Thursday, April 23, 2020

An Interview with Bob Cooney, Co-Founder and Former CEO of Laser Storm

Bob Cooney, co-founder and former CEO of Laser Storm made time for an interview with me during last month’s Amusement Expo in New Orleans to reflect on the 30th anniversary of Laser Storm and the history of this system.

Enjoy this latest installment of the Oral History of Laser Tag video series!

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A Quest to Make A Difference

One of my favorite things to do is play laser tag in support of a worthwhile cause. On my last trip I was able to tag to help not just one, but two great causes. The final stop of this journey ended with me tagging at Laser Quest Phoenix at a fundraiser for the Doreen Katz Memorial Cancer Foundation. This charitable organization helps the children of parents who have been diagnosed with any form of cancer and was founded by Adam Katz in memory of his late wife, Doreen, who was from my area of upstate New York.

I arrived at the LQ site and was immediately greeted by Adam. There were a few participants already there, however this event was significantly impacted by the concerns about the coronavirus as it was taking place just before everything in the country really started to lock down (for reference, I am writing this post a month after the event actually took place). It wasn’t due to the virus itself, but rather because the community of cancer families the foundation serves is already immune-compromised, so it was better to not take any chances with having those individuals attend a group event of this nature at that particular moment in time. So, this fundraiser was much smaller than the previous events that the DKMCF has hosted, but for those who were able to come out to support it was such a great time and the event raised over $2,100 for the foundation!

Adam introduced me to a few of the players and we socialized a bit before the games got underway. I had a great time getting to know some great people and by the end of the night we all felt like one big family!


We started the night with a solo game, which was a lot of fun. We would play several game formats before the night was over, but this was a good way to kick things off.

Annie and Daniel were ready to be fierce competitors in the arena!

And I had a great time giving a few pointers to our youngest player, Emma, who I suspect will become a regular at this site in the future because this girl simply fell in love with the game. :)

After the first game we took a break for a delicious dinner provided by a local restaurant in town. It was a chance for everyone to get to know one another before moving into our next game of Team Frantic. Our teams were randomized and the game had a much faster pace. I got to play on a team with Sky and Raana who were local LQ players and we went up against Pinkbeard’s team (Adam’s codename is a given because he always dyes his beard pink for these events to be symbolic of breast cancer, although this time he added some blue to symbolize that March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month). Again, lots of fun, but I was most excited about trying something a little different. That’s when the game marshal explained our next game…Lasermeister!

I don’t typically have opportunities to play any special format games since there is no longer a Laser Quest in my state, so this was a real treat. For this game we would each go into the arena wearing two packs at once and trying to shoot with two phasers. “Trying” is the operative word there. Pretty much everyone found that they did well tagging with one hand while doing lousy with the other. For a frame of reference, I scored 1061 points with the phaser in my right hand and with the one in my left hand I achieved a pretty dismal 67, lol.

After playing three formats and having a really enjoyable night of tag we were told that for our last game we could either play a standard game or try something a little different. We all agreed to let the game marshal surprise us with something more interesting, so the night ended with a game of Outlander. This was the only elimination game we played. For this format we each started with 15 limited lives, so we had to play WAY more cautiously because once you lost your lives you would be eliminated from the game. This one was played very stealth and quietly and, although I came in second on points, I must admit I didn’t hang in to the very end…but I was close.

I did end the night with the overall top placement, so I appreciated receiving a Target gift card as a prize.

However, above all else I appreciated getting to play a really enjoyable evening of laser tag with some great people and know that it helped a terrific cause. In hindsight, it means even more as I look back on that experience from my perspective now a month later. You see, that night of tag was not only the last time I was able to play personally, but it was also the last night that anyone would be playing at LQ for quite a while. The manager mentioned they would be having a conference call the following day to determine whether all the Laser Quest locations in the U.S. would temporarily close as businesses all across the country began responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and that is exactly what was announced two days later. So, as it turns out, this final night of laser tag was all the more significant because it truly was the last night before everything really started to change. I’m grateful that I was able to return safely (and healthy) from that trip and I have been in stay-at-home mode ever since I got back. As I think about all the memories made during the course of my last trip I am so thankful that I was able to enjoy one last laser tag adventure to look back on fondly until the time comes when businesses can safely re-open and we can all play laser tag together again. Stay safe and healthy my friends!

