All Photos courtesy of Voxel VR Parlour
Around 1957, a cameraman named Morton Heilig dreamed up a contraption called the Sensorama with the singular goal of making a totally immersive movie watching experience. With a pair of goggles, a repurposed ceiling fan, and electric engine, the Sensorama looked a little like a 200-pound desktop computer with an awning. Not only would the moviegoer be able to watch and hear, the Sensorama would emit specific smells and even generate wind and vibrations. Heilig’s invention was designed to make a dream-like space where movie watching was as much about the smell and vibrations as it was about the setting and the actors.
I thought of the Sensorama when I first walked into Voxel Virtual Reality Parlour in St. Paul. While modern-day virtual reality doesn’t provide new smells or feels, it does come close to fulfilling the longstanding Hollywood dream of total immersion. Or at least, it comes closer than ever before.
Since 2016, the “parlour”—which is tucked away on the second floor of the Vandalia Tower—has been open to anyone who wants to roam through a zombie-infested neighborhood, swim with blue whales in the Pacific, or even host a beach party right there on the second floor of the former King Koil mattress factory.
Turns out, lots of folks are game. Voxel recently doubled its space to accommodate those people outside gaming communities who are excited about virtual reality. “This isn’t just for gamers,” said Jeff Trinh-Sy, Voxel’s co-owner. “Virtual reality has something for everyone.”
On a recent weeknight, the place was half-full. In two stalls near the front, two gussied up millennials were mowing down an army of zombies from the husk of a burned-out Chevy Camaro. I watched on flat-screens installed above their terminal as one player grabbed a frying pan and chucked it at an approaching heard.
As a person who doesn’t consider himself a serious gamer, Trinh-Sy emanates a certain excitement about virtual reality. He had just come from Blake School where he currently works as a physics teacher, and we sat on a corner couch in a closed off part of his parlor to talk. Behind his head, a TV flashed images of the two millennials battling the heard of zombies.
Trinh-Sy didn’t really play video games growing up, but he got hooked on virtual reality a few years ago when he first played it in a neighbor’s garage. As a teacher, he couldn’t help but think about how virtual reality could be used for more than just shooting zombies. “The possibilities are endless,” he told me. “Virtual reality could be used to teach high schoolers about physics. Just think about the possibility learning about space and actually going there.”
He had a point. Taking a virtual spaceship to the farthest reaches of the galaxy is definitely more fun than reading a textbook.
While Trinh-Sy may have a rosy vision for virtual reality’s future, most folks come to Voxel to play shoot ‘em up games. Here, patrons are probably more interested in slinging zombies than thinking about the farthest reaches of space. Even so, Trinh-Sy is excited about the opportunities for virtual reality to open new doors.
I can’t help but believe him. I’ve read about church pastors forming congregations over virtual reality. Retailers are adding augmented reality (a close cousin to virtual reality where a digital image is superimposed over the physical world) to their online shopping experience, including Zara which has a location in the Mall of America.
Trinh-Sy does think that virtual reality is more than a fad. “This isn’t just for gamers,” he repeated.
I was skeptical of this sentiment. Mostly because I’m terrible at video games and feel stressed out by even the most basic technology. Even casual games like Mario Kart or Halo seem borderline impossible.
After a little more conversation, Trinh-Sy offers to give me a test run of a few popular games at Voxel. After a quick bow and arrow tutorial on a game called “Longbow”—most of the movement is done through hand controllers—Trinh-Sy loaded a level called Vesper Peak. After a brief loading screen, a mountain range appeared before my eyes. I could hear birds chirping and wind blowing through cedar trees.
Here’s the thing. The hike was not your basic platform arcade game but more of the exploration-focused, open-world model where I was free to travel wherever I liked by pointing and clicking my controller at a specific patch of land. The hike wasn’t totally immersive. It wasn’t real but it felt real, like I was floating through an uncanny, pixelated version of a rainforest.
Just as I was gazing out at the mountain peaks, I noticed a flash in my periphery. Below, somewhere near my feet (which weren’t shown in the game) a friendly looking robotic dog had appeared. I reached down and petted him.
The dog followed me over to an overlook, where I grabbed a stick and threw for him to fetch. I will tell you that in this moment, I had goosebumps on the back of my neck.
Voxel hast probably not yet reached the level Sensorama aspired to, but nevertheless, this was certainly a good time.