Coulter Roe plays the tutorial for The Technician at Heady Virtual Reality on Jan. 24. (Photo by Rachel Alexander)
By Katie Kovac
Tucked around the corner of West Holly and Bay Street is a small studio vibing with ambient music. Inside, cables strung up on the high ceiling dance behind black curtains. A young boy is hooked up and plugged into a virtual reality headset while his dad watches from the colored glow of custom built gaming computers.
Heady Virtual Reality is a public virtual arcade that opened its doors to Bellingham in August 2018. The intimate space has four VR stations available, charging $10 every 15 minutes, with over 90 single and multiplayer games to choose from such as zombie shooter “Arizona Sunshine” or the comical “Job Simulator.”
Owner Zach Brown plugged into virtual reality just three years ago, and since then he hasn’t been able to forget that first impression.
“I started researching well, does [VR] exist in this town, or in the area, and turns out it didn’t,” Brown said. “So I felt like, for how much impact it did to me, like experiencing that, I thought that others would probably have a similar impact.”
The arcade has held VR tournaments in the past, but Brown believed these created a competitive atmosphere, while he wanted to host a more creative and inclusive space, he said. This led to the idea of VR nights, which were open to beginners and developers alike, he said.
Emily Rose, the special events coordinator at Heady VR, works with Brown to host the event. The events are an opportunity for upcoming VR game developers to showcase and troubleshoot their games to the public, she said.
“I use this as like part art gallery, part featuring developers to come in and get that testing feedback from people who aren’t as familiar with the technical backends of things,” Rose said. “The best play-testing comes in from people you just get from off the street.”
On Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. a small crowd huddled around a VR station. Seated close to the screen, game developer Ken George displayed his action puzzle game, “The Technician.” Volunteer Coulter Roe geared up, adjusted the headset and started playing.
As Roe played, George explained the different aspects of the game as onlookers started bouncing around their ideas and suggestions.
On the screen, the virtual hand repeated the action of the button slider feature in the game’s start menu. George’s assistant quickly scribbled down notes as the crowd made comments on the game.
“That sliding motion doesn’t really work to me, it doesn’t feel very good,” Roe said as he was playing.
This observation set off a discussion about gaming physics, which then became a question about playability with red and green colorblindness.
When troubleshooting VR, it’s important to have a physical sense of what the player is doing, making it easier for the developer to troubleshoot, Rose said.
“I hope it inspires more [people], especially young people, to come in and think like ‘Yeah I can make VR games too,’ and have a more realistic picture of what that is,” Rose said.
Brown nodded in agreement, adding that one of his goals is to give more opportunities to students within the VR community, he said.
“[My goal is] to open up the floodgate for so much more opportunity for this new generation of students to get involved with it,” Brown said. “It’s a new technology and it’s growing.”
Western currently offers students a small VR lab in Haggard Hall 219 through the Student Technology Center, according to the lab’s website. Students, faculty and staff can experience the HTC Vive VR system, after completing a 30-minute certification workshop.
At Heady Virtual Reality, Brown and Rose hope they can encourage customers and students alike to take a leap into the world of VR. The studio is open seven days a week.
“Bellingham may be a small town, but we have a huge advantage here [because] we’re part of this larger technology economic corridor, stretching from Seattle to Vancouver, and even potentially Portland if you really consider it,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of professional talent to be networking with and building a future off of.”
The virtual arcade has a variety of deals, such as a happy hour offering a 20 percent discount from 7-10 p.m. and student deals offering 15 percent off all day Sunday, according to their website. Their newest offer is their free weekly Thursday event titled Thinking VR, according to their website.