After twenty years of development, virtual reality—or VR, to the initiated—has finally reached a level where it is not only commercially viable, but soon to become the new normal. With the release of both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets in the spring of this year, a new digital realm has opened up to the public. Virtual reality technology allows wearers to fully immerse themselves in frighteningly real three-dimensional environments, challenging users' sensory understanding through interactive games and experiences.
Local start-up UNIVRS has been quick to recognize VR’s potential. Founded by young entrepreneurs Charlie Shi and Alex Chua, the company is the first to set up a permanent virtual reality location in the city.
As the Straight enters the unit in Richmond, three people are engrossed in video games. One shoots a flaming bow and arrow at Viking men invading his castle gates; another reshapes planetary orbits; and a third fires a gun at gruesome-looking zombies.
“We use the HTC Vive technology here because it’s generally considered to be the most powerful and realistic,” Shi says. “The guys who are playing right now are our staff members. We like them to get a feel for every game, because they’ll be the ones to guide our customers through the VR experience. It’s a pretty fun job.”
UNIVRS is a gamer’s paradise. Boasting a huge selection of titles—including those from seminal developer Valve—there’s plenty of choices for both the seasoned and casual player. Placing individuals inside the game, users can physically engage with everything in their environment in a visceral and tactile way. By removing a player’s capacity to see or hear anything outside of the headset, VR detaches individuals entirely from the real world, allowing a much more intitive approach to video gaming. Virtual reality eliminates the steep learning curve associated with two-dimensional titles, and makes it infinitely more terrifying to come face-to-face with an unexpected zombie.
“Right now we have four booths at this location, but that will increase to nine—including two private rooms—in the next month and a half,” Shi says. “At the moment we have three booths reserved for pre-booked customers, and one is for walk-ins. We do encourage people to book online, but you can try your luck by just stopping by. A single booth works well for one to three people, and if you come with four or more, I’d recommend getting two booths, just to make the play time worthwhile.
"A few of our games offer multiplayer support, too," he continues. "A popular one is ‘Raw Data’— it’s a first-person shooter, but you have a sword as well as your guns. It’s free-moving, and the idea is to protect your stage from attacking robots. As long as you have two booths, you can play with each other, and interact together.”
While gaming might be UNIVRS’s primary focus, virtual reality has a multitude of applications—a fact that hasn't escaped Shi and Chua. On a mission to help introduce the general public to the technology, the founders are thinking outside the box to allow customers to explore the full range of VR's capabilities.
“People are starting to use virtual reality for everything now,” Chua points out. “In China, for example, they’re already using it for online shopping. You can walk into an imaginary store, look at the goods, and flip them over to see the front and back.
“Virtual reality is so versatile,” Shi agrees. “Pre-loaded into our systems are a number of programs where you are placed into a new environment, but don’t necessarily have to interact with it in the same way as video games. One is called ‘Everest’, for example, where you travel to a different place and can explore it in your own time. Another title lets you move around a home, and redesign it. You can see the layouts and the furnishings, and you can change the floors, the countertops, and the décor of the space. That software has so many implications for the real estate industry, and also for stores like IKEA. It gives you a really immersive way to consider your home.”
A lot of different factors motivated the pair to start the business. Meeting during their time as Apple employees, Chua and Shi had a range of experience in the tech industry, encompassing everything from computer hardware to audio-visual engineering. Recognizing that a lot of the companies they were dealing with had already moved their content creation into the virtual reality space, the duo decided to form a bridge between developers and consumers.
“We wanted to start a business that would allow people to experiment with the amazing software that’s being created. We’ve been talking to development companies in Vancouver, and we want to help grow their businesses too. We have a lot of people that want new content, and they’ve already created a lot that content. We’re going to try and connect the two groups.
“Most people don’t actually understand what VR is, and how many things it can do,” Shi says. “You really have to experience it for yourself.”
UNIVRS opens to the public on Saturday (November 19). Check the website for booking details, or walk-in (100 – 8160 Park Road, Richmond).
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