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Epicenter in Santa Rosa debuts first virtual reality arena in Sonoma County

Chris Teschner, 37, shouted nervously as his family endured an onslaught from faceless figures and hovering aircraft that were attacking their corner of a virtual arena.

“Shoot at the big robots!” Teschner yelled. With a grenade in his hand, ?11-year-old Lucas Foster looked to his right and left but couldn’t see any.

Frustrated, Teschner shouted back, “The one right behind you!”

The Lakeport family was one of the first to play in the new virtual reality arena at Epicenter Sports and Entertainment in Santa Rosa. They were trying an immersive video game in a compound with four stations comprised of a harness and circular platform that lets players run in place.

Epicenter is officially debuting its Omni Arena on Friday, commemorating the first virtual reality playground in Sonoma County with a daylong competition.

“I think it was neat,” Teschner said Thursday, after playing the “Core Defense” game for three rounds. “Video games have definitely evolved since I was a kid.”

The arena is housed in a sleek black structure, accented by neon green trim, tinted windows and TVs on the face of each wall, so visitors watch the game playing inside or track scores on the leaderboard. Speakers on each outside corner amplify whatever is being said through the microphone in each player’s headset.

A small staging area inside has touchscreen monitors for each visitor to sign up for an account to track their progress over time, and shows a tutorial while they wait for their turn in the cage. Players are provided shoe covers with built-in sensors to track the movement of their feet.

Epicenter launched the arena with four different virtual reality games, including a military-style shooter and a world ?overtaken by zombies, which can be played individually or in teams. Each round costs 70 chips using the arcade’s prepaid cards, or about $12.

The entertainment center, which also offers bowling, a trampoline park and other indoor athletic facilities, had been looking for a virtual reality attraction for some time, Epicenter controller Brad Bergum said.

Since players have to use their entire body and sometimes sprint to safety to survive, it brings an athletic twist to video game technology typically limited to a couch or video game chair at home.

“When you watch people do it, the arms are moving, the legs are moving,” Bergum said.

“Almost everybody that comes out of it is a little sweaty. It complements both sides of our building and brings those two worlds together.”

The $140,000 Omni Arena was created by Virtuix, a growing innovator in virtual reality technology that created the proprietary motion platform that provides 360-degree movement without hitting any walls, according to the company’s website.

Virtuix has shipped almost 4,000 individual platforms worldwide after a Kickstarter campaign and successful rounds of financing that even drew in billionaire Mark Cuban, who initially turned down Virtuix founder and CEO Jan Goetgeluk when he made an investment pitch on the television show “Shark Tank.”

Goetgeluk said Epicenter is the first entertainment center in California to buy one of his arenas, and is No. 15 in the U.S. since Virtuix last year shifted focus from consumers to commercial operators.

Virtuix can follow user trends of its arenas thanks to the voluntary sign-ups by each player. So far, 42% of players come back to play at least one more time, the CEO said.

Meadow Teschner, 11, may soon fall into that category after a successful round with her family on Thursday, fighting off those robots Foster was eager to blow up.

“My favorite part was that we were all in there together,” she said. “We could enjoying playing as a family.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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