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Hey Dude, I’m Tagging in Tucson!

I had my first opportunity to play laser tag using a vestless Veqtor X Blaster while in Tucson, Arizona. And even though that was an amazing and unexpected surprise, you may be shocked to hear that laser tag was actually NOT the main reason that I traveled to this town.

I’ll start with the tag talk and then at the end of this post I’ll share the real reason I drove out to Tucson in the first place, which fulfilled a dream I’ve had since childhood and dates back almost as far as my connection with Photon!

My day started with a trip out into the desert to see one of the coolest non-tag related places I could have asked to visit, but as for what I’d call the coolest laser tag site in Tucson, it isn’t necessarily the one you’d expect. For me, I had the best time visiting Golf N Stuff, not because of the arena itself, but because of the unexpected laser tag gear that I found there once I arrived.

The laser tag arena is actually a mobile inflatable structure nearly identical to the one my friends in Syracuse use when taking laser tag on the road. However, this one is not intended to move, so I am counting it as a permanent arena.

I arrived at a quiet time when there was nobody playing laser tag, so of course I asked if a staff member could play against me. When I requested this I didn’t expect anything particularly out of the ordinary from the experience. I just wanted to count the site and make the most out of my detour to Tucson. At first I was told that this would not be allowed, but sometimes being a blogger does help to open doors and after explaining a bit about this blog to the manager he was kind enough to make an exception and allow me to play a 1v1 with a staff member after all. I am SO glad because what I discovered when I headed out to the arena was the best tag surprise of the day!

As I approached the arena, I was intrigued to see a row of taggers in a rainbow assortment of colors displayed out in front. I was not familiar with what I was looking at. When I took a closer look I was overjoyed to discover I’d get to have my very first laser tag experience with a Veqtor product!

These vestless Veqtor X Blasters have the entire game contained within the tagger unit that uses the body mold of the old Actual Reality phasers.There is no traditional trigger. There is instead a solid state metal touch sensor “trigger” that you tap with your finger to shoot while keeping the other hand on the metal circle in the front.

There is also a speaker on the back.

Since I have only gotten to play Actual Reality once (and couldn’t take photos at the time) I really enjoyed getting a close look at the body of this phaser. I did have the chance awhile back to interview Martin Shoebridge who was the co-founder behind the Actual Reality system and had great influence on other laser tag systems including Veqtor and it was interesting for me to review some of the history he shared with me in that interview after I returned home. You can find that interview here…

As for what was right here in front of me, I couldn’t wait to try it out. I was told that before entering the arena I would have to remove my shoes (ok, that’s the first time I’d been given that instruction at laser tag). So I did and placed them in a cubby.

And time to play!

I tried taking some video, but for reasons I don’t understand there was an unexpected strobe effect that appeared on the video (which was not present in the arena), so this clip just gives you an idea of what it sounded like.

And we played a light game of Veqtor where I was just enamored with every beep and buzz and sound that the phaser made because this system was all new to me. I had such a great time! I’m so glad I stumbled upon this site, never anticipating that I’d get to experience something so unexpected. At the end of the game we compared scores.

I know you can’t see my score, so just trust me for the result.

Sometimes when visiting a laser tag site you really can’t judge a book by its cover. This was well worth taking some time out of my day for the simple novelty of the system and I’m very appreciative that I got a chance to play Veqtor here at Golf N Stuff.

My other Tucson tag stop was a little more typical. Following my Veqtor adventure I headed over to Funtasticks Family Fun Park for some Zone.

This site is 5200 square feet and three stories high. They say it is Tucson’s largest indoor laser tag arena. Perhaps I missed something, but since the other site was an outdoor inflatable arena I’m going to venture to say that this may also be Tucson’s only indoor laser tag arena. If I’m mistaken somebody please correct me.

Here you can experience the Atlantis Laser Odyssey.

I don’t feel like I have enough to say about this experience to really warrant a separate post. It was an enjoyable game and the arena is indeed huge. A true three-story arena is a rarity to come across.

