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A New Reality: VR studio shifts State Street experience outdoors to follow health guidelines

Surreal VR
Ryan Fish/KEYT
Surreal VR says frequent cleaning of shared goggles and controllers keeps customers safe amid the pandemic.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Along with bars, restaurants and travel destinations, entertainment experiences have been crushed financially by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surreal Virtual Reality in Santa Barbara was no exception. The studio at the corner of State Street and Haley Street opened last October and was riding a wave of growth until March, when the pandemic forced it to close until June.

After reopening in June and seeing instant demand from customers looking to get out of the house, recent rising cases have created more uncertainty again, according to general manager Alejandro Carvajal. He says reopening is not necessarily about profit.

“We’re here because we know that people who do the VR, they love it,” he said. “Now we’re thinking ‘How can we define success in this time? And what can we do for our customers and what can we do for our staff?’ And we’ll do what we can for as long as we can.”

Even with a well-ventilated space with garage doors that can open, state health guidelines released last week forced the studio to move any customer activity to completely outdoors.

Carvajal says the owners of next door neighbor Wing Drop were kind enough to allow Surreal to expand into the restaurant's patio area, in order to create enough space for four people from the same household to join an experience at one time.

In the process, the studio's capacity dropped from 12 customers at one time to just four, meaning some staff members are now unable to work.

Carvajal says he feels for his staff members and the uncertainty of when they'll be able to come back to work. Surreal owns a second location at Zodo's Bowling Alley in Goleta, which was recently closed by the new health guidelines.

A major concern some people may have is the cleanliness of shared VR goggles and hand controllers, especially in the age of coronavirus spread. Carvajal says he and the team were already cleaning equipment frequently and well-prepared for the situation.

“Cleaning and disinfecting has been critical to our business model since we opened,” he said. “The adjustments that we had to make to COVID aren’t necessarily in how much we were cleaning, but how obvious it is to our customers… So that people can see us spray it down in front of them. Because what we want are people who feel safe. And people who feel comfortable.

“We don’t get a second try. There is no “re-do” on getting a bad PR on ‘Hey, I did the VR, and I got sick.’”

Carvajal says customers are required to wear masks and maintain distance from people outside of their household. They apply hand sanitizer before beginning a VR experience and all touch points on VR gear are sanitized after a group is finished.

Carvajal says business has slowed down even in the past couple of weeks, but State Street's pedestrian promenade produces more foot traffic, and therefore more customers.

To learn more, you can visit Surreal's website.

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Ryan Fish

Ryan Fish is a reporter, sports anchor and forecaster for NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Ryan, click here.

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