Picture: Maximilian Schreiner
Sandbox VR promises full-body VR with friends. I visited the first Sandbox VR arcade in the EU.
Virtual reality is a lonely hobby, at least when viewed from the outside. While standing in a room full of real virtual people with the VR headset, looking from the outside, I stumble through the semi-darkness with a dark box on my head, trying not to stub my toes on the table leg.
Isn’t there a better way to experience VR? For example, if I could see the people in the headset outside the headset? If I could virtually put my hand on someone’s shoulder and feel a real shoulder? Is VR better when it’s more social?
To find out, I tried out the first Sandbox VR Arcade in the EU together with real people.
Sandbox VR is not a Holodeck – but still fun
Once there, we receive a friendly welcome and, after an introductory talk, are strapped into the extensive equipment: backpack PC, haptic feedback vest, trackers for hands and feet, headphones, and VR headset.
There are several exclusive games to choose from, each with a playtime of about half an hour. We start with a zombie shooter and can select our weapons via a staff member’s tablet.
Then we are led into the gaming area, where tracking cameras are installed all around and some fans provide wind in certain game scenes.
The game starts with a short tutorial that explains the game mechanics. 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 weapon selection.
Before we get started, 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 that my brain can process immediately. This is where the power of Sandbox VR’s tracking comes into play.
Zombies galore and an MVP
Then it begins: The four of us are standing on a street, someone screams, and waves of zombies rush 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-go for a VR arcade that wants to reach as many people as possible, because of possible VR nausea.
So we pull ourselves together and shoot in all directions. Some zombie attacks we can dodge. Occasionally zombies jump on our backs – then only teamwork helps. In this zombie mess, we all die many times, but are revived directly or help each other back on our feet.
The physical presence of the others is subtle, but still clearly noticeable. Occasionally, we lightly bump into each other. But unlike what I expected, we never crash into each other – the tracking is very precise.
During the game, we change locations twice. Each time a new challenge awaits us. Whoever rescues survivors from the 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 we put down all the devices, we are led to a large monitor where we see a best-of from our VR adventure, including the high scores.
My friends then play a pirate game. In one scene, they have to dance around in a circle – from the outside, I’m amazed at how well that works. In another game, two players duel with a spear and shield. Again, there are no collisions, and the high-quality tracking captures the sometimes admirable footwork of the fighters.
Sandbox VR is set to grow in Germany
Meanwhile, I spoke with Torsten Schneider, the man who brought Sandbox VR to Germany. He has been running Escape Rooms and the VR arcade Hologate in the small town of Alsfeld for a few years now. Now there’s a second VR offering, Sandbox VR, right next door, which probably doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Why Alsfeld? As is so often the case, it all started with love. Today, Torsten has two companies in town. One of them runs the Sandbox VR Arcade, and its proximity to his office allowed him and his staff to build it up piece by piece.
He tells me that this has been a real challenge in parts: for example, Sandbox VR has all kinds of standards for components, but they are geared toward the American market. Because of his location, he runs two play areas at a time. In larger cities, there are usually at least twice as many.
As such, the VR arcade in Alsfeld is a kind of test run, with which Torsten and his company have gained valuable experience. Further Sandbox VR locations are planned, he says, the next one in Frankfurt am Main.
Sandbox VR is more of a social experience than premium hardcore VR gaming
Is a VR experience like Sandbox VR different from home VR? Yes. Is it more social? Definitely. Is it better? Depends.
I had a lot of fun with Sandbox VR. But that was less due to the games. Their weaknesses are quickly noticed by experienced gamers who are used to their own VR headset and PCs with modded Skyrim, Pavlov Sessions, or DCS Cockpit.
Arcade games are more about the 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 focus and in bringing friends and sometimes younger and older generations together.
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 may recall that local social VR is fun.
Back then, much of the joy of VR was in the moments when you showed your friends and family demos you’d seen far 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. At the time, we only had a VR headset, were sweating profusely, and still had a lot of fun.
Arcades like Sandbox VR tie into 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 present in reality is just a little more with you than someone you’re just sharing a virtual space with. If you engage with that, you’re going to have a lot of fun.