"You want to see fish? You want to
shoot at things? Or you want to make art?” Bill Brieger peppers me with questions as he pulls virtual reality goggles over my head and places two controllers in my hands. I choose art, and Brieger gives me a tutorial on Tilt Brush by Google, which offers a 3-D palette that lets you build, paint and draw in the air. As I start sculpting, I let out a slew of superlatives: “It’s astounding. It’s amazing. It’s so real.” I make a flaming smile in the sky and walk through licking flames. I feel a little awkward, as if I’m painting with my left foot, but after a few minutes the coordination clicks in.
Brieger smirks. Since his business, Nova Virtual Reality, opened in the Vine neighborhood in December, Brieger has seen this reaction often. Nova, at 806 S. Westnedge Ave., is one of only a couple dozen virtual arcades to open across the nation, riding the coattails of the success of virtual reality arcades, theme parks and hubs in China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The trend is now exploding in the United States. New arcades announce their openings every other week on Reddit forums for VR enthusiasts. “VR has had several waves where it tried to get off the launch pad, and I’ve lived
Below: Bill Brieger, left, and partner Ryan Edgar have opened Nova, the area’s first virtual reality arcade. Opposite page: Edgar plays a game, which can be seen on the screen behind him.
through all of those. And now to see it finally launching is really satisfying,” says Brieger. “The consequence is that there are all these great VR ideas stocked up and ready to go and people have developed different ways to make money at it, too. At the same time, it’s still the Wild West. Everyone is still trying things out, especially the room-scale stuff.” Still in its infancy, the virtual reality industry has yet to be claimed by any particular demographic, not exclusively belonging to gamers or families or entertainment companies. Brieger says he and Nova co-owner Ryan Edgar embrace this market ambiguity and welcome a diverse crowd. “On the weekends we see a lot of families,” he says. “It’s always entertaining to see dads and moms getting into it, enjoying games with their kids. “We (also) get the after-bar crowd, who are a little tipsy and want to play wilder games. We get a lot of dates. They come in, hang out, laugh a lot. I know with video games there’s a stereotype of a solo gamer dude, but we get lots of parties of all girls, too.”
VR in the Vine Nova has four rooms for VR experiences: three curtained-off “social rooms” with couches and screens, so groups can socialize and observe one another playing, and a VIP room that can accommodate up to 20 people for parties. “People watch on the screen for a half hour, wondering what everyone is freaking out about,” Brieger says, “and then they put on the goggles and are like, ‘Whoa! That’s amazing. Now I see how much more depth it has.’” Nova is located in the Vine neighborhood business corridor, which Brieger describes as having a “neo-shopping-mall vibe.” “We have a record shop, a coffee shop, bagel place, thrift store, barbershop and now w w w.encorekalamazoo.com | 21