Virtual reality gaming comes to Punch Bowl Social in a movement to make the tech more social

Trent Ripperda, a Waldo or virtual realtity ambassador at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, plays Space Pirates on July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Trent Ripperda, a Waldo or virtual realtity ambassador at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, plays Space Pirates on July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

KEVIN-lighter

Baker now has a little taste of the future: three new virtual reality parlors are now open among Punch Bowl Social’s entertainment options at the original Broadway location.

Each is equipped with a giant TV, an HTC Vive headset and a couch so you and all your friends can gather ’round and dive into their collection of ten games, which involve everything from fruit slicing to robot shooting.

A new virtual reality parlor is open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A new virtual reality parlor is open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Here’s how it works: Enter Punch Bowl and find Waldo.

Really. There may be multiple Waldos, or “virtual reality ambassadors” in red and white striped shirts, present. Find one and ask to get set up for VR. Waldo may put you on a waiting list, because according to one Waldo, Trent Ripperda, the games have become pretty popular since Punch Bowl quietly opened the VR parlors a few weeks ago.

“It’s been very busy,” he said. “People come back just for VR.”

Gaming runs at $20 for a half-hour and $35 for an hour before 5 p.m. or $25 for a half hour and $45 for an hour from 5 p.m. to close. The Waldos can help you get set up, though the system is pretty user-friendly and most users ought to get the hang of it fairly quickly.

"4 VR find Waldo." Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"4 VR find Waldo." Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Ben Davenport is CEO of VRsenal, the Fort Collins-based game studio that creates “turnkey” VR game setups all over the world for clients that include Punch Bowl. He said the technology is accessible to a wide audience, and isn’t just for gamers.

“People get in VR and it’s super intuitive,” he said. Players who might have trouble learning to use a video game controller won’t have that problem with this system.

“VR really removes that barrier, the user interface,” he said. “You use your body to play VR, you use your reflexes.”

So far, Punch Bowl has rolled the system out to their locations in Austin, Chicago and Atlanta. Denver’s location doesn’t have a two player mode — not yet anyway — so the experience is limited to taking turns and watching your friends struggle to defeat the robots or ogres or fruit that’s flying at them. (They see on a TV screen what the player sees in the goggles.)

The headset includes headphones that really immerse users into the game, but wearing them in both ears will probably cut users off from the rest of their group. This might be the only obstacle for Punch Bowl’s hopes to create a social VR experience.

"Elven Assassin" on the screen inside the new virtual reality parlor open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Elven Assassin" on the screen inside the new virtual reality parlor open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Punch Bowl hopes to help lead VR’s transformation from niche activity to mainstream fun.

The goal here, a Punch Bowl spokesperson said in a press release, is to make virtual reality a “social” experience. It’s part of the company’s overall theme — activities for pals to enjoy together — but in this case, their emphasis on group fun is also part of a larger movement to bring VR into the mainstream.

He said VR gaming’s early phases usually stuck people by themselves inside a headset inside a cubicle inside a strip mall. He’s afraid those kinds of experiences have kept a wider audience from accessing this kind of entertainment.

“You stand in there for an hour alone,” he said. “That’s why VR has gotten the reputation of being isolating.”

"Fruit Ninja" on the screen inside the new virtual reality parlor open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Fruit Ninja" on the screen inside the new virtual reality parlor open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The configurations that his company helps create, like the headset and couch combo at Punch Bowl, is bringing the medium out of the shadows. Davenport said he sees it more like Top Golf than anything.

“Your friends are watching and laughing,” he said. “This is not a VR arcade. This is a social group experience. It’s something else to do with friends on a Friday night.”

He added that working with “forward thinking” businesses like Punch Bowl is helping to bring VR gaming into its next phase.

“We’re tying to move it over from technology to entertainment,” he said, “which is why we want to drop it right in the middle of a fun place.”

"Game over" on the screen inside the new virtual reality parlor open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Game over" on the screen inside the new virtual reality parlor open at Punch Bowl Social Broadway, July 18, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)