Video game arcades are back – this time, with virtual reality for the masses

Max Tomlinson, a 13-year-old from Puyallup, Wash., brandishes wireless controllers as he walks a virtual plank, seemingly suspended 50 stories above street level, at the Portal VR arcade in Ballard. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Remember the days when arcades were the places where kids could play the coolest video games? No? Well, now you can get in on that experience, this time with immersive virtual reality adventures instead of Frogger and Pac-Man.

Portal, at 2601 NW Market St. in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, is the latest local addition to the genre – joining other hangouts such as Odyssey VR in Redmond and Virtual Sports in Tukwila.

“Our primary target was twentysomethings, tech workers,” said Tim Harader, a technology evangelist who founded Portal in league with his wife, Page. “But what we found is that the target market is just all over the place. Whether they’re 8 years old or 80, they’re all just blown away.”

Portal’s vibe is different from the arcade environment of the ’80s. “You won’t hear a cacophony of blaring arcade sounds here,” the establishment says on its website. “Instead, you’ll enter an atmosphere of comfortable coolness.”

Ten room-sized VR booths provide space for players to strap on HTC Vive headsets and roam through gaming environments ranging from mountain peaks to a deliciously scary “Walk the Plank” experience. Prices range from $4.99 for walking the plank (with free tryouts for VR newbies) up to $39.95 for two or more players to reserve a booth for an hour.

Justin Tomlinson and his 13-year-old son, Max, practice their moves in side-by-side virtual reality booths at Portal, as seen in a wide-angle shot. The views they see through their headsets are displayed on overhead monitors for the benefit of spectators. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

When you’re not playing, you can hang out in Portal’s lounge, have a snack or a beer, and watch what others are doing in their virtual worlds – thanks to the HD monitors set up outside the booths. One of the booths has an open, green-screen setup that gives spectators an even better idea what players are experiencing.

“Watching the people in the booth, and watching what they’re seeing in the booth, is very entertaining,” Tim Harader told GeekWire.

He said VR is currently better-suited for custom-designed arcade environments rather than the home. “The reason we started this is, we tried VR in the summer, and we immediately realized it’s financially out of reach for most people,” he explained. “Also, there are space requirements.”

Page Harader, a part-time graphic designer and full-time mom, said she wanted to create a place that’s suitable for the whole family. “It’d be nice to be somewhere just to hang out with your friends,” she said.

The lounge area is open to all ages, but the VR experiences are limited to ages 8 and up. Parents have to accompany kids younger than 13, and some of the games are too intense for the little ones.

Portal co-founder Tim Harader helps Gretchen Geyer inch her way across a plank. Through the VR headset, the plank looks as if it extends out from a 50-story building. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

To catch the after-school, after-work crowd, Portal is open from 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with extended hours on Friday and Saturday and a noon-to-6 shift on Sunday. Players can make appointments, or just drop in.

The arcade opened on April 1, and the clientele includes gamers as well as regular folks who just want to explore Google Earth in virtual reality. Gretchen Geyer, a 65-year-old newbie who happened to be in the neighborhood, strolled in and walked the plank today during her first-ever VR experience.

“I’ve gotta come back,” she said afterward. “This is really cool.”