Fight robots in the future, beam down to an alien world as a Starfleet officer or battle your friends head-to-head in a virtual arena. These experiences are all available at Sandbox VR, one of the latest virtual reality experiences to come to Los Angeles.
Sandbox VR has actually been around for a while, founded in San Mateo in 2016. There are currently locations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vancouver, and San Francisco, with outposts in Austin, Denver, New York and more coming soon. L.A.’s Sandbox VR location opened this past summer in The Village at Westfield Topanga, and they’ve recently added three experiences, including their Star Trek: Discovery and player-versus-player offerings.
Like similar VR experiences, Sandbox guests don headsets, haptic vests, backpacks, and tracking sensors on their hands and feet. Combined, the gear allows guests to enjoy full mobility in VR. This means that when you kick your feet or wave your arms in real life, you’ll see your VR self replicate these movements. To ensure proper tracking, store manager Cameron Roach says Sandbox VR makes their hand and feet trackers “from scratch.” The vests are equipped with haptic feedback, meaning players feel a vibration every time they take “damage” inside their game—kind of like laser tag, but more immersive.
While some VR properties are geared towards solo exploration, Sandbox’s experiences are for group gaming. Some are cooperative, while others are competitive. Three are similar when it comes to gameplay, though not aesthetic. Deadwood Manor, Amber Sky, and The Curse of Davy Jones all have you battling hordes of enemies. It’s zombies in Deadwood, robots in the futuristic Amber Sky, and skeletal pirates aboard Davy Jones.
Then there’s the brand new Away Mission, a Star Trek: Discovery game and Sandbox’s first IP. Players beam down to a new world and use familiar Trekkie tools, like the phaser and tricorder, to seek out new life and new civilizations—and occasionally, fight hostile enemies.
These four experiences are all team-based, where it’s you and your friends against the virtual enemies. Unbound Fighting League (UFL) is Sandbox’s player-versus-player experience. It’s sort of like Black Mirror‘s “Striking Vipers” without the weird, sexy subplot. Guests choose their character avatar and weapon before going head-to-head in a virtual arena. Each virtual weapon comes with its own properties, allowing players the opportunity to play again and enjoy a different experience. During each bout, Sandbox even offers real-time running commentary, as if you’re actually dueling at a live event.
Sandbox V’s location in The Village makes it the third VR experience to come to a Los Angeles mall. The VOID is stationed inside the Glendale Galleria, while Dreamscape Immersive is housed inside Westfield Century City.
So, how do they compare? Well, for context, I’ve only done Amber Sky at Sandbox, compared to three Dreamscape experiences and four VOID experiences. But, at a glance, Sandbox is the longest of the three and the most gamified—interesting, in part, because many VR companies consider what they do “experiences,” not games.
The VOID has a number of blockbuster IPs, including Star Wars, The Avengers, Ghostbusters, and Wreck-It Ralph. It places its guests inside an ever-changing labyrinth full of multi-sensory elements that make you feel like you’re really blasting Stormtroopers aboard an Imperial vessel or busting ghosts on a windy balcony. You can sense the heat coming off a lava planet and smell roasted marshmallows when Stay Puft Marshmallow Man comes calling. When you push a button or walk through a doorway in the VOID, those elements exist in real-life and your actual hands actually touch them.
Dreamscape Immersive is similarly multi-sensory, but less game-like. Each experience feels very cinematic, with stunning visual and tactile elements that work together to create an original world or tell a story. In Alien Zoo, you can reach out and stroke the snout of a mysterious creature. In the Lost Projector, an Indiana Jones-esque adventure, you’ll rush through an old temple on a rickety mine cart in pursuit of a precious artifact.
Comparatively, Sandbox dials back the spectacle (though there is definitely some), and functions more like a game. For instance, the VOID often shies away from keeping score because it’s less immersive when, say, a Rebel fighter has a running tally of how many Stormtroopers they’ve hit. Sandbox VR, however, embraces those mechanics.
“We create our content from the perspective of game designers and players,” Cameron Roach, store manager, said. “Our design team consists of individuals who have developed games and really want to home in on what makes a good game. Unlike other experiences, we aren’t an attraction that you can just complete and be done with. We have scoreboards, the ability to fail, and a large amount of re-playability. You can create competitions for MVP or see who can get the highest accuracy.”
In Amber Sky, our group of six found ourselves laughing as we fought off hordes of robots and insects—sometimes successfully, other times not. Some of us were equipped with virtual shields, which could be tossed or use to protect teammates from enemy fire. Some of us had flamethrowers. Though we could see and hear each other well enough, we still found ourselves bumping into each other to take cover or co-guard a corner. There were even moments where we avoided stepping off a “platform,” despite knowing full-well we were standing on solid ground in real life. It’s easy to see how games like this could work for team-building exercises.
It’s hard to say which VR experience in L.A. is “best” as that’s likely going to be in the eye of the headset-wearer. What we can say, though, is that between The VOID, Dreamscape Immersive, Sandbox VR, Hollywood’s Virtual Room, and the ever-changing lineup at Two Bit Circus, it’s a great time to a VR fan in Los Angeles.
For those of you who haven’t tried VR before, Roach offers this advice: “Bring comfortable shoes and prepare to be wowed. I think the aspect of being able to move and interact with our virtual world is still something that a lot of people are wrapping their heads around. A lot of first-timers don’t realize this until they are halfway through the experience and sweating up a storm.”
Sandbox VR is located at The Village Westfield Topanga, 6600 Topanga Canyon Blvd, Suite 1120/25 in Canoga Park. Tickets are $36/person.