Zach Brown pulls up his latest post on Instagram.
“Check this guy out,” he says.
The video shows a young man wearing virtual reality goggles and hand-held controllers, playing a game called Beat Saber. The game is akin to Dance Dance Revolution, but instead of following along to a song by stomping out dance moves with your feet, the virtual reality version has players hitting images of geometric shapes that quickly fly toward them with virtual lightsabers.
As in Dance Dance Revolution, the higher you progress in the game, the more quickly the shapes fly, and the more difficult it is to accurately keep up.
Referring to the man in the video, Brown says, “I think he might have a record approaching, but he is a Beat Saber slayer.”
Zach Brown opened Heady Virtual Reality, Bellingham’s first virtual reality arcade, in August of 2018. This summer, he’s opening a sister location, just across the hallway from his current space.
Brown feels very fortunate for the positive response he’s received to Heady’s first location.
“I didn’t know what to expect, opening up a new business with a one-of-a-kind concept,” Brown says. “I just really believe in the product on so many levels. I try to provide really good customer service and have the product speak for itself.”
To play virtual reality games, participants wear a headset with a visor completely covering their eyes and peripheral vision as well as ear muffs to block out sound. A virtual scene unfolds before them and music or other sounds fill their ears. In their hands, they hold remote sensors, which allow players to manipulate and navigate the virtual reality playing before their eyes.
Virtual reality games are incredibly varied, offering single- and multi-player games on almost any theme. Brown currently offers about 120 games for arcade visitors to choose from. He hosts private parties, is set up so people can reserve time online, and welcomes walk-in players.
The original Heady location has four game stations, meaning four people can play at once. The space is small, only 670 square feet, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything besides game play.
That limitation is part of what inspired Brown to expand to his new space. The sister site, while only slightly bigger, will allow him to build four more full game stations as well as a seating area for people who are waiting their turn.
Many virtual reality games require players use their whole body, so it’s important they have space to move. In the new space, however, Brown also plans to offer simpler games like virtual-reality Tetris that don’t need as much room and won’t cost as much to play.
The new space will likely become a 21+ arcade; Brown is in the process of applying for a liquor license so he can serve beer.
Brown first experienced virtual reality entertainment about three and a half years ago at a virtual reality exposition in Portland, Oregon. He was working as a freelance photographer and videographer at the time, and after finishing his work, he stuck around to check things out.
“It was so intense,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe how far along VR was. I had no idea it was that immersive.”
That first experience stuck with him. About two years later, looking for a career change, Brown was reminded of his experience at the virtual reality expo. He hadn’t tried on a pair of goggles since, but the sensation immediately came back to him, he says.
He remembers thinking, “Oh yeah, I forgot: I love VR.”
Brown was traveling abroad at the time, but did extensive research and signed the lease where the current Heady arcade is located about two weeks after returning to Bellingham.
For Brown, the magic of virtual reality technology extends far beyond arcade games. One of the most exciting recent developments he has seen is in the field of education, allowing students to dissect frogs using virtual reality technology.
Schools could actually save thousands of dollars with this method, because the frogs and their transport are quite expensive, Brown explains.
“Plus, you’re not mutilating tons of frogs, so that’s kind of cool,” he says.
From what Brown has seen, the technology looks extremely accurate, offering students the option to label each part of the frog as they go. Brown envisions a possible future collaboration with schools in Bellingham to use technology like this.
Virtual reality technology has also progressed to include virtual reality movies. Most of these films are short, between five and 10 minutes long, and allow viewers to fully immerse themselves in the film.
“It’s completely recreating a style of storytelling,” Brown says.
Starting at the beginning of May, Brown will host movie nights on Thursday evenings where people can experience the sensation for themselves. He also participates in most of the first-Friday Art Walks, offering people the chance to try a virtual reality painting game for free.
Heady Virtual Reality is open seven days a week, and Brown aims to have his expansion open to the public by August.
Heady Virtual Reality
215 West Holly Street in Bellingham