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It’s quiet… almost too quiet. Everything’s pitch black. You’re totally alone, lost in the darkness. Just as you start to wonder if maybe this whole thing was a terrible mistake, an explosion of sight and sound magically lifts you from the empty void. You’ve been saved — but what awaits you is so much worse …
Or so I thought, gazing at my surroundings in Deadwood Valley.
Well, actually, I was at Sandbox VR’s San Francisco location to try out their new, terrifying zombie-themed experience, and what may well end up being the future of the traditional haunted house. If your idea of Halloween frolic involves being scared half to pieces in a ramshackle house at the fairgrounds, there’s another, even more delightfully petrifying option.
Before we get into all that though, let’s back up a bit. VR is virtual reality, immersive technology that removes you from your physical environment and transplants you into an incredibly realistic virtual one, where you can actually see and interact with your surroundings. How does one go about simulating — and arguably replacing — reality?
Sandbox VR founder and CEO Steve Zhao took a moment away from his work in Hong Kong to explain:
“We have patented, motion-tracking technology that captures the movements of a player’s entire body and their movement around the space, so there is no gap between what your body experiences and what you see, hear and feel. We use a custom, high-quality haptic system that provides players with unprecedented realism and complete immersion. It takes about a year to develop each experience, and we invest this time to ensure our experiences are the most action-packed and immersive experiences out there.”
Hollywood-style motion capture cameras, 3D precision body trackers, custom hardware and haptic suits let Sandbox create its own realities for our entertainment. From what I experienced, though, “entertainment” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
After filling out the requisite waivers, my friends and I were fitted with motion sensors on our wrists and ankles. Choosing “weapons” for the experience actually took more time and thought than expected. Choices, choices. Do I go with the chainsaw or the rifle? How about a flamethrower? Playing it safe, I settled on a pair of lightweight, high-tech handguns. It quickly became apparent this was the right choice, because as my friends complained later on, chainsaws and flamethrowers can really only do damage once the zombies are already too close for comfort!
Our guide was waiting for us in a completely empty room nearby, where he began fitting us, one by one, with equipment. There was a vest, a backpack, the weapons and, of course, the VR headset. Unexpectedly, this part of the process proved almost as scary as the Deadwood zombies still to come. While you’re standing there in your headset, waiting for your guide to fit everyone else, you can’t see or hear a thing. Think sensory deprivation tank, with no idea how long you’re going to be in there.
Suddenly, everyone’s headsets turned on and — after a short tutorial — we were immediately thrust into the game. It’s no free for all or zombie shooting range. There’s an actual storyline: We’re military-type personnel on a mission to find and save the one doctor who has the anecdote for this endemic of the undead.
Unfortunately, my team failed miserably. We’re sorry about dropping the ball on the whole preventing-the-apocalypse thing, but in our defense, it’s hard to concentrate on the storyline when you’re being bombarded from all sides by disturbingly realistic, run-for-your-life-level scary zombies.
Unsettling it may be, Zhao concedes, but it’s what you signed up for, and Sandbox wouldn’t be doing its job, if you weren’t actually fearing for your life.
“If we don’t find something scary, we keep working on it until we do,” he says. “We know we’ve struck gold, when we have visitors playing the games in the middle of our busy office, screaming their lungs out.”
Oh, we did. I don’t think I’ve ever heard myself or any of my friends make the noises we did that day. I’ve played countless zombie video games and been to plenty of haunted houses in my life, but I’ve truly never experienced anything quite like that.
Afterward, the only thing I could think was… This might be the next Big Thing. I couldn’t help but ask Zhao if he thought VR experiences like Deadwood Valley are the future of Halloween’s ubiquitous haunted houses.
“Yes, I do,” he says. “The best haunted houses are the most immersive ones, with characters and special effects coming at you from all angles. But nothing is more immersive than high-quality, free-roam VR, in which the action is literally happening all around you, 360 degrees. You’re not just watching the action, you’re actually participating in it. You become one of the stars.”
It wasn’t all fears and frights however. After the game was over, we got to watch a video compilation of our experience — not just a screening of what we saw in the headsets, but an actual recording of all of us in that empty room, yelling and stumbling around like absolute fools. Sandbox emails you a free copy of the video afterward, so you can watch it back and post it on social media — if you dare.
If You Go
Sandbox VR has locations in Emeryville, San Mateo, San Ramon and San Francisco, which offer virtual reality experiences ranging from the zombie-centric Deadwood Valley to the Curse of Davy Jones aimed at kids and pirate lovers of all ages, and Unbound Fighting League for wanna-be gladiators.
Games are best played by groups of two to six people and cost $50-$55 per person. Find details and book an experience at sandboxvr.com.