Virtual reality parlor finds a home in Baxter
Virtual reality business in Baxter hopes to create not just a place to play games on a new level, but a chance to explore from the vastness of space to the ocean depths, create art, design fashion, create games or even holograms.
BAXTER — High above the ground — so high the cars moving on the streets below are small — a wooden plank extending from a high rise window into the open air seemed precarious at best.
Wood chips appear to be falling from the plank, dropping toward the active street far below. Disembodied voices from nearby people, who could be heard but not seen, encouraged a step off the plank. For anyone with a fear of heights, just edging out to the plank was a heart-racing victory in itself. The idea of jumping, even stepping off — impossible. What would happen without stepping off? The voice said, “I don’t know, no one’s stood there this long before.”
Toes inched forward carefully. Eyes peered at the activity many stories below. But taking that final step was a mental hurdle. Even with one’s feet planted firmly on the carpeted floor of a new business in Baxter, the virtual reality headset provided all the visual and auditory stimulation of being suspended in mid air in a large city. And that is what VR Odyssey offers its customers, that and much more as an escape from reality, a place to play games, a place to create art, and a chance to explore — be it the vastness of space or the depths of the ocean.
For Nick Sucik, the potential of virtual reality came after he tried it while living in the state of Washington last year. It was an eye-opening experience to see where technology was now capable of to make the experience possible. A little VR arcade opened in the city where he lived. A friend also offered him a spare virtual reality headset, which he began using daily for workouts. When he talked about the experience with his mom, Patty Steiger, she said maybe the arcade was something they should do here in the lakes area. When Sucik came home for a visit over the long cold winter of 2018, they kept talking about it and invested in a commercial unit in Baxter.
His parents, Tom and Patty Steiger, both said people didn’t really understand the virtual reality until they experienced it, but when they tried it, they loved it.
“People thought ‘Oh, it’s a video game,’” Sucik said. “It’s not so much that they are in a game, they are in a place. It’s more like teleportation than a video game experience — like the holodeck on ‘Star Trek’ or something.”
The experience includes putting on a tethered headset or goggles and grasping a hand-held controller in both hands. From there the programs and options are varied from multiplayer games, to flying over a city and landing on skyscraper rooftops (the experience is so real players bend their knees as they reach for the ground expecting a sense of a touchdown even though their feet never leave the floor.)
Other options include teleporting through the planets in the solar system, designing a dress, painting or sculpting, or going underwater to stand on the deck of a sunken ship and coming nearly eye-to-eye with a whale.
When Karli Skog, 19, stopped in to use the VR with her cousins, Landon Glazier, 13, and Brekkin Glazier, 9, they played games, flew over a virtual city and stepped on that plank.
“It’s awesome,” Skog said. “It seems like so real.”
While the games are fun and unlike what people have done, Sucik also sees opportunities for people with disabilities, new ways to create art, options to explore and safely jump tall buildings.
“This is like day one of a new technological era,” he said, expecting a day in the future where virtual reality will be in every home, if not every pocket at some point. “And we’ll look back at these as primitive.”
Sucik said an expert compared these units to those brick cellphones people had in the early days of mobile phones. He said it’s almost like introducing personal computers in the 1980s. They can play games in virtual reality, but they can also do so much more, which can come in handy during long winter months, he said. Perhaps it’s a zombie shooter game to help make it through until the lakes again boast open water, or an escape room puzzle, or a hands-on science simulation. And for those looking to give a different gift this season, it can mean giving the gift a virtual reality experience.
“It’s going to take off, that’s an inevitable fact,” he said of virtual reality, noting their flagship business is providing a way to get acquainted with the technology and experiment with it. He also sees an opportunity for people who want to create games.
“These computers are powerful computers with powerful graphics cards, they can do a lot of things, they can do video and video editing and graphic design creation,” Sucik said. While other locations have gone with the game arcade, he sees the Baxter store creating something beyond that like a painter’s studio. Sucik wants to create a virtual reality studio where people create a family link — perhaps its recording a message from grandma in front of the green screen and creating a hologram of her.
“Why not here?” he said.
For Sucik, the underlying theme is to provide this type of technology and make it affordable. It’s a different technological frontier, he said, noting the possibilities. “Why not have central Minnesota start to embrace this digital frontier. Why not create a workshop where people are learning VR and how to test things.”
On a whim
How the business came together — for equipment and a location — was a mixture of timing and unexpected connections.
So they decided to venture into the idea of an arcade business in Brainerd, initially looking at locating in the downtown area with three commercial virtual reality units. They worked with the Small Business Development Center, SCORE and Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. When Sucik looked to see if there were other VR businesses in the region, he found an arcade in Bemidji. The owner was getting married, moving to Duluth and noted he had a buyer for the business.
“It’s one of those moments that it’s just on a whim that changes everything,” Sucik said of emailing the owner and asking if he could pick his brain on the business sometime over lunch in Duluth. The owner later emailed back saying his earlier buyer fell through. It meant eight commercial stations and computers were available at an attractive price.
With an unexpected windfall of equipment in hand, the next thing to nail down was a location. As they looked for space, they needed something that would allow the VR stations to be in a parallel line next to each to avoid confusing the sensors. It turned out the perfect space wasn’t something they even knew existed.
After the video store in the strip mall by Cub Foods in Baxter closed and Boomer Pizza moved in, a wall was installed dividing the space. The Steigers looked at a different store front options in the strip mall without realizing the partitioned space — that fit their needs to a T — was just feet away. By chance, Sucik stopped to see Chris Moran, an old school friend who owns and operates Boomer Pizza, to say they’d be neighbors. Moran thought they meant the unused space next door, vacant since the video store’s life ended, and offered to move chairs stored there. The unexpected location of the remnant of the video store matched just what they wanted.
“Another whim, because this is perfect,” Sucik said of the location. “In terms of being able to get all these sensors lined up, it’s pretty much ideal.”
It took a couple of months of renovation and by the spring of 2019 they were working with customers on location. While others in the new industry were creating arcades, Sucik said they are calling their option a parlor.
“Because we’re not looking at this just to be a place for games, primarily games, but also like people who want to come in and paint, people who want to come in and sculpt. You can even create these sculptures … and export it to a 3-D printer. So you can like make a mask, or a model or some sort of figurine.”
Adding some of those sculptures to the displays in the parlor is also envisioned along with having an art night. The art created in virtual reality can be saved.
“We’re kind of looking at how can we tap into that creativity, how can we make this also a workshop,” Sucik said.
They also have a green screen so people can be filmed with a scene of the game behind them. Battling orcs with a sword? There can be a photo of that. Sucik said for those making YouTube videos the green screen could also be something they may use.
“We hope to partner with area resorts for something for the guests to do on a rainy day,” Patty Steiger said. Tom Steiger said it’s been challenging but interesting to get involved with this.
Other options include partnerships with schools, even virtual dissections of frogs with a virtual instructor in a lab coat.
All the possibilities available with this technology shouldn’t be limited to a metro experience or a specific region, as Sucik noted one of the most popular laser games in action in VR was developed by two guys in the Czech Republic.
“Why can’t we do that here,” he said. “Why not here? Why not now?”
Sucik said he tells people they need to start looking at the lakes area as the heart of the continent and bring a new branding. What’s the sale’s pitch? “It’s the future.”
UPDATE: This story was updated to correct the name of Nick Sucik. The Dispatch regrets the error.