Saturday, June 15, 2024

Reality check

Imagine strapping on a pair of high-tech goggles and entering a new world in the blink of an eye. Alicia Hetrick and Alex Markello are offering gamers just that, with a taste of virtual reality at their downtown Durham arcade, Augmentality Labs. The veterans opened the first Triangle area VR arcade in July 2017. Augmentality Labs now has 12 stations featuring the HTC Vive system; sessions run about $20 per 30 minutes.

Hetrick discussed their motives and business strategy in a recent interview.


What made you want to start Augmentality Labs?

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It’s kind of a combination of two factors. My wife and I just happened to try virtual reality at the local mall. We had a chance to do a demo and instantly fell in love with it. It was incredible. And at the same time I was running an escape room in downtown Durham. I was also finishing up an MBA, where I had a chance to write out a business plan for it. So I was able to create a model for the concept and get a feel for it. It just kind of came together.


How much money did you have to raise in order to start up the business?

We didn’t have to raise anything. We were completely self-funded. We saved quite a bit when we were in the military together, We’ve invested back into the business, and we just added more stations for the first anniversary.


What kind of people do you see coming in?

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It’s a little bit of everyone to be honest. Primarily our target is twofold. We have sort of that date-night crowd, like when you’re in your late 20s or early 30s looking for social activities, whether that be with one another or with a group of friends. That’s one pretty big target for us. A secondary target is parents. We get a lot of parents looking for a place for their kid’s birthday party. But we really get everyone. A couple of weeks ago, we had a group of siblings come in, and they were all in their 60s and 70s. They just wanted to try something new. It’s fun to see all different sides.


Can you tell me about the set-up in the arcade?

The VR stations are 10 ft. by 10 ft. One person hops in a headset at a time, and that’s two controllers, so they can interact with the virtual world in that space by moving around out there. They can select from 25 or 30 different games or experiences. We definitely cater that list so it’s not just for gamers. We certainly offer the standard first-person shooter games, but there are all sorts of puzzle games and arcade-style games.


Are there any other places like this in the state?

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There are a couple others in the state, but we were the first one in the Triangle region. We’re pretty proud of that. They are popping up all over the country now. You’ll start to see franchises popping up more regularly, and there’s a pretty active community of owners. This technology is growing and changing very quickly. Virtual reality has been a thing for quite a long time. The most recent iteration of it started popping back up around 2015, and it’s changing radically. We’ve seen a new offering almost every month.


What do you think the appeal is for people using virtual reality?

The sense of immersion. People don’t expect it to have that level of immersion into it. They’re just blown away. What we have in our venue is different than what people have used with Google Cardboard or another device. The ability to interact with the environment really impresses people. They feel like they are actually there.

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