-minute range.
The arcade isn’t the first of its kind. There have been others like it popping up around the country, including LoftVR Arcade in Miami and SVR Arcade in Palmetto Bay. But most are on a smaller scale than the 13,000-plus-square-foot VR Park. It’s an ambitious venture when you consider that virtual reality has had plenty of false starts over the past few decades and has been labeled as “the next big thing” for what feels like forever. So what’s different now? The technology is more advanced. Also, the general public is more technologically advanced.
Don’t be surprised if interest in virtual reality spikes with this week's release of best-selling-book-turned-Steven-Spielberg-film Ready Player One. The flick is set in a dystopian future where people escape their crappy lives by venturing into a virtual fantasy world (AKA the Oasis) that allows them to be and do pretty much whatever they want.
But those interested in purchasing high-end virtual-reality equipment for their own homes after watching Ready Player One would be taking a pricey risk. The upcoming HTC Vive Pro costs a steep $799, not including controllers or a base station. The Oculus Rift bundle runs $399, but that’s because the more advanced Oculus Santa Cruz is in the works. And that’s where places like VR Park come in. They allow visitors to get their virtual-reality fix without committing to the unpredictable tech long term.
One game at VR Park costs $10, and five will set you back $35. So in other words, leave your quarters at home. The Virtual Arena is the best game of the bunch and, not coincidentally, the most expensive at $50 per person. Besides reminding you how you feel about heights, the game requires you to shoot mutant rodents and zombie-like creatures lunging at you from all sides rather than just on a screen in front of you. You physically have to turn around to take on all comers and raise your hands to move objects and open doors.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on in this park is there is a lot of interaction and physical movement,” Ninja Lounge owner Malka Livingston says. “You get to really feel like you’re doing something, like jumping off a cliff. I had trouble with the idea of doing videogames initially because youth today are not [active] enough, but this is totally different. It’s almost like going to a dream world.”
The best games at VR Park are the ones where you’re doing rather than watching. The cartoonish Exo Drome requires you to hit targets using a joystick while on a simulated roller coaster. Unlike the free-roaming Virtual Arena, you’re tightly secured in a cart for this one, weaving side to side and — in what was an arcade first for me — upside down.
The Extreme Machine allowed me to wingsuit base-jump with a literal breeze on my face. The mini movie theater known as the 5D Cinema let me cruise on a high-speed boat above and below water, occasionally feeling light sprinkles. But I couldn’t control the action in either one and didn’t get as into them as the others. And at those prices, you’re counting on something you can really get into. Maybe the VR Arena set the bar too high.
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For some, the high-end gaming experience will be worth the cost, especially those who want to satisfy their virtual-reality curiosity or enjoy games that feel like rides (the wind and sprinkling water were unique touches). Others might think the value isn't as good here as at a traditional arcade, where you can play sweaty rounds of air hockey, pop-a-shot, and the latest shooting or fighting game for half the price.
It’s important to note that VR Park — which is surrounded by bare walls — isn’t a finished product. There are more additions on the way, according to Livingston.
“We’re still in the process of finishing our design,” Livingston says. “Every quarter, we plan on introducing new games. We’ve started talking about introducing educational programs for astronomy, chemistry, and anatomy — things that make learning fun and interactive. Like if you want to learn about the inside of a cell structure, you can literally reach out and touch mitochondria. You can also travel through space. The possibilities are endless.”
VR Park. 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Ninja Lounge, 14401 NE 20th Lane, North Miami; 786-590-5000; vrpark.us. Games cost $10 to $50.