Image: Maximilian Schreiner
Sandbox VR promises full VR with friends. I visited the first Sandbox VR arcade in the EU.
Virtual reality is a solitary hobby, at least from the outside. As I stood in a room full of real virtual people with the VR headset, watching from the outside, I stumble in the semi-darkness with a dark box over my head, trying not to stub my toes on my foot of the table.
Isn’t there a better way to experience virtual reality? For example, if I could see the people in the helmet outside the helmet? If I could virtually put my hand on someone’s shoulder and feel a real shoulder? Is virtual reality better when it’s more social?
To find out, I tried first Sandbox VR arcade in the EU with real people.
Sandbox VR is not a Holodeck – but still fun
Once there, we receive a warm welcome and, after an introductory briefing, we are strapped into the extensive equipment: computer backpack, haptic feedback vest, hand and foot trackers, earphones and VR headset.
There are several exclusive games to choose from, each with a playing time of around half an hour. We start with a zombie shooter and can select our weapons through a staff member’s tablet.
Next, we are led into the gaming area, where trail cameras are set up all around and fans provide wind in some gameplay scenes.
The game begins with a short tutorial that explains the mechanics of the game. This is also where we see ourselves digitally as avatars for the first time. We can communicate via microphones and two employees bring us controllers that match our selection of weapons.
Before we start, we learn how to revive fallen players: put a hand on their shoulder. After six years of VR experience, it’s a crazy feeling, but one my brain can process immediately. This is where the tracking power of Sandbox VR comes in.
Zombies galore and an MVP
Then it starts: the four of us are standing in a street, someone is screaming and waves of zombies are rushing at us from several directions.
The gamer part of my brain immediately wants to stand with its back to the wall, but virtual locomotion is not an option – indeed, that would be a no-no for a VR arcade that wants to reach as many people as possible, due to VR nausea possible.
So we pull ourselves together and we shoot in all directions. Some zombie attacks that we can dodge. Sometimes zombies jump on our backs – then only teamwork helps. In this zombie mess, we all die multiple times, but are either resurrected directly or help get back on our feet.
The physical presence of others is subtle, but still clearly noticeable. From time to time, we cross paths slightly. But contrary to what I expected, we never bump into each other – the tracking is very precise.
During the game, we change places twice. Each time a new challenge awaits us. Whoever saves survivors from zombies gets extra points.
After mowing down zombies for half an hour, the session ends and we see our score and ourselves in a virtual mirror. After a short victory dance, the staff takes us out of virtual reality.
After dropping off all the devices, we’re directed to a large screen where we see a best-of from our VR adventure, including high scores.
My friends then play a game of pirates. In one scene, they have to dance in a circle – from the outside, I’m amazed at how well that works. In another game, two players fight each other with a spear and a shield. Again, there are no collisions and the high quality tracking captures the sometimes admirable footwork of the fighters.
Sandbox VR is set to expand in Germany
During this time, I spoke with Torsten Schneider, the man who brought Sandbox VR to Germany. For a few years he has been running Escape Rooms and the VR arcade Hologate in the small town of Alsfeld. Now there’s a second VR offering, Sandbox VR, right next door that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Why Alsfield? As is often the case, it all started with love. Today, Torsten has two businesses in town. One of them runs the Sandbox VR Arcade, and its proximity to his office has allowed him and his staff to build it piece by piece.
He tells me it’s been a real challenge in part: for example, Sandbox VR has all sorts of standards for components, but they’re geared toward the US market. Due to its location, it manages two playgrounds at once. In large cities, there are usually at least twice as many.
As such, Alsfeld’s VR arcade is something of a test, with which Torsten and his company have gained valuable experience. More Sandbox VR sites are planned, he says, the next in Frankfurt am Main.
Sandbox VR is more of a social experience than a premium hardcore VR game
Is a VR experience like Sandbox VR different from home VR? Yes. Is it more social? Absolutely. Is it better? Depends.
I had a lot of fun with Sandbox VR. But it was less due to the games. Their weaknesses are quickly noticed by experienced gamers who are used to their own VR and PC headset with modified Skyrim, Pavlov Sessions or DCS Cockpit.
Arcade games are more about shared experience: Sandbox VR promotes the social component of VR gaming through gameplay elements, technology, and event flow. The strength of the arcade lies in its social orientation and bringing together friends and sometimes younger and older generations.
Those who remember a time when there was no Beat Saber, Half-Life: Alyx, Skyrim VR, Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, VRChat or shooters like Pavlov might remember that virtual reality local social is fun.
Back then, much of the joy of VR was in the moments when you showed friends and family demos you’d seen too many times.
One of my fondest VR memories is an evening that started like this when we discovered the GORN demo on itch.io. Back then, we only had a VR headset, sweat profusely, and still had a lot of fun.
Arcades like Sandbox VR are tied to such experiences with simple games. But instead of just watching someone enjoy VR, you share that experience simultaneously in VR and in the real world. Someone in the real world is just a bit more with you than someone you’re just sharing virtual space with. If you engage with this, you are going to have a lot of fun.