Idealog takes a break from reality

Idealog visited Auckland's Virtual Reality Studio - the first VR entertainment centre in New Zealand.

I was alone. In the desert. I had no supplies, except a paintbrush. To make matters worse, I was wearing a heavy sweater and poncho.

I needed to get out of there. So I teleported into outer space.

This probably requires a bit of an explanation. You see, I was trying out virtual reality for the very first time – courtesy of Auckland-based Virtual Reality Studio.

Located in Mt Roskill, Virtual Reality Studio is the first VR entertainment centre in Aotearoa.  Opened about three weeks ago by former C4 presenter and JGeek and the Geeks member Jermaine Leef, Holly White and Rob Le Grice, the space features several booths, somewhat reminiscent of a holodeck from Star Trek, where visitors can be hooked up to HTC Vives and play a variety of games and activities.

“Everyone from two to 82 has come through the doors,” Leef says. “No one has left being disappointed.”

White says as eye-opening as the experience has been for customers, it has also been a learning experience for the business – in a good way. “The basic thing we’ve found which has been surprising is we stepped into it thinking we had an idea of our customers,” she explains. “The thing that’s been really exciting with it is the people that have been coming through have been drawing us into different areas with where we’re going to go with it. We’ve had such an overwhelming response.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leef says it’s an exciting time to be involved with VR. “Our civilisation is moving toward VR in a big way,” he says. “In the eighties and nineties we were given a version of virtual reality that didn’t quite connect with everyone. But now we’re at the start of a wave in terms of what it’s going to look like.”

White agrees. “The technology is so there, and it will grow,” she says. “The next part is going to be the software.”

A group of four of us stopped by on a Thursday night after work. What struck me was how large the space was – it was like the inside of a retrofitted warehouse. I was also surprised by how much there was on offer – aside from the virtual reality, there was also a room for retro videogames (think Super Nintendo, Sega, the original Playstation, Nintendo 64, and a couple of arcade games) and heaps of traditional tabletop games like Connect Four. The whole place was a Mecca for the young, or the young at heart.

There were all kinds of games. One of them was a shoot-em-ups and platformers to another game where you navigate around a kitchen for some unknown reason. Having navigated enough kitchens in my lifetime, I decided to pass on that one.

“This one might be good for you,” Jermaine said, as he led me to a booth while my colleagues were already lost in their own virtual worlds. “Do you like art?”

Like art? I love it. But there’s a difference between enjoying art and actually, well, making art. I attempted to explain this. Jermaine was nonplussed. “Well just give it a go and see how you like it.”

You only live once, I figured. I lived in Berlin for nearly three years, so I liked to pretend I was used to rather, well, trippy environments. But this was way trippier.

Jermaine placed the large, jet-black plastic headset on me. Suddenly, everything went pitch black, far blacker than almost anything I’d consciously experienced before, where it was as if an occult hand had transported me straight into the void. What was this?

I could hear voices, but they were disembodied things, formless, unable to be seen. An invisible pair of hands showed me how this universe worked, guiding my own hands and showing how at the push of a button I could select different colours, brushes, and even teleport within the environment or change the environment I was in completely. I could even make effects like fire, the voice that sounded like Jermaine’s said – arson without the consequences.

The first place I was in was space. The final frontier, right? All around me – above, below, and on all sides – were fluorescent-coloured planets, glowing clouds of stellar gas, and luminous stars even brighter than at night in Eastern Oregon near where I grew up (trust me, they’re pretty spectacular there). I wasn’t floating, or anything else – I was just there.

There was so much to look at, it took me a while to remember what I could do. I pressed down on a button with my right hand, and hesitantly raised my arm. A glowing blue streak followed it, like fresh spray paint simply hanging in three dimensions. I moved my arms randomly. Each time, the blue streaks followed. Somehow, the blue looked even brighter against the blackness of space. Neat!

I changed my colour palette like Jermaine had shown me. Pink – my favourite. It was even brighter – if not gaudier – than the neon sign leading in to Virtual Reality Studio from the carpark. I then switched to emerald green, scribbling the word “hi” and a smiley face before scrawling “Ben was here” next to it. Alright, so I’m not much of an artist – but in this environment, the art seemed secondary compared to the things I was able to explore.

Oh, right – I forgot there were other environments. With the push of another button, I found myself amidst snowcapped mountains, in a valley, and in a strange place that looked like a barren plot of land ringed by mountains that had a dummy in the middle of it like the kind fashion designers hang their garments on.

Then there was the aforementioned desert. I’ve long had a bizarre fascination with big, sandy deserts, but this environment was so realistic, I almost thought I was actually in the desert. Without any water, I was a bit concerned.

After contemplating writing “SOS” in the air, I suddenly remembered what I could do.

That’s when I retreated back to the safety of space.