I really had no idea what to expect when I took a group of four teenagers to a preview session at Sydney's new Immersive Gamebox. Located at the Sea Life Sydney aquarium in Darling Harbour, the images made it hard to tell what kind of 'budget VR' experience it was offering.
Just look at that picture. What the hell are they doing? But this is the kind of thing you just can't capture in a photograph. It's like taking a photo of a nightclub dance floor with a flash – the difference between an image of it and doing it are chalk and cheese.
Turns out, Immersive Gamebox is a genuinely good time.
The concept has rolled out in many locations around the world, so it arrives in Australia with some level of polish in place. And the list of games you can choose from offers plenty to suit whatever age group you fall into.
There's Paw Patrol for kids as young as 3, Angry Birds and Shaun the Sheep for 5+ (though I'm a big fan of Shaun myself), and for the teens and adults you get themes like Squid Game and Psychadelic Mansion. Most of the younger kid targeted sessions run for 30 minutes so they don't get bored before it's over (Paw Patrol is longer), and for everyone else sessions last 60 minutes.
The 'budget VR' crack earlier does make sense when you see a group of people standing in a room big enough for six people to move around each other very comfortably and interact with the walls. No goggles required but you are all wearing special hats that track where you are in the room. The interactions with the projections are based on your movement and some pretty precise tracking of how, when and where you touch the walls.
With the teens I had in tow, they wanted to do the Squid Game experience. And through the course of an hour we played many of the games featured in the Netflix series redesigned for Immersive Gamebox fun times.
For example, the Dalgona game (the cutting honeycomb shapes one) required you to move your whole body around the room to cut a large version of the shape out projected on the wall. And the time limit meant you were really pressed for time. The sound effects, the timer, the friends screaming at you to 'be careful' and 'go faster' made for a very entertaining pressure cooker.
This is a common theme: finesse plus time limits that feel very well tested against the task at hand to hit a pressure sweet spot. Other game formats included memory tasks which you need teamwork to solve, and the classic Red Light, Green Light game that was impressively unforgiving if you were not standing still enough.
60 minutes felt like a very nicely timed experience for our teens and myself, with the fun feeling solid throughout and the design giving you a sense of being warmed into activities that grew more challenging and varied nicely along the way.
All four of our teens said they would definitely want to come again with friends to try out other games – there's seven 60 minute experiences to choose from – and that it felt like a more social alternative to a trip to the movies or going to a classic game arcade. Almost all experiences are a collaborative event, with Temple of Coins the main 'competition' game option.
And while there are the incredible Zero Latency options out there for room scale VR as a group activity, (we've chatted to their CEO on our podcast) this has plenty of positives as an alternative option for an immersive good time that is a little less intensive and reduces plenty of fuss. It's also right there next to the city in Darling Harbour. Easy to get to, easy to play.
The 60 minute games cost $42 per person for ages 12+ and $25 for ages 5-11, which feels a bit too steep for many. If I'd paid for our session with four teens we'd have hit $210 for the one hour before any drinks or food. Ouch.
If you can hunt down some discount codes or special vouchers to nudge that closer to $30? It's definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon.
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