The base structures are a little unusual in that the bases are placed vertically inside, almost as if placed against a wall.

However, the thing that I will remember most is that it was dark…really dark. So dark that I don’t have much to show or share besides a quick selfie to capture the essence of it.

It was an enjoyable game, but if I could make one suggestion it would be that lighting makes a HUGE difference and with a huge arena like that, I would love to be able to see it better next time I visit.

So, after all that, what would be the one thing in Tucson even more exciting than getting to try out a laser tag system that I’ve never encountered “out in the wild” before? For me that would be getting to spend the morning visiting the set of one of my favorite television shows from my youth that dates almost as far back in my life as Photon. I’m talking about Hey Dude, filmed at the Tanque Verde Ranch in none other than Tucson, AZ.

Yes, I paid a visit to the set of this nostalgic television series and I am delighted to say that over 30 years later it is still standing out in the desert on a tucked away piece of land on this ranch that is iconic to those of us who grew up watching Nickelodeon in that era.

Before I share the pics I should preface this and say the Tanque Verde Ranch that is open to visitors is GORGEOUS and not reflected by these pictures that are just showing the remnants of the tv set. Admittedly after 30+ years the set is crumbling, but the ranch itself is a beautiful place where I would love to return to and stay. But these photos show something even more special and it is wonderful to know that the set is still here.

The bunkhouse:

The corral:

The main lodge exterior:

The registration desk and mail slots:

The office:

Thank you for indulging this little trip down nostalgia lane. It was such a treat to visit this set and made driving over two hours from Phoenix well worth it…especially since I got in some awesome laser tag as well!

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Saturday Night at Stratum

To reiterate an important timeline, the Saturday night I’m talking about here actually took place about a month ago, which I think needs to be noted at this point in time.

Saturday night at Stratum was something that I really looked forward to. Since the last time I was here they have installed the new Helios 2 equipment and this would be an opportunity to spend the evening experiencing the system in an amazing arena. Stratum is the world’s largest technotainment laser tag arena and is quite an experience! Although they do not permit photos inside the arena, you get the sense you are entering something special from the moment you “leave reality” and enter the vesting room via this sense distorting rotating vortex walkway.

Once inside the arena the place is huge and I’ve written about it a couple of times before. Although this is only the third time I’ve been able to visit this site just outside of Phoenix in Mesa, AZ I was pleased to be greeted as a familiar face as the manager remembered me and introduced me as “a regular here” while allowing me to join the briefing in progress so I wouldn’t miss any games.

I signed up for the AYCP wristband pass with plans to hunker down at this site and play for the full course of the night. Apparently so did quite a few others because this was a packed house! I was told that sixty vests are the maximum capacity for the arena, although they may hold back a couple. Well, at least one game I played had 54 players in the arena at once and barely a vest left on the rack, so for this site to be able to accommodate groups of that size really puts the size of the arena into perspective.

I have been fortunate enough to get to play Helios 2 in several arenas at this point. In fact, I was at one such location the day that I heard that the installation was happening at Stratum last year, making it the fourth site in the nation to add the new system. None of the other sites where I’ve played it are anywhere near the size of Stratum, so getting to play multiple games here was really the most thorough experience I’ve had with the gear and it feels very natural and intuitive to me. I topped the scoreboard for most of the night and had a really great time getting to play with a group this large. I easily could have kept on going until closing time. However, I decided to call it a night a bit earlier than I would have liked. Why? Well, remember I mentioned in my last post that call to confirm an unexpected detour thanks to having an extra day in Arizona? I had to get some rest that night because first thing in the morning I would be headed for an adventure in Tucson that would speak as deeply to memories from my childhood as Photon itself…and probably even more so.

So, I got my fill of games at Stratum, but then left early enough to get a good night’s rest before heading off the next day in search of those man-eating jackrabbits and that killer cacti!

