Q+A: Kishore Doddi, VRBAR
VRBAR is Brooklyn's first virtual reality arcade, where you can enjoy virtual reality games, experiences, and films that let you explore an entirely new world of storytelling! Kishore opened a second location here on Jay Street in the fall and we caught up with him to learn more.
Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in virtual reality!
I was previously a product manager working on a mobile app called Our Mix, and we were just playing around with interfaces on phones and wanted to experiment with VR interfaces, which were theoretically the next step and the next big technology that was coming out. We didn't necessarily believe the hype or anything, but we wanted to play around with it. This was about two and a half years ago, before the headsets really came out to the public, so it was pretty hard to access them. Luckily, my friend had one at work, so I went and tried it. I first tried a test version of the Oculus headset, which is now owned by Facebook, and I wasn't that impressed. It was some weird rollercoaster scene or something that was kind of meant to make your stomach move a little bit, which wasn't the greatest experience, but right after that I tried this program called Tilt Brush on a different device called HTC VIVE, and it was incredible!
Within five minutes, the guy before me drew the Batman symbol in perspective coming out of the spotlight, and then he gave the headset to me and I was able to go inside his painting and walk around! It was just incredible! It was a completely different way of consuming media than I had ever seen before, and it was incredible to me, especially, that he could draw the Batman symbol in perspective so quickly. If you do that on a computer in 3D it's just kind of a pain, so to do it so quickly in VR was pretty amazing. So then I was pretty convinced and kind of believed the hype. Unfortunately, there still weren't that many places to access the system back then because it wasn't fully out yet, and even a couple of months later when it did come out, it was still pretty hard to access. The only place you could go was the Microsoft Store for a ten-minute quick demo where they weren't really versed in the hardware.
How did VRBAR get its start?
I first started doing events mainly for corporations and companies, and then I had the opportunity to get a pop-up location in Park Slope right next to the Park Slope Food Coop. I tried that for five months and the reception was very good— it was much better than I expected! We were right in the heart of the Park Slope area, so there were definitely a lot of kids— it was almost 70% 8-14-year-olds! So we did some activities with the schools nearby as well as some STEAM events. We had another pop-up on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, and then we found this spot! DUMBO is amazing, and this spot specifically allows us to do a lot more with the future of what's coming out— it’s great having a really big space without columns. We're hoping to do a lot of amazing stuff with the new device whenever it does come out, and then we're going to have some amazing installations and other pieces to complement the VR.
What makes VRBAR unique?
There’s maybe a handful of places in the city where you can go to experience this type of VR, but we really try to welcome anyone aged 8 and up. Even if you’re not tech-savvy or aren't necessarily comfortable with new technology, we guide you through it and really ease you into using the system. We generally start everyone with this amazing program called Tilt Brush by Google, just to get you comfortable with walking around and using the controllers, and then you can pick whatever else you want to experience afterwards. That's what makes us different from the other places— we show you the VR system in the beginning so that you know how it works before you start to play different games. We try to let everybody just come in, use the system for as long as you want to, hang out with your friends, and not necessarily have to wait in line and everything.
It's like dreaming with your eyes open... It makes you feel like you're in a whole different world.
Kishore Doddi, founder of VRBAR
How would you explain VR to someone who knows nothing about it or is new to the concept?
I'd say the best way to understand it is to just try it. It's one of those things where it's kind of like trying to explain a video from a photograph. There's no quick way to just show you a picture of VR or show you a little video and for you to understand it without you actually trying on a headset. A lot of people have tried the Google Cardboard and some of the phone-based headsets where there are no wires or anything— and they're great cause they're super mobile— but what we offer is much more immersive and much more interactive. The reason we have a lot of huge, empty spaces is you're actually walking in the empty space, and that's something you could never really experience or understand without trying it. Even if you have tried VR before, there are a bunch of different experiences and each one is unique and different, so it'll really depend on what you try.
A quick explanation to someone who really can't try it is that it's like dreaming with your eyes open or that VR kind of tricks your brain into thinking that you're somewhere other than where you really are. Basically, it makes you feel like you're in a whole different world. It's pretty amazing that you're just in this studio space, but then you look around you and you can see Everest. If you're flying in Google Earth, you can go anywhere on Earth and feel like it's totally around you! You don't really see the real world; you see this virtual world. Some of the experiences are also super interactive, and you can move stuff around, break stuff, or cook stuff in a chef experience, but even will all of these explanations, I'd say VR is one of those things that you really have to try to understand.
What is the equipment like?
The headset we use is the best one that consumers can theoretically buy, although it's aimed at professionals; it's called the HTC VIVE. You put a headset on— and we've integrated headphones so you can hear sound effects and music— and then there are two controllers that you use to mimic your hands. With a lot of the experiences, you use the trigger as one of the main interactions, and you move the controllers around and it's super precise— sub-millimeter precise— so when you're painting or something, it knows exactly where your hands are!
Who is your main audience?
We don't really have a target audience. We think that pretty much everyone that tries it will love it! I've never really had a dissatisfied customer other than the under-8-year-olds who can't actually do it. We hope that people will hear about VRBAR from their friends or will walk by and be interested. We want to make VR both accessible and a little more acceptable, so we're trying to make our space a much more welcoming environment. That way, people can feel comfortable just coming in off the street, no matter who they are.
What's your vision for the future of this technology?
It'll be pretty amazing to see where it goes even within the next couple of years. There’s a new headset coming out in a couple of months called the Magic Leap; that's the big one that has billions of dollars of funding but has been secret for four or five years. Hopefully, we'll get our hands on one! That could change things a lot because you don't need a computer to use it. You can theoretically just walk around with this wireless headset. This year, a lot of the wireless headsets will come out— and there's an add-on for our headset so that we can use the wireless one— which will make it much more freeing and easier for people to adopt it. We're pushing the boundaries of what computers can do right now to keep up with us and not give us motion sickness. I think this year there'll be some pretty interesting steps up with technology for the big arena-sized areas that I mentioned, and then in a couple of years, it'll be pretty interesting. Hopefully, it'll be the size of glasses and still be completely immersive and amazing and look great.
…and for VRBAR?
For us, we’ll build out the space a bit more, add more stations, and get the new systems, and theoretically, we can have a full thousand-square-foot area where it's completely wireless and there are multiple people playing together. We're going to experiment with that, but we have to try it first to see how it works. One big thing we're also hoping to do here is get a beer and wine license. I think that would change the dynamic a lot, especially cause there aren't that many bars in DUMBO. A lot of people ask— especially because of our name— if we serve alcohol, so we're thinking about it. And then one random thing about VR, in general, is they say that within ten years it'll almost look so good that when you take off the headset, it'll look just like reality, which is pretty interesting and scary at the same time!
How do you think that being in DUMBO is going to influence your business apart from having this new, open space?
We want to do a lot more art-related events, and work with some of the local agencies or businesses. We definitely do a lot of corporate events both in our space and offsite, and we'd love to collaborate with people and companies in DUMBO. We've done a couple of holiday parties for some of the companies nearby, but we hope to collaborate on some art pieces or at different events either here or in other locations. I think it's better for everyone that way!
What is your favorite place in DUMBO?
My favorite spot is on the top of the Empire Stores building. It almost feels like a mini High Line that looks right onto Jane's Carousel and to Manhattan and everything. It's an incredible spot!