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Friday, August 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

IT background helps shape Spokane man’s dream of providing virtual reality experience

By Samantha Malott The Spokesman-Review

Imagine you’re walking through the Amazon jungle or running through a desolate city from a zombie, or feeding your pet dragon or rocking out to your favorite song during a round of Saber Beat.

All are possible with a visit to H.I.V.E. Virtual Reality, a new highly interactive virtual entertainment center on Spokane’s North Side with four screen pods and multiplayer capabilities at each station.

Owner and founder Blake Underhill took on the venture after trying out the increasingly popular technology with his brother-in-law, who works with a film graphics and virtual reality company.

“I thought to myself, why isn’t this out there,” he said. “Is there a way to deliver it to the community?”

With an information. technology background and business degree, Underhill came up with the idea of H.I.V.E., which opened Oct. 1 at 9325 N. Division St.

“It’s an affordable way for a family to come try (VR) out,” he said.

To get even a single player setup at home similar to what H.I.V.E. offers would cost thousands of dollars, Underhill said.

“I looked at affordability when it came to picking this location and the size of a new venture like this,” said Underhill, who believes he has been able to keep prices low by starting small.

Gamers pay per block of time starting at $10 for 15 minutes, $15 for 20 minutes, $25 for an hour or $95 for a two-hour minimum private event that rents out the entire space. Reservations can be booked online.

For headset requirements, age limits are 7 and above, and the content on each screen can be customized for age or experience preference. Each controller has a strap that tightens at the wrist, and Underhill has designed the system to have virtual grids pop up in the player’s view when they near the edges of the playing space marked on the floor.

About 1,000 customers visited H.I.V.E. in its first month, which Underhill said made him a bit nervous, but he knew that was part of being a new company. By November, he said he tripled the number of customers.

So far, Underhill said families have been his most frequent customers. Everyone in his own family tried it out, so he knows it’s fun for all ages.

Underhill sees parents getting up to join their kids on the multiplayer device. “It’s definitely a group event,” he said.

The experience is also popular for date nights, groups of friends and coworkers and those who are just curious and want to try out the technology, Underhill said.

“Because it’s newer, there’s not a lot of information out there about it,” he said. “I’m more educating people more than anything.”

It took some creative engineering on Underhill’s part to get it all going smoothly he said, but his background in IT proved helpful. Underhill joined the Navy after finishing high school, working in cryptology (a mix of IT and intelligence). In 2007, he began a 10-year career in law enforcement in Florida, saving money to start his own business over the years while he finished his business degree.

In April, he and his family moved to Spokane to be close to his wife’s relatives, and Underhill spent the summer preparing to open the business.

“I’m just a blue-collar guy taking a shot at something new,” said Underhill, adding he isn’t in it to get rich but because he is passionate about it. The biggest challenge was “taking that leap of faith … and trusting my gut.”

“I get to make people smile every day and show them how to have fun with this new technology,” he said.

Beyond the fun of virtual reality, Underhill said, small business and education solutions also are possible with virtual reality. He said the technology is a great way to make lessons on topics such as science, space or geography more exciting because the students could experience it themselves.

For businesses, he said, home-remodeling companies could provide clients a real-life tour of a home.

“That technology is here now; the world just doesn’t know it,” he said.

As Underhill looks toward his own future with H.I.V.E., he hopes to continue expanding offerings, such as launching the Kat Walk Mini after the holidays. The omni-dimensional treadmill allows players to physically run or walk on a circular platform as if they are actually running from or toward whatever they are seeing in the virtual reality space.

Along with feedback already possible with the controllers, such as shaking to represent the feeling of hitting something, the treadmill will allow for an even more real-life experience, he said.

“It also gets gamers off the couch,” he said.

Underhill also has plans to team up with Virtual Reality CDA for tournament-style E-sports competitions. And if things continue to grow, Underhill hopes to grow the business into a family fun center model, complete with an array of gaming options and food and drinks on-site, while maintaining a family-friendly, close-knit feeling.

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