Punch Bowl Social becomes first Austin bar to offer virtual reality gaming

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Punch Bowl Social becomes first Austin bar to offer virtual reality gaming

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Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. One of Punch Bowl Social's manager tests out an archery game as part of the bar's new virtual reality program.

I shot a laser gun at space pirates and slashed my ninja sword at falling fruit. For a short time, I was even a Jedi wielding two lightsabers that smoked when they touched each other. North Austin’s Punch Bowl Social is making it possible for all of us to become virtual heroes like these with the launch of a cutting-edge virtual reality program — the first of its kind at a local bar.

In the Domain, the sprawling Punch Bowl Social offers a veritable adult wonderland of bowling, vintage arcade games, pool tables and karaoke rooms alongside well-made food and cocktails. Now, the bar’s founder and CEO, Robert Thompson, has decided to take the games to the next level and will have virtual reality at all Punch Bowl Social locations, starting at the Austin bar.

“Austin is the first location for it. We wanted to test it here because there’s a great tech environment in Austin, and it just felt right,” he said.

Each of the four virtual reality stations — or “bazaars,” as Punch Bowl Social calls them — are ready and waiting for participants, although the program officially kicks off Thursday. When you come into the bar to play, you’ll rent by the hour.

Thompson recognizes there are some misconceptions about virtual reality, still not a mainstream technology, but he’s eager to dispel them. One major point about the kind of VR played at Punch Bowl Social is that it’s not a solitary activity, the sort of game the player alone sees through a headset. Instead, VR company VRsenal has transformed virtual reality into a social experience, he said.

“If you think about virtual reality, you might think about tech geeks in a room closed off from the world, a la Nintendo from 1988 or something,” he said. “But we never would have done this if we couldn’t figure out how to do it socially. One person plays, and everyone can see you play. You really disappear into the game pretty quickly. Your friends are here eating and drinking, and they can see what you see.”

What bystanders see, however, is slightly different from what someone playing the game sees. Put on the headset and take hold of the two controls, and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of another universe. On the other hand, the people watching you play see all the action on a two-dimensional TV screen. 

Punch Bowl Social is starting with 14 games to choose from, but these will rotate out and be added to depending upon demand, Thompson said.

These include a nice beginner’s game called Fruit Ninja that got its start as an iPhone and iPad app but has been turned into full-scale immersion. Your two controls become swords with which you slice at falling fruit — bananas, watermelons, apples — while trying to avoid the misleadingly shaped bombs that can explode in your face.

Another game is called Space Pirate Trainer. Punch Bowl Social expects this one to be particularly popular, with friends competing to see who racks up the most amount of points, but for this virtual reality novice, it was a step above Fruit Ninja. I fired a laser gun willy-nilly at approaching space pirates and turned my other control into a shield to fend off their attacks. 

One way that makes this kind of virtual reality extra interactive and, well, really real, is that there’s a lot of touch involved. The shield (a sort of rectangular, translucent armor) vibrated slightly each time one of those space pirates tried to off me, for instance.

Plus, if I had turned that shield into a rope or a rocket launcher or any of the other myriad weapons the game offers at the click of a button, I could have physically ducked or moved out of their range of fire. This virtual reality expects participants to move while we play — and how much we do often dictates how well we’ll do. 

That’s another misconception about virtual reality that in this case isn’t true, Thompson said. Some virtual reality games can lead to motion sickness because our brains have trouble processing the movement our eyes see while we stay still. Since we’re actively part of the game, that sickness is less likely. Thus far, it’s actually proved to be nonexistent.

“We’ve done over 1,000 sessions with people and this technology, and not a single person has complained of feeling sick. We can’t have that here, right, with the cocktails and food,” he said.

I certainly did not have any problems with motion sickness. My biggest problem with Punch Bowl Social’s virtual reality games, it seems, is that I need to work on my hand-eye coordination. And my ninja stance.

The prices for a virtual reality session are as follows: $35 per hour for up to 8 people from open to 5 p.m. Mondays-Sundays, $45 per hour for up to 8 people from 5 p.m. to close Mondays-Thursdays, and $55 per hour for up to 8 people from 5 p.m. to close Fridays-Sundays. For more information, visit punchbowlsocial.com.

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