Can a new entertainment center help VR reach the mainstream?

Just blocks from the Empire State Building, New York City’s VR World marks a bold approach to how consumers experience virtual reality. Part video game arcade, part curated gallery, and part bar and event space, VR World aims to shake up the industry by making VR more accessible to the everyday consumer.

“Virtual reality is something that is far more powerful than a new era of gaming,” said Leo Tsimmer, a board member at VR World. “Our daily lives will be touched massively by virtual reality. It is something of a new era in our communications. We wanted to merge the gap between hardware and content, which has risen exponentially in terms of available experiences and available technology. So we are able to present VR in a way that is easy.”

Tech companies have been hearing alarm bells around VR for some time now. Despite positive buzz, consumer adoption has been slow thanks to pricey at-home gear and limited awareness of the available experiences. According to a May report from Nielsen, very few US consumers say they’re likely to buy a VR headset on the market today: Just 7% of consumers would buy Samsung’s Gear, while 4% say the same about Google Daydream. Just 8 million consumer headsets shipped in 2016.

Opened on June 24th, VR World takes a new approach to the problem of adoption. For $49, VR World visitors receive a day pass with access to more than 50 different experiences. VR World is brand-agnostic, and aims to curate the best available experiences from today’s market. Downstairs, users can try Tilt Brush by Google or Fruit Ninja in VR. Upstairs, games like Superhot or rock-climbing simulator The Climb attract more traditional gamers.

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Photo provided courtesy of VR Worldwide, Inc. Photo by Luis Nieto

VR World Opening 6.21.117
Photo provided courtesy of VR Worldwide, Inc. Photo by Kenny Rodriguez
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Photo provided courtesy of VR Worldwide, Inc. Photo by Luis Nieto

VR World attempts to counter the stigma of gaming attached to the industry with titles that span multiple genres. Multiplayer games offer opportunities to socialize, while a bar provides a respite from gaming (as well as a space for events). A separate room offers music videos and documentaries in VR. The space currently occupies three out of its five floors, leaving plenty of room for expansion.

“Here, we are focused on the experience,” says Tsimmer. “People have an opportunity to buy a game or two at home, but they do not have the opportunity to run multiple systems. They do not have the opportunity to play together with friends. They do not have the opportunity to be in a multi-player environment to compete, or have a drink while racing cars. Virtual reality is a very isolating experience. We are making this a very cool and friendly experience.”

In recent years, other spaces have experimented with social VR, including New York’s Jump Into the Light and Toronto’s House of VR. This year, IMAX launched its VR centers, where viewers pay $7-$10 per experience. Yet none have achieved the same scale as VR World, or offer the same breadth of experience.

Despite slow adoption rates, the buzz around VR continues. VR World’s traffic has steadily picked up since it opened, attracting locals and tourists alike. Just last week, director Steven Spielberg acknowledged the importance of VR in the future of storytelling. And tech companies are testing new ways they might expand VR to the everyday consumer: Facebook is currently testing Spaces, a social VR app meant to appeal to users beyond gamers or tech enthusiasts, while Second Life is testing a social virtual reality world called Sansar.

For VR to truly become a cultural game-changer, the gap between the available technology and consumer awareness must be bridged. VR World shows a creative new avenue for mainstream consumers to experience a virtual world, tied closely to entertainment. Brands should not write the technology off, but rather look to the cutting edge of consumer adoption to see what form the industry might take next.