Sandbox VR, an immersive gaming experience, opened in June in the Strip District. Choose from seven different experiences with up to six people. Photo courtesy of Sandbox VR.

The Strip District is a tech industry hub. Now it’s also a hub for high-tech fun.

Sandbox VR, a futuristic virtual reality experience for groups of up to six people, opened on June 1 in the Terminal. It’s not far from Puttshack mini-golf, which puts a futuristic spin on the popular pastime. The companies are just two of the 17 new businesses that opened in the last year in the booming neighborhood.

I am not a gamer by any means, but I grabbed my brothers and NEXT’s Roman Hladio to find out if virtual reality is worth the hype. 

But that’s what Sandbox VR Manager Brian Mitchell says is cool about the company’s virtual experiences.

“Some people are hesitant to participate because they think you have to be a gamer,” he says. “This is very different than sitting at home playing your PS5. This is something all its own.”

Pushing through my fears about motion sickness and being generally disoriented, I strapped on wrist and ankle sensors, a haptic feedback vest, and an HTC VIVE headset to play “Seekers of the Shard: Dragonfire.”

Sandbox VR says the experience is designed to translate your real movements to perceived movements — thus reducing motion sickness. Everyone in our group agreed that the best way to overcome that is to fully immerse yourself in the gameplay.  

Before playing, we had to sign a waiver and hear some general safety rules — such as staying within the red lines so you do not run into the wall — take a selfie and pick our characters. 

I picked a knight with a sword and fire-blasting powers. The staff assured me that characters with magic have an advantage.

Our journey led us through a demolished forest town, down to the sewers and then up a dragon’s roost. 

Mitchell says that “Dragonfire” needs to be played twice to experience every story pathway available. We had a rocky — but fun start. We played, we died, engaged in minor player-against-player combat, died again, and collected loot — which can be reused in subsequent playthroughs if players sign in with the same email address.

Sandbox VR started in 2017 in Hong Kong and has expanded to cities across the world. 

The Pittsburgh location has four game rooms and one party room. The games are monitored by staff who can pause the game at any time to adjust the sensors — which happened a few times and caused our characters to have wonky limbs for added fun.  

Sandbox VR staff monitor the experience to ensure proper functionality and safety. Photo by Ethan Woodfill.

The games run on three servers — one for the experience, one for the 12 motion capture cameras that track the reflectiveness of the sensors and control the characters in the game, and one utility server. There are also cameras that record the real-life people, who end up looking, well, goofy. Try to remember that they capture everything you say during gameplay. 

At one point our group got separated when a makeshift raft broke and fell down a waterfall in what felt like a free-fall. The experience is so immersive that fans blow to simulate wind and the haptic vest responds to gameplay. 

From fighting spiders to skeletons and even a dragon, there was no time to stop and catch your breath. 

At the end of the game, the characters gather to perform using guitars, a bass and a … fire blaster. 

The experience ends with a trailer summarizing the in-game and physical experience. Sandbox VR stores your email so you can log in and relive your experiences, and it even saves the upgrades you earn during gameplay. 

At the end of the game, Sandbox VR generates a two-minute trailer featuring your in-game and real-life experience. Video courtesy of Sandbox VR.

As a non-gamer, I had a blast. To everyone’s surprise, I even came in first place, which I attribute to my character’s fire-blasting capabilities.

“People who don’t play regularly tend to have more fun,” Mitchell assured me. 

Mitchell says that the experience is a workout, which I experienced firsthand as I was drenched after the game ended. He says programs are in the works for homeschool students to get physical education in, and says the experience is fun for kids and their parents.

Sometimes groups have so much fun in the virtual realm that they cause concern for the police.

“There can be a lot of screaming in here, so the cops have stopped in a few times to check in and make sure everything’s okay,” Mitchell adds. 

What to expect

Schedule your experience ahead of time online. The cost ranges from $39 to $55 per player, and you can have up to six people per game. You can also schedule parties and events for a group.

Pick from seven experiences, including a kid-friendly “Curse of Davy Jones” pirate adventure, a zombie thriller “Deadwood Valley” experience, or “Star Trek: Discovery Away Mission.” Mitchell says Sandbox VR has many new experiences in the works, including “Squid Game” from the hit Netflix series coming later this year. 

After being open for only two months, Mitchell says his location has been busy, especially on Saturdays, when it is nearly booked from 11 a.m. to midnight. He recommends weekdays during the day for a lighter crowd.

Plan to arrive 15 minutes early to sign a waiver and review the rules. There are cubbies to store your personal belongings. And plan to move and sweat. The experience lasts about 30 minutes.

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.