Vets Bet Big On VR Arcade In Downtown Durham

Vets Bet Big On VR Arcade In Downtown Durham
July 5, 2017
Each station has roughly 100 square feet of walkable space. Players wear a headset and hold two controllers, and every move is tracked by two camera sensor base stations.


The Triangle is weeks away from its first virtual reality arcade – a bet that’s years (and thousands of dollars) in the making for a pair of Durham veterans who became entrepreneurs.


The arcade, to be called Augmentality Labs, all started when Alicia Hetrick’s co-founder, wife Alex Markello, took her little sister from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to a Microsoft store. There, she first encountered the HTC Vive, a virtual reality set that, as it turns out, can be addictive.


It was so enticing that both women had to try the technology.


“We got to talking, and we had the entrepreneurial bug,” Hetrick said.

The Vive is connected to a high-end gaming desktop as well as a TV for spectators to view the in-game play.


Both are military veterans, their educations fueled by scholarships and “no student loans.” Their officers’ salaries had culminated into a hefty savings account, as had the paychecks from Markello’s post-military life at IBM. And the newness of the idea of a virtual reality arcade led them to take the chance.


The doors have yet to open, and already it’s an expensive gamble. For what Hetrick calls the initial “bare bones” operation, six virtual reality stations (with 100 square feet of walkable space) have been installed – HTC Vives, business editions that retail for about 50 percent more than their consumer counterparts. Add in gaming desktops at “a couple grand each”– to ensure the pair can run the next generation of what’s coming, and Hetrick estimates startup costs at more than $55,000.


But the result will be what she describes as completely immersive multiplayer and single player virtual reality games using the HTC Vive’s room-scale tracking technology. Players will wear a headset and hold two controllers, their moves tracked by two camera sensor base stations.


And there are lounge sections where people can watch as well as play board games and retro video games for free such as Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis. Walk-ins can pay “a buck a minute” for 10 minutes at a station. Pre-booked stations will be run on a batched schedule for $20 a piece. And the plan is to host tournaments once a week. It’s in line with her analysis of virtual reality arcades across the country, she says. And it’s just the start.“We’d like to expand from there, add more stations, more high-end technology,” Hetrick said.


It’s not Hetrick’s first entrepreneurial plunge. She helped found the NC Escape, an escape room just a few storefronts away from the new arcade. And she still manages its day-to-day operations.


Hetrick, who grew up playing both computer and board games, says the pair moved here after being stationed at Fort Bragg, and “fell in love with Durham.”


“It’s the very local feel of it, the community feel of it, the fact that it’s got rough edges to it,” she said. And there’s nowhere else she’d consider for her business.


Doors open July 22 at 207 N. Church Street.


“Obviously, we’re a little nervous,” she said. “We put a lot of money into it. But everyone we’ve talked to can’t wait to play.”

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