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The Rest of The Story…Tagging Face to Face and in Virtual Reality

It has actually been over a month now since this story happened, but it’s been difficult to motivate to finish sharing the remaining adventures from my last trip that took place shortly before the self-quarantine kicked in for most of our country. I tried to convince myself that I was stretching these blog posts out, but honestly I’ve felt more like I’ve been stuck in a time trap ever since getting home. However, now I would like to finish writing about the last leg of my trip that took me to Arizona. I think that the context and time frame of these events is important to note because when this all was happening things were still business as usual…if only by a matter of a few days.

Where I left off, I had just left Las Vegas a day earlier than planned. While waiting for my flight to Phoenix I made a call from the airport diner that confirmed an opportunity for me to detour to a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I was young…more on that later, but it turns out that extra day in Arizona was going to make a BIG difference! So I rearranged my plans and when I arrived in the Phoenix area I started calling around to see what laser tag sites I might be able to play that day. One caught my eye because it didn’t sound familiar at all…Mavrix. Hmm…a new site?

As it turns out, yes. Mavrix Entertainment in Scottsdale, AZ was a brand new family entertainment center featuring food, bowling, arcade and a sparkling new Lasertron arena…yes, sometimes new arenas feel sparkly to me! This place had actually only opened the previous Friday, so it was about as new as I could have asked to stumble upon. :) I love to be among the first to play in an arena. Now, timing being what it was there were enough people there for me to see this place will do well, however it also happened that I showed up at a time when the tag was a bit quiet, but I appreciated that the manager I spoke to was accommodating enough to let me go in for a 1v1 with staff member Max.

As they had only just opened they were stepping lightly into the game options and offered me a chance to play King of the Hill which is apparently what they are running as a standard game. I mused that I wondered if this was a choice they made themselves or with the guidance of Lasertron, as I gather that perhaps the manufacturer’s emphasis may be shifting towards some of their newer game selections instead of the standard and shields up options that are commonly offered in settings like this.

I’ll say that playing King of the Hill as a 1v1 is a very different dynamic, but enjoyable nonetheless. Sort of a call and response kind of game, but I had a great time, Especially since Max gave me a very good run! I’d capture a sector…

And of course I’d hold it as long as possible, but it’s not like he couldn’t figure out where in the arena I would be headed next!

The bonus targets were not in play during the game, but this is the closest I’ve gotten to stand next to one for a bit of size perspective.

And when it was over we checked the scores and I had won, but only by a very slim margin, demonstrating that this was about as balanced a game as I could have asked for with a 1v1. Thank you Max for giving me some good competition!

When I was ready to leave I thanked the manager again and he suggested that it would be well worth my time to stop next door to Octane Raceway. This is actually operated by the same ownership and I understand that in the future there may be plans to connect the two businesses with a direct pathway between the two. However, it is literally right next door so I figured I’d check it out.

Now, ordinarily I wouldn’t have taken time away from finding another laser tag arena, but the reason it was suggested I stop over to Octane is that they operate Velocity VR, which has a laser tag-like quality to it as it is played in a free-roam open space with virtual reality taggers that I was told operate with IR in a way somewhat similar to laser tag. I take that at face value because I have no idea how the technology for this kind of VR works.

That point really bears repeating, I am NOT a VR expert. I know almost nothing about VR so please forgive my complete lack of technical knowledge. I can count on one hand the number of VR experiences I have had and that includes playing Beat Saber and watching the dinosaur movies on the home VR goggles that I won at that tag tournament in Utah so my frame of reference about VR is admittedly quite narrow. My most recent experience prior to walking through the doors of Octane was trying out the Arenaverse VR laser tag demo at the Amusement Expo, so that’s the bar I had set in my head for what would impress me. But the idea of playing something similar to laser tag with a different twist was definitely intriguing and I was game to try something new. The Velocity VR that I would be playing here is powered by Zero Latency.

Of course, considering the times we were in I asked about their sanitization process for the equipment and felt comfortable enough to give it a go and let the staff member assist me with putting on the pack and headset while explaining a bit about the game.

I arrived slightly behind the group of players I’d be joining so I was fortunate to get a one on one briefing and tutorial before entering the “arena” which was hidden behind these doors.

And what does a free roaming VR arena look like? Well, it’s basically a big, empty room with plenty of space for players to keep their distance from one another.

