Virtual reality arcade opens in Cordova as Memphis embraces new tech


David Callahan stands still while the elevator makes its slow ascent. He’s oblivious to the muzak. Finally, the elevator dings, the doors open, and out David steps. He maneuvers himself onto a plank dangling precipitously in the air that extends out from the skyscraper. In an instant he slips, plummeting toward what must surely be a gruesome death before yanking the virtual reality headset off with a big grin on his face.

And then this next part is really cool, he explained to a reporter standing beside him. He points to the external monitor that allows another person to see what he’s seeing through the VR headgear. The screen goes white, and the next sound you hear is angels singing. You know, since you fell to your death.


 

Meet David, one of four owners of Bluff City Virtual Reality, a VR arcade that opened in Cordova a few months ago. 

A VR arcade may connote a certain image for people familiar with a more traditional arcade and its coin-operated brand of video game machines. But an enterprise like Bluff City Virtual Reality is typically a collection of what appears to be empty rooms. In this case, five 100-square-foot rooms kitted out with VR headsets and screens.

“It’s myself, my brother Mike, his wife Ashley and my fiance Heather, all four of us are owners,” Callahan said. “What happened was Mike and Ashley were traveling and saw a VR arcade in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and came back and said, ‘This is amazing.’ Heather and I went to Bowling Green and tried it out. You put the headset on and immediately see how amazing it is. We came back here and opened the business.”

Related: "Indie video game developers take Memphis tech to the next level"
 

In February, when the arcade opened, it started out with four rooms; just months later, they had to add a fifth because of demand. It costs 29 dollars to rent the room for 30 minutes, or for ten additional dollars, the full hour. And, yes, this is basically a high-tech arcade.

There are several different virtual realities to choose from. For example, they offer a shoot-em-up in space that throws you onto a platform from which you “fire” at oncoming targets. Simply raising the controllers in your hands raises and aims the “guns” you’re holding in VR. To add even more realism to this virtual world, you actually have to bob and weave your physical body to dodge the laser beams that come streaking through space at you–similar to what you would do if you were actually there.

A Bluff City Virtual Reality employee uses reality augmentation equipment at the Cordova location. (Ziggy Mack)

The arcade, meanwhile, is also a harbinger of more to come.

Introducing a cutting-edge technology like VR to the public via entertainment, David and other experts say, is one way to ensure that people quickly get comfortable with it and want more of it. 

“These are absolutely going to be ubiquitous in the home very soon," said Callahan of VR headsets, “It won’t take long.”

Not only will VR make their way to homes, but also to business. In fact, various businesses around Memphis are already experimenting with VR, entities that range from museums to health care institutions.

Related: "UTHSC opens $40M patient simulator center"

According to the research firm Tractica, the market for VR hardware and software in business environments will increase from $1 billion this year to $12.6 billion by 2025. The firm also anticipates that the top applications for VR business uses include training, medical therapy, entertainment and education.

Jonathan Schrack, a local VR software developer, said the technology is still considered “bleeding-edge”. For a lot of companies both here and beyond, they’re among the only ones working on it in their sector. “I expect to see in a year or two a lot of new projects coming to light centering around enhanced training and product visualization. As well as our own local game developer scene showing off fun, new experiences as well.”

Examples include the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which recently unveiled its $39.7 million, 45,000-square-foot Center for Healthcare Improvement and Patient Simulation. Referred to by the acronym CHIPS and serving as the only training center of its kind in Tennessee, the center has a different educational focus on each floor.

The first floor includes a virtual reality room where students can practice things like ultrasound procedures and robotic surgeries.

A Bluff City Virtual Reality employee uses reality augmentation equipment at the Cordova location. (Ziggy Mack)

The National Civil Rights Museum, meanwhile, has also looked at adding a VR experience to the museum that would, among other things, put visitors inside the perspective of a striking garbage worker in 1968. The “I Am A Man” VR Experience is planned to be installed soon.

According to Cody Behles, assistant director for innovation and research support at the FedEx Institute of Technology, his institution has established the Memphis area’s first VR lab to help introduce the technology to students and the wider community. 

“As the technology becomes more mainstream, you’ll increasingly see integrations that change the way we communicate, the way we learn and the way we engage with the world around us,” Behles said, adding that events like hackathons his institute has already hosted “are designed to build the capacity for this next-wave tech in our region and prime Memphis to be a center of technology innovation.”
 

Read more articles by Andy Meek.

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