Exchanging Words with The Portal Winnipeg

Nicholas Friesen Blog

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Exchanging Words is an ongoing series of conversations with the people behind the places in the Exchange District. If you would like to be featured, please email nicholas@exchangedistrict.org with “Exchanging Words” in the subject line.

If you came of age in the 1990s, you were no doubt bombarded with the futuristic concept of Virtual Reality (VR). There were a lot of great movies (Existenz, The Matrix, The Lawnmower Man) and a lot of bad movies (Virtuosity, The Thirteenth Floor), most of which were morality tales about the dangers of new technology. For the most part, people have stopped making movies about VR because people are now living VR.

You can now experience what it would be like to do unimaginable things like falling from a skyscraper and blasting zombies, or easily imaginable things like working in a convenience store. You can create art, watch it pulsate to music, walk through it, and then print it out on your 3D printer. You may not be able to do all these things in your home, but you can at The Portal Winnipeg, right here in the Exchange District.

“We’ve got games and experiences that cater to everyone,” says owner Chris Hall, who moved to Winnipeg from London, England four years ago. “I was back in the UK last year, and I had a friend who asked if I wanted to use his new Virtual Reality headset. And over the course of using it for 45 minutes I decided to quit my job and create this business, and then I did.”

It’s that excitement Hall has for the experience that gets you excited for the experience, even if you’re a non-gamer like this writer. After spending 30 minutes with Hall’s Vive Virtual Reality headset, I wasn’t ready to quit my job, but I was definitely ready to go for another half hour. I never knew I wanted to block neon gas balls with a shield to The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch” (Audioshield) or shoot tiny people who look like ones you’d find on a bathroom door with a bow and arrow (Longbow).

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“When I was trying VR in the UK, I tried three experiences; an archery game (Longbow) which is very popular, a slingshot game which was okay, and a zombie game (The Brookhaven Experiment) which basically made me scream,” says Hall. “It’s immersive and it’s terrifying. If I have a group of guys aged 18 to 40, they’re going to want to play a zombie game. I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Last time I was here, I had nightmares for days, I want that feeling again.’”

It’s not all terror though, as Hall assures us he has games for all (and all games are really for everyone). He’s booked children’s birthday parties, stags and stagettes.

“Some of them are too scary for kids, but some of their parents say, ‘Oh no, little Johnny watches The Walking Dead, he can shoot some zombies.’ I leave it completely up to parents, they sign a waiver, and they can decide whatever they want to play,” says Hall.

He is also quick to mention how the Chief Technical Officer and two of the programmers at recent Google acquisition Alchemy Labs, the game designers behind the super popular Job Simulator, are from Winnipeg.

“So there’s a bit of a hot spot of virtual reality stuff going on in the city, which is great to be a part of as well,” he says.

Hall is also happy to have his business in a cultural hot spot like the Exchange, and has been a fan of many of the restaurants since he moved to Winnipeg. While the Portal started out on Portage Avenue and briefly moved to Corydon, he feels his new home at 281 McDermot (unit 707) is a perfect fit.

“When we first started looking for a space in September of last year, I suggested the Exchange District,” he says. “The space is marvelous. I’m from London, I love historical buildings and I love history. There’s also a community spirit here which I love. It’s a very exciting time to be in the Exchange.”

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Visit theportalwpg.ca to book your Virtual Reality experience. Use the code EXCHANGEBIZ to receive 20% off your next booking (valid until August 31, 2017).