I've had some strange experiences in pubs over the years, but never before have I blasted oncoming aliens and giant spiders with a laser gun and a chainsaw.

I hadn't so much as sniffed a drop of alcohol, but this was what happened when I visited the Four Thieves in London's Clapham.

The pub is one of three Laine Pub Company sites that provides a home for Inter Pub Gaming (IPG), the virtual reality (VR) specialist working in the UK on-trade.

Upstairs in the Four Thieves' games room — which also features crazy golf, arcade games and escape rooms — IPG has introduced thousands of punters to VR.

I donned a headset and picked up the controllers to be immersed in a world that felt as intense as a six-pint hangover, though thankfully nowhere near as unpleasant.

 

 

 

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Company boss, Anthony Nixon, joined me in the game to help stem the alien invasion and later, back in actual reality, explained how he sees VR as a great social tool for pubs.

"For VR to work it needs to be social," he says. "It's not the case with every pub, but in places like the Four Thieves they have a professional population of males and females with disposable income who are looking for something more than just drinking.

"They are looking for entertainment and this is something unique. As far as I am aware, we are the only VR company globally that operates permanently in pubs."

Anthony's background is in IT systems, but the company came about almost by accident. After a real-life adventure to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro he returned to London and ended up in a flat share with Oli Lane, a VR fan who was trying to get a business off the ground. Anthony bought in and suggested his local, the Four Thieves, would be the ideal spot to launch.

"I said I knew exactly where to do it and as a result of that we ended up opening two weeks later. I was a regular here, I knew the manager and I knew it would be the perfect location," he says.

Teaming up with the pub reduces the company's overheads. It's not a cheap operation with the tech, the potential for kit to get damaged and staff working at every site and session to help customers get to grips with VR.

Customers either book VR experiences in advance for an hour, which are around £40 per head, or they pay £6 on the night for a five to 10-minute game.

The pub is rewarded with more customers spending behind the bar and returning to play different games.

IPG also has booths at The Aeronaut in Acton and The World's End in Brighton. They plan to be in half a dozen sites in different parts of the country by the end of the year.

 

 

 

Inter-pub action

More venues would mean the potential for inter-pub challenges, which have already been successful. Anthony continues: "We did London versus Brighton and it was epic. Brighton won, they have a big gaming and developer community down there.

"As they were coming out of the VR booths in Brighton the spectators made an impromptu tunnel and guided them to the bar where there were shots waiting."

And this is one of the keys to VR in pubs. Perhaps surprisingly, it is more about a shared experience with customers watching the games on screens, rather than individuals losing themselves in another world.

Anthony adds: "The single most important thing in public spaces is spectatorship. Because people are so vocal and animated in the booths it commands attention and people demand to have a go. People see it and they want to play it. They will try it and they will love it."

Shoot 'em up games are popular, as are quests and escape rooms, which prove particularly popular for team-building events.

The experiences also prove popular across gender and age divides.

 

 

"Quest games are great for family bonding. You get great family time. There are no mobile phones or TVs, they are working together and they are immersed together.

"We also have a lot of girls who play. If you look at other things such as pool or arcade machines, they are dominated by men. VR is one of the unique entertainment forms that allows entry for anyone to do it. We have done as young as three and as old as people in their 80s and 90s. It's really appealing as an activity across the spectrum."

However, it does share a similarity with pool — one all pub players will be familiar with. "There's a tipping point where you have two, two-and-a-half pints and you relax and you're winning your games, but it doesn't last for long."

The VR sweet spot. Which is exactly what IPG is hoping to hit.

 

Inter Pub Gaming
Established: 2016
Sites in: 3
Staff: 22
Cost: Around £39 an hour or £6 a game
Online: www.ipg.buzz