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The laser tag and paintball are so last century. Virtual reality with friends is making a comeback

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The laser tag and paintball are so last century.  Virtual reality with friends is making a comeback

Sandbox VR is designed for small groups to experience virtual reality together.

Sandbox VR

For the most up-to-date news and information on the coronavirus pandemic, visit the who other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites.

Steve Zhao’s business was promising until last year. Your company, Sandbox VR, had taken over a number of malls, and people visited so they could run around shooting zombies, crossing swords with treasure-hunting pirates, or exploring distant planets as members of a Star Trek crew. They would do all of this by gathering in groups of up to six people, in 600-square-foot rooms, where they would put on virtual reality headsets, attached backpacks, and sets of sensors on hands and feet.

The coronavirus He changed all of that, of course, effectively shutting down his business when his clients were quarantined. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it, we’re done,'” Zhao said. More than a year later, as world economies slowly reopened with each vaccine injection into people’s arms, Zhao’s business is growing again.

Sandbox VR puts you in full-body virtual reality with a backpack, toy gun, and hand / arm sensors. The games can accommodate up to six players at a time.

Scott Stein / CNET

Since they reopened in the spring, when states began lifting restrictions, its eight stores in the US, Canada and Asia have seen ticket sales and foot traffic rise above pre-pandemic levels. Zhao said. And now your company is on track to turn a profit next year.

“I think this platform is something that people want: immersive, social and full-body experiences,” said Zhao, 38, who started building games in college. “We are trying to create experiences where you build meaningful relationships with your friends.”

Zhao’s business push is the latest in a series of anecdotal signs that the video game industry, and virtual reality in particular, may show promise in the recently reopened economy. For the past year and a half, many of those who were in lockdown mode have flocked to video games as a means of escape and entertainment. In May, people were still playing and spending about 40% more money in games for smartphones and tablets than before the pandemic, according to surveys by market researcher IDC. Y in a separate survey, only about 25% of gamers reported that they hope to reduce their gambling habits as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.

People seem to be looking for other entertainment besides games. High Octane Action Movie Fast and furious 9 surpassed $ 70 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend, highest for a single film since December 2019 (although the general box office takes it’s still down since before the pandemic). The overall economy is also showing positive signs, with bouncing jobs other increased retail sales.

Although many small and medium-sized businesses closed last year, including Zhao’s competitor, The Void, Sandbox VR plans to expand beyond the locations it now has in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. In late July, it will add Shanghai and Las Vegas, bringing its total number of stores to 11. The company charges up to $ 51 per person per ticket for experiences of up to 1.5 hours, including training and setup.

Lewis Ward, an analyst at IDC, said that he had been skeptical about many of the virtual reality companies he had heard of before the pandemic, mainly because it seemed difficult to make money from what appeared to be a bit misleading. But he also said that the social element that companies like Sandbox focus on could make a difference.

“The idea of ​​a social outing with your friends that is similar to paintball or something else can be exciting,” Ward said. But what will make the difference in the long run are the repeat customers. “It should be distinctive enough for people to come back.”

sandbox-vr-2

Gear includes a backpack computer to power the headphones.

Scott Stein / CNET

Survive virtual reality

Sandbox VR requested more than $ 754,000 on US paycheck protection program loans during the pandemic era last year to primarily pay for staff salaries as world economies shut down. The company also began contractually working with coding from other game makers to help pay bills. Zhao said he also worked with owners and began experimenting with franchising his business. Still, there was finally declare bankruptcy, laid off about 80% of its staff of roughly 100 people at any one time and cut the salaries of those who remained. The company requested another $ 241,000 in PPP loans this march, again to cover the payroll.

Litter box VR-299-49096746503-o

The variety of sensing balls helps Sandbox video games track where you are in the real world.

Sandbox VR

To help customers get comfortable with the idea of ​​wearing a headset someone else had worn in the midst of a pandemic, Sandbox VR employees wear masks and gloves, and the company said it disinfects and disinfects with government-recommended disinfectants. . The firm also says that clients should wear masks if they haven’t been vaccinated; employees wear masks independently.

Sandbox VR also initially separated client appointments to reduce the possibility of contact between groups, and added disinfection stations for use before and after each experience.

“We wanted the guests to feel that this is a safe space,” Zhao said.

It also hopes to expand the types of experiences Sandbox VR offers. Currently, it has five, ranging from a horror survival game yet futuristic one-on-one sword fighting game. But he’s also interested in creating games where customers can be a magician casting magic or experience what it’s like to be a multi-armed monster. The development required, he said, “it takes some time.”

In the meantime, he hopes that people will continue to seek out new kinds of entertainment as they get used to coming back to life outside of quarantine. And he believes that offering experiences like his, in small groups, will be key.

“We don’t advertise as virtual reality,” Zhao said. “We are bringing people to different worlds.”

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