Virtual Reality Makes Video Games Come Alive Like a Holodeck
When my family goes on vacation, we’re far more adventurous than we are at home. Want to try a lampredetto sandwich (the fourth and final stomach of a cow that is a Florentine specialty) while visiting Italy? Yes!
Want to get naked in front of lots of other people and try a public bath (aka onsen) in Tokyo? Yes!
Want to try a virtual reality video game while in Singapore? Yes!
I’m not someone who likes first-person shooters. I love strategy games where you’re building a civilization and collecting resources. Yet we were on vacation so I impulsively agreed to try out Sandbox VR at the Orchard Central shopping mall in Singapore.
My family and I loved it so much, we went back to try another game later that same trip! We would have tried even more once we returned home to California (there are multiple locations here), but COVID 19 hit before we could schedule a game here.
Virtual Reality is more than just a TV screen
I really had no idea what to expect when we walked into the Sandbox VR location. It’s in the middle of a multi-story shopping mall in Singapore and the space seemed quite small. There’s a small reception area where you put on the gear and then they had two rooms where different games can take place simultaneously.
I don’t know the exact size of the room, but it may have been the size of a large bedroom (200 square feet?). I thought it would be far bigger knowing that they can accommodate up to six players running around. There are cameras mounted on all four walls, a rack of fans on one wall, and bright green paint.
I figured it was going to be like watching a TV monitor. I was so wrong. You are actually IN the video game and it does make me think this is what a Holodeck experience might feel like (although we had to wear a lot of special gear).
When you turn your head, the view you see shifts with you. When you lift up your gun (and look down), you will see the gun in your hand.
Prepping for the VR Experience
I suggest people wear athletic/casual clothing and athletic/running shoes, as you may be crouching, spinning, and ducking quite a bit. Plus you will get sweaty — it could be from the stress/adrenaline of the game, all the gear you’re wearing, and/or the fact that the room isn’t air-conditioned enough.
Sandbox VR asks you to arrive 15–30 minutes early. This is so the staff can walk you through the orientation and help you put on all the gear. We went only 15 minutes on our second trip but I’m glad we were 30 minutes early the first time.
Among the gear you put on is a set of “goggles” with a built-in screen and a large pair of over-the-ear headphones (with a microphone). Together, they’re pretty heavy/bulky. Note also the white balls protruding from the goggles. These are what the motion capture cameras around the room look for to register your head movements.
Motion capture cameras are mounted on all four walls. They will record your movements, so if you turn your head, kick your foot at something, or raise an arm, your character mimics that movement. Since you’re in a first-person shooter game, you can’t see your full body except at the very beginning, when you’re in the “pre-game” stage and there’s a “mirror” that shows your character. But during the game, you see your fellow gamers’ movements and you can look down to see your arms and legs moving.
You find your view is completely blocked of anything but the screen inside the goggles. Unlike regular glasses, when you wear this headset combination you do not have any peripheral vision of the room you’re in, nor can you look above or below the goggles. You can only see what they want you to see.
My youngest wears glasses but you can’t wear glasses under the headset. Instead, the staff inserted corrective lenses in the headset for her.
You also have “bracelets” that go around each wrist and ankle. These also have white balls for the motion capture cameras. They’re surprisingly sophisticated. The system can tell if you lift up your knee or if you’re kicking your foot out by the orientation of the white balls.
3. Neoprene haptic vest and backpack
On your torso, you have a heavy neoprene “haptic vest” that you put on. It will vibrate when you’ve been hit. You also have a backpack that likely has the battery that powers your headset and vest. With all this stuff on, I found myself very sweaty by the end of the game.
I also noticed the vests were a bit smelly and damp when we put them on. I’m not sure whether the Singapore staff used a liquid cleanser or if was damp from the prior user’s sweat. *shudder*
The Amber Sky 2088 game offered us the choice of two types of weapons: handguns or assault rifles. We let our daughters have the big assault rifles. Since we had the small handguns, we also had a “shield” to protect ourselves. Instead of giving us an actual shield, the shield was linked to our bracelet. So my husband and I just had to hold our left wrist up to “activate” the shield.
The Curse of Davy Jones game offered us “pistols.” The weapons all had white balls, too, so the motion capture cameras could see where you were pointing your weapon.
I also should mention that I also noticed you cannot hear anyone unless they speak through the headset. When we were first setting up, a staff member has to plug you into the backpack and adjust your headset. Since they activate each user one at a time, I was first up and waited for the others to get adjusted. It felt very disorienting to realize my senses were all dulled. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see anything but a screen with their logo, and I was too afraid to move.
After they activated each of my family members, the “pre-game” orientation began. We could see and hear each other and once there was something on the screen, I felt more comfortable moving as I could see “myself” in the mirror moving my arms and legs.
We chose the Amber Sky 2088 experience first and loved it so much that we went back and tried the Curse of Davy Jones experience later that same trip. I see the San Francisco Bay Area site has three additional games: Star Trek: Discovery, Unbound Fighting League (UFL), and Deadwood Mansion.
For first-time users, Amber Sky 2088 is my recommendation. It’s a futuristic game with great visuals. The basic premise is that you are androids defending Earth. It involves shooting aliens and you also get to go up a space elevator. It really felt like we were moving at times!
We went back to play the Curse of Davy Jones, where you are pirates on a haunted ship. This was fun, but not as exciting or visually stunning like Amber Sky 2088. It felt a bit more cartoonish to me.
Up to six guests can play at one time, but I think even having 4 of us felt a little crowded. We ran into each at certain times. There’s one scene in the Curse of Davy Jones where you have to crouch down low and we did bump into each other.
Sandbox VR has three locations in Asia (with a fourth in Shanghai soon) and seven in the Americas (six in the U.S. — including two in the San Francisco Bay Area — and one in Vancouver, Canada).
Prices vary by location and whether you go on a weekday or weekend. We paid less in Singapore than the prices for the U.S. The current price in Singapore is $32 Singapore dollars (about $24 USD) on a weekday and $45 Singapore dollars on the weekend ($32 USD). Per the San Francisco Bay Area FAQ, “Tickets are $48 per person Monday to Thursday and $51 per person Friday to Sunday.”
Sandbox VR notes: “Guests must be:
- 8 Years or older & 1.2m (48″) or taller to play
- Be able to support gear weight of at least 20 lbs for up to 1 hour
- Able to walk unassisted for 30 minutes continuously with full use of both hands. Unfortunately, this experience is not currently wheelchair friendly.”
Now that things are opening up again, I can’t wait to schedule a Star Trek: Discovery game (although I am more a fan of The Next Generation characters!). Captain Jean-Luc Picard and TNG used the Holodeck quite a bit, even though they never had to wear special gear. Still, I highly recommend the experience. I would also play Amber Sky 2088 again. It’s a great way to experience a video game.