I’m an astronaut, but my space station is on the fritz. Gravity is gone, so I’m floating like an awkward balloon, pulling myself along the walls in search of the problem. It’s a frustrating mode of transportation — I’m breathing heavier, my brow’s starting to dampen — but I’m getting by, navigating toward the cause of the damage while gathering weapons that I assume will be engaged soon.
Just minutes before, I was blasting an onslaught of faceless attackers in an alternative world, choosing between ninja stars and Uzis as their bullets zipped at me from all sides. Minutes before that, I walked right up to house-sized stegosaurus and triceratops in a verdant, ancient land, able to make extinct flowers bloom with a flip of the wrist. And at any second, I could choose to walk the streets of Paris, ride the backs of dragons, zip through the human body as a red blood cell, fly a fighter jet, or — perhaps the most popular pastime — blast a bunch of zombies.
This whole time, in real reality, I’m standing inside an office building in Solvang, goggles on my face, joysticks in my hand, my brain soaked in virtual reality. This is Space VR, which is the only open-to-the-public, full-on, immersive virtual reality experience in Santa Barbara County.
“This is so new to people,” said owner Jamie Baker, who opened this video gaming facility back in May. “They go into the room, and they are completely infatuated and frustrated at the same time.” And that’s exactly how I felt: frustrated, because you must learn new ways of seeing and moving, but infatuated, because the technology opens fascinating, educational, and fun worlds for the enjoyment of most ages, interests, and computer skill levels.
As the father of three teens who were never that into competitive sports or horses — the two typical Santa Ynez Valley youth pursuits — Baker recognized a gaping hole in what the region’s kids can do. “They go stir-crazy,” he said. That the closest consumer virtual reality place was more than 100 miles away in Los Angeles didn’t hurt the proposition either. So, he leased space across from the Vintage Motorcycle Museum, bought enough gear to set up nine separate gaming tents (which can be moved off-site for events too), and signed onto a service that provides more than 500 different games and experiences, with new ones added daily.
The after-school business spread quickly by word of mouth and led to lots of repeat customers, but it’s not just the 11- to 15-year-old set. Families come to play in the same escape rooms together, and older folks who can’t actually hit the golf course anymore can get their fix. “They come to play Pebble Beach,” said Baker. There are educational avenues to explore, like riding roller coasters through Greek mythology, witnessing the bombing of Pearl Harbor in “real” time, and exploring biology up-close as well as professional applications, from architecture to medicine to engineering.
And despite the stereotype of couch potatoes playing video games, there’s a lot of exercise involved, as you’re standing and moving most of the time. Baker’s son even lost 12 pounds, much of it while playing a game in which lightsabers are used to attack musical notes. “Some of these are Pilates classes disguised as video games,” said Baker, who’s also booking birthday parties quite a bit and has high hopes for class field trips and corporate team-building opportunities.
By the time I reach the cause of my space station problem, I’m sweating a bit, and my limbs are growing fatigued. There are intruders that need the constant vigilance of my collected guns, and they’re zapping me relentlessly. Part of me wants to stay the course and wipe them out, part of me wonders how many minutes I’ve been sucked into this realm, and part of me is simply tired, mentally and physically, of this immersive experience. I tap out, realizing that I’ve only had a small taste of the virtual realities that will soon be mainstream for us all.
Space VR is located at 320 Alisal Road, Suite 104, in the Solvang Village Square. It costs $20 for 30 minutes and $35 for an hour, and gift certificates are available. Call (805) 325-9769 or see spacevrsolvang.com.