SF: Escape Room Lets You Play With Drones In VR

SF: Escape Room Lets You Play With Drones In VR
March 20, 2017
Future Technology Escape Room (Credit: TryReason.com)

 

In the middle of a dark room, Mike Newton, a talent and account manager at Discord, sat cross-legged on the floor. He waved his arms in circles, head turning side to side as he reacted to the action taking place inside the HTC Vive Virtual Reality headset strapped to his face. Less than a foot above him, a drone veered left and right, dipping perilously close to his scalp, but Newton was oblivious to any real life danger as he continued to navigate through his virtual world. As the pilot of that drone, I was wary of hitting Newton, but also concerned that I solve the aerial puzzle in time to beat the countdown timer.

 

Eight people, including myself, are trapped inside a nuclear reactor, with a limited amount of time before it melts down. If we can’t decrypt all the puzzles in our allotted timeframe, the reactor will explode, and we'll all die a horrible death, A horrible virtual death that is, as we’re inside The Reason Technology Future Escape Room in San Francisco, where failure means embarrassment, not the end of our lives.

 

In the last couple of years, escape rooms have become a staple of popular culture, with approximately 6439 worldwide. They tend to follow a similar format — people are locked together in a themed environment (for example, a prison, cave or laboratory) and then they have to solve puzzles to get out. But with the Reason Future Technology Room the bar for what to expect has just been astronomically raised. Along with the usual codebreaking and UV light glowing puzzles, they’ve integrated drones, virtual reality, 3D printing and more into their high-tech escape room.

 

As someone who has been interested in the evolution of escape rooms for some time now — how they’ve evolved into being used in educationSilicon Valley games and more, I was happy to get an invitation to try out this themed room and discover what the deal was.

Future Technology Escape Room (Credit: TryReason.com)

 

“We [Bay Area people] all read TechCrunch, but many have never tried the stuff we read about,” co-founder Mike Chen told me, explaining the purpose behind Reason's integration of high-tech tools. “Many people, even in San Francisco, have no access; 90% have never tried virtual reality, 80% have never flown a drone and 70% have never used a 3D printer. We want to democratize access to consumers.”

 

Since their launch in Summer 2016, Chen said that hundreds of groups have been through their games, and each experience has helped the Reason team refine their process. For instance, one of their earlier puzzles featured an encrypted SD card where data had to be extracted and moved to another device. Chen said that players struggled with that, and it taught him not to make the games overly complicated, but to innovate in different ways.

Future Technology Escape Room (Credit: TryReason.com)

 

Back in the reactor, Jesse Avshalomov, director of 80,000 Hours, a Bay Area non-profit, squinted at a hologram on the wall. His task was to figure out what coordinates different buildings were at, and decrypt this to unlock the next clue. “I really enjoyed the step into VR,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of escape rooms but putting on those goggles let us get way outside the confines of the actual space, while simultaneously being physically trapped in the room. Very cool experience.”

 

Simultaneously, Thad Eirich, a 27-year-old software engineer at Apple, input command lines into the reactor computer, hoping to unlock the next task while a 3D printer growled beside him, slowly printing a key, layer by monofilament layer. The many tasks in this escape room were separate but connected— not necessarily directly related, but all important to solving the overall puzzle.

 

In the interlocking chamber, Yoshiko Takahashi, a 25-year-old Bay Area recent immigrant, deftly matched wires to their corresponding parts on the wall. “The room had a higher quality than I expected,” she said. “This was my first time to touch and experience VR and a 3D-printer. The most fun part was being able to experience new technologies.” However, she said she thought the price point (an average of $50 per person) was high.

 

At 35-years old, Mike Chen is no stranger to the startup world. He’s been a managing partner at Swell Ventures, a Bay Area corporate venture firm since 2013, and he and fellow Swell Ventures Partner, Crina Oana Bordas, currently hold dual roles in both businesses. The futuristic escape room concept was devised during a weekend hackathon at work; the idea being to use the room as a way to demo how different gadgets worked to his clients. This was so well received that Swell Ventures started it as a side business, and it’s now become the main focus for the company.

 

Unlike other escape rooms, Reason works best with a larger number of players, and suggest a minimum of six and a maximum of ten people per game. Our group of eight was optimal— but I’d have worried we’d have failed with a smaller team as there were so many puzzles to solve. This setup, though, makes this escape room perfect for team building exercises, and the company has marketed themselves strongly to people in startup culture, regularly getting busloads of execs in for teambuilding, including people from Grand Rounds, Apple, Airbnb and Uber.

 

I can see how this would benefit office-mates as people who work well together and are used to stating their objectives clearly and efficiently could excel here. My group had a mix of startup execs, media people, and software engineers, and getting everyone to work in sync took some time. Naturally, this experience is priced accordingly, starting at $480 for a group of up to ten people, and $999 and above for groups over 20 people in size. When you think about how much companies pay for team building events, this pricing becomes a lot more reasonable.

 

“Escape rooms are the medium for people to have [their] first contact with new technology,” said Chen. “We have one chance to make the first experience a good one.” For now, Chen and his co-workers purchase or are loaned the items they need for their escape room, often using their contacts in technology to scout items before they hit the mass market. He’s planning to integrate Augmented Reality into a new room he's designing and says he considered Microsoft's Hololens before settling on Meta’s AR glasses. Depending on their growth, he said, it’s possible in future iterations of the room tech partners might pay for inclusion.

Future Technology Escape Room (Credit: TryReason.com)

 

Chen walked me through his workshop, a large airy room full of interesting looking tech toys. Two matching holograms flickered in glass cases, the images changing when different buttons were pressed — I could easily see this being used as a game puzzle. A fluffy blue and white cloud hung from the ceiling, streaks of blue and white flickering through it --  tapping out words in Morse Code, I was told. It’s cool and nerdy at the same time (everything in the cloud these days) and that's was what was so great about this escape room experience, as it combined creative play with high-tech gadgetry. with high tech toys.offered a perfect blend of disciplines,

 

Looking to the future, the Reason team are planning an expansion this summer, moving to a larger Bay Area location where they can run multiple games. They’re still finalizing details, but they told me their newest room will be Silicon Valley themed, where people have to finish the secret startup sauce in time to save your startup (and maybe the world).

 

My group managed to escape in the allotted time (with the aid of a few hints) with a scant 20 seconds to spare. Once out, we happily posed for a GIF picture using props they provided in the foyer.

 

As a group,  we all discovered something today — what skills we have under pressure, how we work together, and how to enjoy a Saturday sans cocktails. Not to say that didn't happen later...

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