Outside the March rain fell, but inside this room I stood atop Vesper Peak, Washington. I looked up at the sun while marveling that I couldn’t fall off my cliff perch into the glacier-fed lake below me. I wasn't alone, though: I had a robot dog as a companion, whom I reached down to pet with my hand controls.
I had escaped into this world via a virtual-reality (VR) game at Portal, Seattle’s first VR arcade, where my daughters and I got the opportunity to preview its offerings before it officially opened on Saturday, April 1. At its space in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, Portal has 10 VR booths, which line three walls; each three-sided booth is lined with black pads and designed for advanced, room-scale VR experience.
Portal aims to be family-friendly: Children ages 8 and older can play most of the games at the venue, and kids of all ages are allowed in a lounge area.
For the uninitiated, VR gaming is a computer-generated environment that lets users experience a different reality by visually separating them from the space they physically occupy while feeding images to them through two small lenses, according to a VR report by CNET. Users slip a wraparound headset that covers their eyes and pop headphones over their ears before entering into a 360-degree VR experience.
The sensory experience is full-body. Once I learned how to use the two controllers during a four-minute introduction video, I played Fruit Ninja. My controllers were now swords, and I gleefully sliced bigger-than-life, cartoon-style fruit. It was a kick to feel like I was physically slaying produce with swords; here was a cool way to burn calories!
Then I plugged into an extreme version of armchair travel while playing Postcards (the game where I stood on Vesper Peak). I stood on a cliff I’d never dare step foot on in real life, enjoyed the sun during this mostly sunless winter. I played archery atop a castle. I found that, although I dislike playing video games, I loved being in a VR world. I liked being able to physically move my body while escaping from daily life.
Portal's real-world roots
Portal cofounder Tim Harader, a Ballard resident and full-time employee at a local technology company, hatched the idea of opening up Portal with his wife Page after he first tried VR in August 2016.
“It’s such an immersive experience, putting on this headset and experiencing this ability to move around in this virtual world that responds to you. You look up and see the sky and look down and see the ground. It’s kind of like having kids, you can’t understand it until you do it,” says Harader.
"It’s kind of like having kids, you can’t understand it until you do it."
When the couple begin plotting top open Portal, there was only one VR arcade in North America, in Ontario, Canada. Now, the lounges are starting to pop up across the United States. Portal is the first arcade in Seattle, although Virtual Sports in Tukwila has some VR booths and there’s a VR installation at Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn.
VR as social sport
Portal is designed to be an environment where people feel comfortable hanging out even if they aren’t playing.
“As a mother, I wanted a space where I could go and enjoy a cup of coffee and spend a few minutes with friends,” says Page Harader. Tables and a few chairs and couches dot the center lounge area, which will sell beverages and prepackaged snacks and candies. When summer arrives, outdoor seating will be available, too.
As far as specific offerings for families, two booths up front and right next to the lounge are designed specifically for children, with family-friendly games. Games in these booths include Hoops VR, a basketball free-throw challenge game, The Impossible Travel Agency, where users visit a magical world set to music, and Roomscale Coaster, with players dodging and ducking while flying through a sci-fi platform (see a full list of Portal's games).
My teen and tween daughters found the VR experience thrilling. And I enjoyed watching them slay fruit, visit fire-red planets in our solar system and walk in a national park in Iceland. Because here's the other surprise about VR: It's a spectator sport. Most booths can be seen from the lounge area. Guests can see and hear players and outside each booth; there’s a high-definition (HD) video display screen that shows viewers exactly what the player is seeing.
My kids are already planning a return visit. My tween loved standing in other countries while petting a robot dog. My teenager loved that playing VR was a physical experience and is hoping that it counts as a parent-approved workout. She’s already asked how much renting a room costs, calculating how many babysitting hours she’ll need to log.
If you go …
Parental alert: As you might expect, Portal does include a few violent shooter or horror games in booths where the video screens are less viewable from the lounge area. Players ages 8 and up are allowed in every booth but children are not allowed to play the age-restricted games in these booths; and kids under 13 need to have a parent with them at all times. Best bets for families are the two family-friendly booths, where all games are suitable for kids ages 8 and older.
Where: 2601 N.W. Market St. Look for free two-hour parking in front of Portal and free, unlimited parking on Market Street half-block west of Portal, and paid, four-hour parking on Market Street.
Admission: VR booths are booked in one-hour increments (plus an extra 10 minutes for setup and tutorial). Play by yourself for $29.95 an hour or split booth time with others for $39.95 an hour. Book in advance or drop in. Also available: a non-reserved, approximately 15-minute VR experience for $9.95.
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 2:30–10:30 p.m.; Friday, 2:30 p.m.–midnight; Saturday, 11 a.m.–midnight; and Sunday, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Snacks: Portal is still working out its snack menu, but plan to offer a range of sodas, beer, Keurig coffees, hot chocolate, tea, single-serving sized bags of chips, pretzels and popcorn, as well as movie-style candies and ice cream bars.
Parties: Rooms for parties can be rented during normal business hours, and after-hour party rentals are available too. The Haraders envision Portal as a place for corporate and team building events, too.