Steve Zhao gave himself six months. The Hong Kong-based video game company that he spent the last decade building was falling apart as people shifted to playing games on their phones. By early 2016, he knew he would have to shut it down. He tried releasing a game for virtual reality, but it bombed, and he lost most of the small investment in it. But Zhao had a new vision: a virtual reality world where people could experience games by playing with friends, rather than by wearing a headset alone in their homes.
“I would compare it to, in a way, a movie and a game,” Zhao told Forbes. “Because once you’re inside the experience it is almost like living inside a movie where you and your friends are the stars.”
His idea was to build out physical spaces where people could strap on VR headsets, haptic vests and sensors and become immersed in the virtual world, essentially bringing the Star Trek Holodeck to the shopping mall. Investors, though, had cooled on the idea of virtual reality startups, and Zhao struggled to find backers who bought into his dream. Instead, he invested his life savings and set a deadline of six months. Four months later, Zhao launched Sandbox VR on the 16th floor of an old high-rise in Hong Kong.
“The moment we realized that we actually might have something is when we demoed the product to close friends and family,” Zhao said. “When they were playing, we just realized how loud they were screaming—and no one expected that. It was so loud that the neighbors came to our office to see if we had a problem or not.”
That’s when Zhao realized Sandbox VR might be able to create an experience where people forgot they were in virtual reality and felt like real life. “To us, that was a catalyst,” he said.
The company started with a zombie experience in Hong Kong that shot up to become the number one attraction for the city on TripAdvisor. It added pirate and robot-themed games, and franchised out the company to Singapore, where it also reached the top-rated activity, Zhao said. Today Sandbox VR operates in seven locations around the world and plans to launch another eight in the U.S. alone. Every game costs $30-$45 a person, depending on the location, and the company is working on new titles, including a sports-themed experience. The buzz hasn’t slowed down—even Kanye West was spotted in a Silicon Valley mall trying out Sandbox VR. In January, the investor freeze on virtual reality ended when Andreessen Horowitz, alongside investors like Floodgate and TriplePoint Capital, invested $68 million to help Sandbox VR expand into the US.
“To be validated by them just felt like—it just was the best day of my life,” he said.