Virtual reality arcade brings innovative entertainment to Tempe

VR Junkies just opened in Tempe this January, but it already has loyal customers.

Michael Turner, a 19-year-old who just moved to the Valley from Atlanta, burst through the virtual reality arcade’s doors on a Monday evening. He said he tried out the games at the arcade’s grand opening and has been dying to return.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted, since I first started playing games when I was a little kid—I wanted to be part of the video game world, and it really throws you in there,” he said.

A hidden gem

VR Junkies is a little hard to find—in a nondescript shop among many on Mill Avenue, it doesn’t stand out. But assistant manager Espen Christoffersen said now that they’ve had their grand opening, they will start advertising more.

Most of their customers have been curious young people already on Mill Avenue to shop or drink. The passersby peer in the windows to see screens on the walls, with people wearing headsets stumbling around trying to play the games. They come in to watch what’s happening and often stay to play themselves.

There are two floors of spaces to play. Gamers pay by the minute and choose among several games. They can even choose t0 play multiplayer and communicate to each other across the building through their headset microphones. Turner quickly purchased his time, while Christoffersen helped him set up the game and his headset.

An immersive experience

Turner chose the game “Space Pirate Trainer,” the one he had played at the arcade’s grand opening. In the game, the player has to dodge drones that shoot from all directions. It’s like being fully thrown into Galaga.

“It was like I was in it,” Turner said, describing his experience. “I was really experiencing it. It was really cool. It tracked my motion impressively well . . . it was that fact that I was in control of everything, that I dictated every movement that made it really cool.”

Michael Turner playing Space Pirate Trainer.

For all of the games, players see things through the headset and listen through headphones. They have two controllers, one for each hand, that they use to navigate the game. In “Space Pirate Trainer,” the controllers can act as guns, a grenade launcher, or a shield.

The ability to use controllers in the game already makes this setup more immersive than using a Google Cardboard headset, but the arcade takes it a step further. Each play space has boxes that beam infrared lights, which track the player’s actions and allow them to actually move around in the game. Players can dodge the drones in “Space Pirate Trainer” by simply stepping to the side, or by ducking or spinning out of the way.

Turner really enjoys this part. While most people start out playing stiff and are too timid to really move around, Christoffersen said, Turner bounced to all corners of his space, challenging the drones while expertly destroying them. He even danced a little to the futuristic-sounding music playing in the arcade while he waited for the next level to load.

Here to stay

At this point, the arcade was starting to fill up. Some couples walked in with inquisitive looks, and Christoffersen gave them the spiel. Most who came in said they had never heard of the concept of a virtual reality arcade before, much less this specific location. Christoffersen said he only knew of one other arcade like this in the state.

“An arcade is totally viable right now because no one has this technology yet within their own homes,” he said. “It’s still being developed, so people might not really want to make the risky investment to get one of these on their own when development might be fast.”

Turner said he is excited that a place like VR Junkies exists, and he hopes it will be successful.

“It also gives young people something to do again,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, I’m 19 years old, I can’t go to the bars—anything else around here is going to get me in trouble. But this gives me someplace where I can go and meet people and interact without having to worry about all that.”

Check out VR Junkies next time you’re in downtown Tempe for a new kind of night with friends.

Jessica Swarner

Author: Jessica Swarner

Jessica is a recent graduate of ASU where she studied political science and journalism. She is currently a researcher at a local cybersecurity company. Her hobbies include reading up on hacker forums on Tor and giving unsolicited podcast recommendations.

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