SMOKEY POINT – Teen Leah Holley is engaged in battle, swinging lightsabers to slash cube-shaped red- and blue-colored musical beats synchronized to rap music as they race menacingly toward her.
Her sister, Selah, is in the next room, swaying left to right while seated on a stool, experiencing an enthralling roller coaster ride through Ancient Greece, passing through the Temple of Poseidon, then dipping through tunnels where flaming rocks fall on the way into the Palace of Hades.
Behind them, dad Brian is leaning against a couch, giving encouragement while he watches on large flat-screen TVs what they are seeing in their 3D headsets in the VoyagerVR Arcade and Lounge at 3131 Smokey Point Drive Suite 11B.
VoyagerVR is the first in Snohomish County and one of only four exclusive VR arcades in the state, and it’s a game changer, owner and Marysville resident Brian Holley said.
“This is a little bit of escapism for people to go where they want to go,” Holley said. “It’s the next generation for arcade games.”
Voyager in their name asks the question, “Where do you want to go today?” he said. “So far, the response has been phenomenal.”
Through use of the latest VR headsets and controller technology, visitors can reserve one of eight “living rooms” for up to four players for a half hour or hour at a time. Because many customers are first-timers in the VR world since the arcade opened July 21, the first 10 minutes are free, Holley said.
“We’ve packaged the technology and created an environment that allows you and your friends to experience it in a fun social setting,” Holley said.
The new arcade lets customers choose their voyage from a menu featuring multi-player experiences, strategy escape rooms, and shooter and flight scenarios.
People can take out zombies in a shoot ‘em up game called Arizona Sunshine, venture into outer space and repair a space station, walk in their own 360-degree nature setting while living like a god creating their own trees with the flick of a virtual orb. Or, visitors can just sit on a beach and relax.
The arcade offers 45 games and experiences loaded, with access to over 170 experiences in their catalog, Holley said. Superhot, Operation Warcade and NatureTrek worlds are among the more popular titles.
The Holleys expected customers of all ages and backgrounds, but they were especially moved last week when Ryan Wilson entered their store in a wheelchair.
“He said he was a paraplegic and had been that way since his accident twenty years ago, and he always wanted to fly,” Holley said. He was able to fulfill his wish.
Selah Holley said, “We have a game called Glider Island that you can control with just your headset. He was able to fly just by moving his head.”
Holley said, “That tugged at all of our hearts, just the idea of being able to give people an opportunity to experience things that they would not have been able to otherwise in real life.”
VoyagerVR has a few experiences for everyone, he said. “We want the virtual world to be just as real as real life.”
In real life, Holley worked in logistics planning at The Boeing Co. in Everett for 11 years. He left last November to pursue the dream to open his own VR arcade, which started thanks to his daughter’s “other wordly” birthday party.
Looking for a new way to celebrate that didn’t involve bouncy houses and clowns, a half-dozen girls chaperoned by Holley headed for a VR arcade in a non-descript basement of a high-rise apartment in Redmond.
“They talked me into putting one of the headsets on. It was the first time I had ever tried VR, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, here we go,’” he said. “I put it on, and it just blew my mind.”
It’s the scenario he has seen play out many times among parents and children walking into his arcade.
Holley’s game of choice was Loco Dojo, a virtual competitive party game that pits a player’s silly skills against others at the whim of the Grand Sensei’s “Table of Trials” and spin of a dice wheel.
His family was so smitten, they bought their own VR gear for home, set it up in their living room, and played endlessly.
“At some point, we thought, wouldn’t this be cool if we offered this same kind of feeling for everybody else?” Holley said.
Over his Christmas break from work, Holley drew up a business plan – including location, room layout, pricing and marketing – for an arcade with VR rooms with a living room-like feel, with comfy leather couches, big screen TVs and other features. Visitors can bring in their own food and beverages, but the business offers a snack counter, too.
Holley pointed out that while there are more gamers and households that are taking the plunge to buy emerging VR technology, it’s still expensive, with some goggles costing $600, plus the price of computer towers to handle the memory and speeds necessary to play. An arcade also offers the advantage of multiple rooms.
The VR gaming industry earned $286.7 million in 2017, and is projected to grow into a $2.3 billion industry by 2020, according to SuperData Research.
The Smokey Point arcade is wedged between a pawn shop and a USTA martial arts center, the storefront plastered over with an image of outer space.
But just like in The Stacks in the movie based on the VR teen sci-fi novel, “Ready Player One,” it doesn’t matter where your storefront exists on terra firma once you put the VR headset on. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
A trigger, thumb grab and menu pad are just some of the hand controls for the HTC VIVE standard and pro VR systems.
Sensors attached to a ski goggle-sized headset and two hand controllers enable real-time upper body movement. Users navigate an area the size of a small living room, but the visual layout and controls make the field of vision much larger and interactive. Glowing blue grid lines appear when a person moves too far in any direction in the room.
Holley said the games they have loaded tend to not require a lot of wild, physical movement that can cause harm or damage equipment. That means mini-golf instead of full swing golf; shooting baskets instead of kicking a soccer ball.
The technology has other uses that Holley would like to explore beyond gaming and relaxation.
For example, he believes the arcade could become a hub during off-hours to provide VR customer service and manufacturing and operations training on site for companies that don’t want to go to the expense of similar training in-house.
The Arlington-Marysville-Tulalip area economy “is growing like wildfire,” Holley said, explaining one of the reasons for opening the arcade in Smokey Point.