I’m standing with my wife and a friend on a silver-gray platform as it slowly debarks its mothership and takes us gliding across Saturn’s rings. After giggling at one another in our bulky space suits, we gawk at the shimmering layers of dust and rock that stretch into an ink-black horizon. Then, we gather on a rickety wooden raft floating through a swamp. Suddenly, glowing purple monsters launch a plasma attack from our starboard side. We grab rifles and shotguns to fend them off. We survive and high-five. After that, we get ready to joust. To make our horses gallop, we’re supposed to scream into our headsets. Our half-hearted yells soon grow into full-blown war cries. I wonder what people watching might think, but then quickly don’t care. It’s too much fun to care.
This all happens inside Santa Barbara’s new Surreal Virtual Reality Studios, where users donning headsets and CPU backpacks jump between 13 different digital worlds. Located downtown at 436 State Street, Suite B, the brand-new offering has something for everyone. There are your classic shoot-’em-ups, like the raft battle and another where you rob a bank, but users can also take a hot-air balloon over the Swiss Alps or plug into what’s called the Dream Academy. “People always assume this is for the gamers, the nerds,” explained Alejandro Carvajal, Surreal’s manager. “But really, it’s for anyone wanting to experience something they never have before.”
I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical going in. My last virtual reality experience was a little sluggish, with a lot of bad graphics. This was different. The visuals were crisp and bright, and the fidelity of the tracking (meaning, how well your real-life movements match the movements of your in-game character) couldn’t have been better. Surreal’s equipment is top of the line, Carvajal pointed out. In fact, only two other places in the entire U.S. have the same gear, and they’re in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. “This is professional-grade,” he said. Right now, Surreal is a single, independent studio owned by Santa Barbara investor Ron Whited, Carvajal went on, but the plan is to one day expand to multiple locations. The half hour we played was enough to get us hungry. Luckily, the Street Affair food truck is parked right outside, and the rest of downtown is just steps away. This is the kind of experiential retail State Street needs. The space is available for private parties and corporate events, and seasonal titles will continue to pop up through the holidays. Prices on Wednesdays and Sundays are $15 for one experience and $24 for two; on Thursday-Saturday, it’s $15 for one experience and $29 for two. See surrealvrstudio.com for special deals