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City’s first virtual reality arcade goes big and goes retro

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Cathy Dobson

Sarnia’s Travis Kelly has one rule of thumb when it comes to business.

“I want to provide stuff for people to do,” says the 23-year-old co-owner of the city’s first virtual reality arcade.

He and Bo Tait have reinvented their original District Beta concept, investing about $30,000 and piles of sweat equity over the past few months.

They’ve added retro gaming consuls like Sega Genesis and Nintendo, purchased arcade games offering old favourites like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, acquired several table games including air hockey, and obtained a liquor licence.

They’ve also quadrupled their space by leasing and renovating the front of 1886 London Line.

District Beta’s virtual reality arcade initially opened in 2017 at the back of the same building complex, where patrons could also enjoy Valley Axe next door, laser tag, rock climbing and Hi Way Bowl.

“We were testing to see what the demand was in Sarnia for this type of thing,” said Kelly.  “We knew in the first week or two there was definitely a demand.

“Virtual reality games are very popular.”

Customers started asking for more. They wanted a bigger arcade and more retro games popular in the 1990s. And they wanted to be able to enjoy alcohol while they played.

It took about 18 months for the new District Beta to open its doors, just in time for the busy Christmas season.

Kelly said he hosted two parties most weekends in past December, including holiday office parties and birthday parties for both children and adults.

The retro consoles and arcade games provide the nostalgia customers have requested, but it’s District Beta’s virtual reality chambers in biggest demand.

It costs $30 per hour to use a chamber with as many people as you like. Each chamber offers dozens of games to suit all sorts of interests and age groups.

Among the most popular is Beat Saber, a game that mixes Guitar Hero with Star Wars. Players don a headset and are invited into a new world that seems all too real.

Kelly likes to play Creed, a highly competitive boxing game. A lot of teens prefer fighting games that involve zombies and guns. A game based on Google Maps is very popular and takes players all over the world to walk the streets of any country of their choice.

“Virtual reality has been around for a long time, but not at this level,” said Kelly. He also provides props to make the tactile experience even more real. Graphics have a very high resolution these days for a clearer picture and more realism.

“This is just all the stuff I really enjoy,” said Kelly.  “I like gaming and I like to talk to all the people who come in.”

He’s also happy with the support he receives from other local small business. With the liquor licence came a responsibility to offer food, so District Beta encourages customers to order from any takeout place that will deliver.

A Sarnia resident who grew up in Petrolia, he said he always felt there weren’t enough entertainment options in the area.

“Now this entire building offers all kinds of stuff to do. It works really well,” he said.

For more info about District Beta, visit Facebook, or call 519-491-0727.

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