The session included three rounds including the Turbine Station, Dark Wreck and Mining Canyon which were each played twice during the course of my 45-minute session. Once the goggles are on and the game begin you are completely immersed in the experience. What is shown to you inside your screen is all you can see and all you hear clearly is coming through the earphones, although there is a microphone attached to the headset so you can communicate with your teammates. I joined a game with seven other players, so we had a total of eight in the room on two teams of four. I was on the orange team.

Inside the game we could see four tubes of “light” which served as our respawn stations during the game and in between rounds. We would step into the tubes if we were tagged out during the game (I’m using my terminology there because I’m not partial to saying “kills” or “deaths” even though that is how the points are attributed on the scoreboard).

The visual images inside the headset were absolutely stunning! There seemed to be two objectives in each round…completing a mission goal (which I was not particularly good at) and targeting shots against the opposing team (which felt like I did pretty decently). If an opposing player was in my sights I had no problem tagging them and that certainly had a laser tag quality to it. However, most of the experience involved navigating around walls and structures that appeared to create the vibrant virtual reality all around. My biggest challenge here was feeling a bit tentative about my actual reality movements. Since this was my first time really free-roaming I found myself moving very slowly and cautiously. Especially after another player and I bumped into each other! There was no harm done, and there are warning cues built in to keep you aware of proximity to walls and other players, but I was particularly cognizant of how careful players would have to be to avoid getting too close to anything because you are operating without the benefit of true sight. So, slow and steady was how I approached this game.

Outside of laser tag I am not a “gamer” and I don’t play video games so I can’t really compare this experience from a gamer’s perspective, so I will let the video do the talking as you can get a better idea of the experience from what you see here.

What I can compare it to is a laser tag experience. This is similar in quite a few ways and I certainly enjoyed the experience I had. However, this particular experience was not what I would consider an equivalent and left me thinking “that was fun, glad I tried it,” but it didn’t leave me with the same feeling I get from tag, so I tried to figure out why it felt different in spite of having some amazing visuals and many parallel elements.

To me, the key things that laser tag has that I have not yet felt like I experienced with VR are the social element of the game and the adrenaline of the physical workout. Even though I played on a team I did so under the isolation of a mask and to me that feels like it keeps you from being as social as you would if you could see more than your teammates’ avatars. I never actually saw any of their faces until the end when we came out to check the scoreboard.

Perhaps because I didn’t have any memorable interaction with any person on my team that may be why I didn’t feel this was a particularly social game. Maybe that’s something that gamers perceive differently since so many video games are played in isolation with others in different physical locations (and considering the times we are in now that may become a whole other kind of social experience), but for me I need that face to face element. I like meeting new people, swapping stories, friendly challenges and the camaraderie that I get from a game of laser tag. I didn’t find that in the VR experience even though the quality of the game was very good.

The other thing that laser tag has is a physical, somewhat athletic component. Now, I’m not suggesting that laser tag players are necessarily great athletes, but because you can see where you are going you can move much more quickly, particularly in reacting to the players around you, and that means there is a greater physical element to the game that I do enjoy. I always say that laser tag is what I do instead of going to the gym. It’s about as athletic as I choose to get, but it does require me to get up and move (something I’ve been missing in the last month) and I often leave the arena sweating and riding high on the endorphins of the burst of exercise that occurs when you play a really intense game of tag. Because in this VR experience I had to (or chose to) move much more cautiously I didn’t feel the same rush from playing the game.

Now, these are my impressions based on VERY limited experience with VR and I want to emphasize that I did enjoy the games I played. However, at this point I do not see VR in and of itself being comparable to laser tag. They are still apples and oranges to me…both fruit (so similar), but also completely different in their own right. What I look forward to seeing as the future for laser tag will likely be more of an augmented reality experience that can combine amazing augmented visuals with the reality of the game and I think whoever gets to that achievement first will be the real game changer for the industry. However, I am very glad that I got to try out the free-roaming VR experience so I have a better perspective to compare and contrast it with laser tag. And between Octane and Mavrix this company certainly has the best of both to offer visitors to their site in Scottsdale and it was a great way to start my visit to Arizona!

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