Standing on a narrow wooden plank 50 stories above city streets, I couldn’t help but question Tim Harader’s idea of fun. The former Microsoft employee-turned-small-business-entrepreneur had invited me to experience his latest business venture firsthand.

After boarding an elevator and being lifted 500 feet into the sky, the doors glided open and the sweeping view of a downtown skyline materialized. Without a harness, rope, or parachute, I was encouraged to step forward and move toward the end of the plank.

My palms slicked with sweat. The quickening beat of my heart pounded and echoed in my head. I complained — pleaded! — that it was impossible to step forward. My brain, my body, my primal urge to self-preserve wouldn’t allow it. I wanted to get back in the elevator and ride it back down to the street.

Suddenly, a voice offered assistance.

Just step out. Here. I’ll help you.

A pair of hands I could not see grabbed my own hands and guided me forward. The plank squeaked; my stomach sank. Carefully, I inched toward the plank’s edge.

Now, turn around. Take a look at the view.

A helicopter buzzed overhead just out of arm’s reach. Sunshine glinted off the windows of high-rises, and seagulls sailed past and offered a curious side-eye. Below, people and cars slid along silently like ants.

Now, step off the plank.

What?

Just step off.

Can I close my eyes?

No. Just step off.

I took a deep breath, dangled a foot, and fell until everything faded to white.

Welcome to Richie’s Plank Experience, one of several virtual reality (VR) gaming experiences offered by Harader’s Portal VR Arcade and Lounge. In reality, the plank was less than 2 inches off the ground, and the person who held my hands and nudged me forward was an employee, standing just inches away from me. The sensory-scrambled experience was provided by way of an HTC Vive Pro headset.

Portal VR Arcade and Lounge in Bellevue

Portal VR Arcade and Lounge in Bellevue

American amusement arcades date back a century and have evolved in tandem with technology, from pinball machines of the 1930s and 1940s, to digital video arcades of the 1980s. With the rise of VR technology today, small-business entrepreneurs like Harader are making a run at opening VR arcades, which can be found throughout Western Washington — from Bellingham to Federal Way to Seattle to Tukwila.

Harader, 51, left his job as a business-development manager in Microsoft’s Xbox division to open Portal VR with his wife, Page, in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood in spring 2017.

“I had originally started the Ballard location as a way to make extra money for college for my kids,” he explained. “The idea was that I was going to get that up and running, have somebody manage it, and I would keep my job. Because I got excited about it and was working crazy hours, something had to give. I thought: You know; I’m just going to go for it. I wanted to take a chance.”

Harader reasoned that a business plan could be drafted (and money could be made) around the notion that hardcore and casual gamers alike, regardless of age or background, would be drawn to the VR experience — all without having to buy their own VR equipment and in a space where friends could gather to eat, drink, socialize, and have fun.

In December, the Haraders opened a second location, this time in Bellevue. The 3,500-square-foot space offers 12 gaming booths; accommodates about 130 people; and includes a separate room for group events, such as birthday parties or company gatherings.

Prices range from $29.95 per hour for one person, to $59.95 per hour for up to four people. The company offers more than four-dozen single and multiplayer VR gaming experiences — from navigating your way out of an escape room, to playing soccer or basketball, to exploring museum-quality fine art, to shooting zombies and monsters, to much more. You, too, can walk the plank or even hang glide for a flat rate of $4.99.

“I want to build this into a company that has a lot of company stores, and then also has franchises,” Harader explained. “We are starting that in Bellevue. The next location will be Tacoma, hopefully by spring or summer. After that, we will probably go up north a little bit, then start franchising in other areas.”

Estimates vary, but the global VR gaming market could reach as much as $45 billion by 2025, according to SuperData research, a division of Nielsen Company. It’s an ambitious projection, considering the market was just over $2 billion in 2017, and paled in comparison to the global music industry ($16 billion), box office ($39 billion) and digital games ($98 billion).

Still, the startup costs for opening your own VR arcade are comparatively small (see “Arcade Entrepreneur,” below), according to Alex Kniazev, owner of Odyssey VR in Redmond. After successfully opening three escape rooms in Redmond, Kniazev, 25, decided to open a combination escape room and VR Arcade in 2016. Odyssey VR is much smaller than Portal VR’s locations — it’s about the size of a large studio apartment and can accommodate four gamers at a time — but has become the perfect spot for Eastside tech companies that want to order in pizza and reserve the space for an entire afternoon of company events, team-building activities, or staff birthday parties.

“It’s always been a side business for me because my main thing is the real escape rooms,” he explained. “The VR arcade is just a place that, when I was a kid, I dreamed about. It’s a perfect starter business.”

VR Data

Source: Superdata Research

In addition to leasing the small space, Kniazev said he purchased four HTC Vive Pro headsets for about $1,600 each, a computer with a powerful processor for about $2,000, and paid to either purchase or license access to nearly three dozen VR games. Odyssey VR charges $24.99 for one hour for one person, $200 for 2.5 hours for up to four players, and $240 for 2.5 hours for up to 10 players.

Still, for a number of reasons, Kniazev isn’t as aggressive as Harader is when it comes to growing his VR arcade business. First, the leading VR gaming headsets for home entertainment cost between $400 and $600. Like most consumer technology products, prices will drop as the popularity increases and it becomes cheaper to manufacture these devices.

“In maybe two, three, or four years, all of the hardware will be much cheaper, and it won’t be a problem to buy it for yourself and play at home,” Kniazev explained.

But there will still be a market for VR arcades, he added, especially if these businesses can provide experiences not found in home entertainment VR gaming consoles, such as multiplayer experiences.

“For single-player games, you won’t need to go to the virtual reality arcade,” he added. “For VR arcades, multiplayer experiences will work because not all of your friends will have VR headsets. In that case, they can come here and play together. I think that’s the future of VR arcades: They will be places where you can go with your friends on special occasions.”

Arcade Entrepreneur

Donkey Kong. Frogger. Pac-Man. If you grew up during the early 1980s, these titles comprised a golden era of coin-operated video game arcades, generating billions of dollars in revenue – one shiny quarter at a time. Will virtual reality technology create another boom in video game arcades? Are you ready to make the investment and open your own VR arcade? If so, here is a quick tally of some investments you will need to make.

Gaming PC

You will need a powerful PC to run all those games. Three PC manufacturers offer laptops and towers to run Oculus games: Acer Nitro 5 (starting at $850), iBuyPower (starting at $1,699), and Razer Blade (starting at $2,099). Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard makes a backpack with a built-in PC ($2,949 to $3,999), in addition to laptops (from $1,899) and towers (from $904).

Headsets

The go-to headsets for VR gaming are HTC Vive Enterprise Pro ($1,399) and Oculus Rift + Touch ($399 for individuals; $799 for businesses). Others on the market include Sony PlayStation VR ($299-$349) and Samsung Gear VR ($129). The more headsets you can afford to buy, the more customers you can serve.

Games

HTC’s VivePort Arcade offers more than 700 gaming titles, with prices ranging between 50 cents to $10 per hour, or $4.99 to $99.99 per month, depending on each game’s popularity. Sony offers nearly 200 titles for its PlayStation VR platform, and prices range between $14.99 and $79.99 per title. The price of individual titles for Oculus Rift games ranges between $1.99 to $99.99. Gaming bundles are available, too, and range between $5.99 and $99.99.