"You want to see fish? You want to shoot at things? Or you want to make art?”
Bill Brieger peppers me with questions as he pulls virtual reality goggles over my head and places two controllers in my hands.
I choose art, and Brieger gives me a tutorial on Tilt Brush by Google, which offers a 3-D palette that lets you build, paint and draw in the air. As I start sculpting, I let out a slew of superlatives: “It’s astounding. It’s amazing. It’s so real.”
I make a flaming smile in the sky and walk through licking flames. I feel a little awkward, as if I’m painting with my left foot, but after a few minutes the coordination clicks in.
Brieger smirks. Since his business, Nova Virtual Reality, opened in the Vine neighborhood in December, Brieger has seen this reaction often.
Nova, at 806 S. Westnedge Ave., is one of only a couple dozen virtual arcades to open across the nation, riding the coattails of the success of virtual reality arcades, theme parks and hubs in China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The trend is now exploding in the United States. New arcades announce their openings every other week on Reddit forums for VR enthusiasts.
“VR has had several waves where it tried to get off the launch pad, and I’ve lived through all of those. And now to see it finally launching is really satisfying,” says Brieger. “The consequence is that there are all these great VR ideas stocked up and ready to go and people have developed different ways to make money at it, too. At the same time, it’s still the Wild West. Everyone is still trying things out, especially the room-scale stuff.”
Still in its infancy, the virtual reality industry has yet to be claimed by any particular demographic, not exclusively belonging to gamers or families or entertainment companies.
Brieger says he and Nova co-owner Ryan Edgar embrace this market ambiguity and welcome a diverse crowd. “On the weekends we see a lot of families,” he says. “It’s always entertaining to see dads and moms getting into it, enjoying games with their kids.
“We (also) get the after-bar crowd, who are a little tipsy and want to play wilder games. We get a lot of dates. They come in, hang out, laugh a lot. I know with video games there’s a stereotype of a solo gamer dude, but we get lots of parties of all girls, too.”
Nova has four rooms for VR experiences: three curtained-off “social rooms” with couches and screens, so groups can socialize and observe one another playing, and a VIP room that can accommodate up to 20 people for parties.
“People watch on the screen for a half hour, wondering what everyone is freaking out about,” Brieger says, “and then they put on the goggles and are like, ‘Whoa! That’s amazing. Now I see how much more depth it has.’”
Nova is located in the Vine neighborhood business corridor, which Brieger describes as having a “neo-shopping-mall vibe.”
“We have a record shop, a coffee shop, bagel place, thrift store, barbershop and now an arcade,” he says. “It’s driven by the success of the anchor business, Fourth Coast (Café). Certainly, we’re in this location for a variety of reasons, but being close to the 20-somethings that have a little bit of entertainment income is a huge perk.”
Katherine Carter, a 30-year-old professional who lives in the Vine neighborhood, wasn’t a gamer growing up, but since visiting Nova with a group of friends in January, she has already returned several times.
“It was fun in a group because you could see what the other person was doing on the screen and cheer them on,” she says. “I would go in a group again, but I had a ton of fun doing it by myself. I had some rage to work through, so I played games that were quite aerobic. It was more fun than the gym.”
There are 80 available VR experiences at Nova, where players can immerse themselves in everything from exploring Iceland or destroying a city as a giant to saving kittens and fighting zombies. Players can also star in a Beyoncé music video, instigate bar fights or face their fears of heights and spiders.
“I played a game called Accounting. This game was so weird,” says Carter. “I’m not sure how to describe it except that in the game you virtually put on several VR headsets — so meta-VR within VR — to transport to other places in the game. You start in an accounting office, transport to the woods, then transport to inside the body of a creature. Then you blow him up, transport to a courtroom, and then you transport to Hell.”
The virtual reality industry, which had been largely unprofitable since its beginnings in the mid-1990s, has seen explosive growth recently due to the availability of cheaper, more comfortable equipment, according to tech blog Polygon.
Along with the headset and controllers, Nova rooms are equipped with a camera that tracks your movement — a VR technology that is only 8 months old. Home users can buy an HTC VIVE system similar to the models at Nova for $800. However, Brieger says, with the industry evolving rapidly, he and Edgar intend to update their hardware three times a year or more.
At Nova, clients can pay $18‑$20 per hour for a room, likely the cheapest VR arcade in the U.S., comparisons on Reddit show.
“We didn’t want to charge a lot because we didn’t want to be an Epcot experience, where you come once for an amazing thing and pay a ton of money for it, but then you don’t necessarily ever return,” says Brieger. “We’re hoping, with our cheap prices, that people will keep coming back, what with the games always changing and so much to explore. We have some weekly customers, and some who come more often.”
Edgar brings technical skills to the team, building computers for the immersive software, whereas Brieger brings small-business experience as the former co-owner of Rocket Star Café. Both owners are passionate about VR.
“We did a lot of hours of playing and discussing for two months before we even decided to open Nova,” says Brieger. “We even had business meetings in VR, where I was at my house and he was at his house and we were playing pingpong and discussing business ideas with headsets on. In the online world, other people would come up to us and ask what we were talking about, and we would tell them about our business idea and they would give us feedback.”
Nova’s virtual reality system is also a mobile entity that can be set up at birthday or graduation parties, and the company conducts free demonstrations at the Kalamazoo Public Library. Brieger is also hoping to work with local retirement communities to bring VR equipment to older, less mobile people. He envisions Nova using VR for all sorts of good, including physical therapy, treatment for phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, and assistance for individuals on the autism spectrum.
“There are endless possibilities,” says Carter. “I could see this trend taking off. I can imagine telling future generations that I remember when the first VR game room opened up near my house.”