Peter Laurent’s business started the day he bought his first VR headset in January 2017. Word had got around that he had this cool new toy; a couple of local kids knocked on the door and asked if they could play on it.
Peter, now owner and director of Takapuna-based The VR Club, noticed they had to take turns sharing that one headset. The other could only watch, and while that was still fun, it would be nothing compared to playing together in a virtual world if they'd had a headset each. “I realised that people would go out of the house for this new form of entertainment, because they want to experience it together,” he says.
The VR Club has been operating for a year now and Peter is there every day. “It's honestly a dream job and I can't imagine doing anything else now.” Support from the TBBA and the close-knit local community has been gratifying, he adds. As he says, VR is something that is incredibly hard to explain without trying it for yourself, “so having reliable testimonials is crucial”.
So just what is The VR Club? What it is not, is a dark cybercafé, nor an old-style gaming arcade. Peter has created a "lounge", a bright open space with comfortable leather chairs and couch with big-screen TVs where observers can watch the people playing at one of several VR stations.
The VR Club offers different types of VR (virtual reality) to suit different budgets, and 30 different games to appeal to different customer groups and ages. Peter updates the game menu monthly, keeping only the most popular games and experimenting with new releases to see what resonates with players and to offer something fresh for repeat customers. (Regular players can purchase membership subscriptions, and there’s a loyalty system to earn bonuses.)
Peter’s next project is to use new wireless headsets to expand into off-site events, for example at local business venues. He’s recently taken the headsets to rest homes around the North Shore so residents could try out some seated experiences. It was more difficult to pitch the idea to them, but once they had the headset, everyone loved it.
The main audience is kids aged 8-12, mostly boys. However, groups of girls are increasingly into VR, along with adults looking for something thrilling like a horror game. Peter’s not surprised young people make up most of his customers. But he didn't expect to be a date location. “I've had couples come in as the warm-up to a night out, and play co-operative games such as exploring a zombie-infested mine or holding off an army of giant monsters together!”
The VR Club is booked up weeks in advance for kids’ birthday parties on the weekends. “School holidays are jam-packed with casual players,” he adds. Because of the limited capacity (each player requires at least 2 square metres of empty space) bookings are encouraged to avoid missing out.
For parties, Peter gets the equipment ready, making sure the game selection is age-appropriate, and sets up the party table (parents can bring their own food/drink/cake, but many head off to eat out after the VR time) while the kids jump onto the complimentary retro Playstation and Nintendo consoles. Peter then runs through safety rules, the kids are set up with the controllers and headset, and their session begins. “The first 10 minutes or so are chaotic as they are all yelling about how amazing it looks and then learning the controls, but they settle into the rhythm soon enough and the fun really begins.”
The game everyone, regardless of age, raves about afterwards is 'Richie's Plank Experience', a short test-your-fear-of-heights experience, and a perfect taste of what VR can do (which is why Peter offers it free to first time customers). Despite knowing they’re on firm ground, the player's fear of falling is often genuine, he says.
Sessions are in 25- or 55-minute slots, and customers can choose any game they like from the menu within the headset. Parties and functions can be booked out for longer sessions, and bigger groups can share the headsets so that everyone can have a turn.
Peter suggests businesses consider bringing their staff for celebratory or team-building functions and to see for themselves what the technology can do. “Games are just the start. Already there are forward thinking companies using it to get ahead of their competition, whether that's architectural firms showing life-size scale of a building yet to be built, or doctors and engineers practicing delicate or dangerous procedures without any risk.”
“VR is for everyone,” he enthuses. VR is still new to most people, or they’ve only tried VR using their mobile phone, which isn't the same thing. “Everyone is blown away their first time. There's something for everyone, a wide variety of experiences and an ever-evolving menu of games.” His hands-on management of technicalities, like suggesting game ideas and unique content delivery and cable systems, have ensured that he can “proudly say no one has ever come away without a huge grin on their face, wanting more”.
The VR Club, 6A/33 Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna (next to The Commons)
www.vrclub.co.nz 027 257 2577