Portal Opens the Door

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Walking the plank at Portal in Ballard.

Portal, a VR arcade and lounge, opened a week ago in Ballard within walking distance to the literal floodgates of Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. I popped in yesterday with my kids and found a welcoming, well-designed space where players can experience VR using Vives in ten padded booths. When you’re not playing, you can hang out and eat snacks or drink beer. For $24.95 my kids and I got half an hour to mess around in Fruit Ninja, Google Earth VR, and Richie’s Plank Experience–more on that in a bit.

Over a hundred years ago, at the advent of cinema, movies were often shown in specially designed railroad cars. These would travel from city to city, exposing people to the  wondrous new technology of moving pictures. Among the popular films of the day was a sequence called “Three American Beauties,” which featured hand-colored clips of a fluttering American flag and a woman sniffing a rose.

VR content today is at the “Three American Beauties” stage, and Portal is like one of those railway cinemas, exposing the curious to their first immersive media experiences. We still occupy a moment when VR itself is a novelty, and it’s easy to be impressed by the mere existence of Tilt Brush.

The smartest move Portal has made has been to put Richie’s Plank Experience front and center, so that passersby can glimpse Vive-wearing players confronting their acrophobia inside. This remarkably simple experience has you riding a virtual elevator to the upper stories of a skyscraper. When the elevator door opens you see a plank extending into space several dozen stories above the street. As you inch along this plank in VR, you’re also walking on a physical reality plank a couple inches off the floor. The real plank is designed to wobble a bit, and the effect is a thrill. When Portal owner Tim Harader suggested I jump off the plank, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. (My daughter, however, was more than willing to make the leap.)

Right now Portal is set up for players to access games that are available on Steam, but I can imagine this place embracing more specific location-based content like Richie’s Plank. Maybe some arcade-style experiences like the VirZOOM and other games that involve blurring the lines between physical objects and VR. Portal is off to a promising start, poised to deliver some of the first VR experiences in Seattle from a storefront on Market Street. I’ll definitely be back.

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