This week I got to try Sandbox VR, a shared virtual reality experience for a group of people in the same room.
Currently Sandbox VR has only two locations in the United States, a local one in “San Francisco” (actually at the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo) and the other in Los Angeles. All their VR content is created by the company in Hong Kong so you won’t find it elsewhere.
My team wasn’t totally on board with their horror game option “Deadwood Mansion,” so we went with the zombie pirate themed “The Curse of Davy Jones” instead. The suit up process took about 20 minutes for our group of six. Everyone wears a motion tracker on each wrist and ankle, a haptic feedback vest, a PC backpack, and an Vive Pro virtual reality headset. The room is painted green with tracking cameras on the ceiling as well as fans to simulate wind effects.
Once they switched it on we could see each other in VR as glowing blue apparitions, able to wave to one another and dance around a little. A brief tutorial focuses on the gameplay area, shown in a red outline on the floor, which is important since you can’t actually see the walls of the room with the headsets obstructing your view. If you get too close to a wall, a red grid will appear in front of it.
After selecting our characters and weapons the game started. I don’t want to spoil too much here but it’s mostly a combination of shooting and/or dodging monsters. Due to the limited field of view the dodging part felt more challenging to me than the shooting aspect.
When you “die” in the game your field of view becomes black and white and everyone else sees you in red. There’s of course nothing to stop you from moving when you’re dead, which is a little counterintuitive if you’re used to multiplayer games. Dead players can be revived by a living player touching their shoulder for a second or two.
I wouldn’t describe the gameplay as particularly deep, it’s like cooperative laser tag basically. But it was great trying out a multiplayer VR game in realtime with everyone in the same room, able to walk around freely.
That said it does have a few limitations, both in the bedroom-sized gameplay area and the capability of the motion tracking. We definitely bumped into one another a few times since the character models in the screen can’t accurately represent where everyone’s body parts are really located with the current technology.
From a technical perspective I have a couple minor gripes. The haptic feedback vest felt barely noticable and didn’t offer enough motion tracking to give me a sense of where a monster who snuck up on me was actually attacking from. I also wasn’t too impressed by the way the microphones on the headsets were used. There was no feedback of how loud I was speaking, and if someone spoke loud enough I didn’t really need to hear their voice through my headset anyway.
In the future like to see more gameplay types offered — stealth, puzzle, and adventure games jump to mind. Sandbox VR says they’re working on new games as well as other types of VR experiences. In the near future I could see shared virtual and/or augmented reality experiences taking over large retail spaces recently vacated by Toys ‘R’ Us, Sears, and K-Mart. For now limited gameplay styles in a small room in a mall will have to suffice.
My recommendation: At around $40 per person it’s a solid half hour of fun with high end VR gear. To me it makes more sense than buying your own VR rig at home — it’s like paying to go on a ride at an amusement park with your friends vs. building a roller coaster in your backyard. If you’re interested and know a few others who may be as well, give it a shot.