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Virtual Reality Cocktails Mix Theater With Technology in Ravenswood

Redline VR wants to bring immersive fun to everyone

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A VR bar with a round table and two headsets and projection screens on the background.
Redline VR now has a liquor license.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Imagine being fully transported into the world of Star Wars, swinging a light saber, or plunging underwater to observe a massive blue whale which gently swims by. This is the draw of virtual reality, and Redline VR in Ravenswood is ready to show customers the power of its VR headsets. But the current space is just an arcade, as its staff is prepping to launch a line of virtual reality cocktails.

Redline VR founders Jonathon Irons and Aaron Sawyer received the venue’s liquor license a little more than three weeks ago but has been open for a few months without serving drinks. Now it’s ready to debut its VR cocktails, which patrons can order at the bar.

So far only two VR speciality cocktails are available. There’s the “Pierced Navel” (a modern take on the fuzzy navel) and the “Chicago Handshake,” which is made with Jeppson’s Malört. While the bartender mixes the drink, customers put on the headset and view a CGI video that’s about 30 seconds long. Eventually, each drink will have its own video meant to enhance the experience. Sawyer would like to swap the videos and VR drinks every season, but computer animation is expensive.

The “Pierced Navel” is supposed to make drinkers who went to college in the ‘90s and drank fuzzy navels feel good about themselves.

Redline only taps local beers and aspires to create VR experiences for all nearby brewers. The bar and venue is in Malt Row, the nickname for the brewery-laden Ravenswood area that includes Michelin-starred Band of Bohemia, Begyle, Spiteful, and more. The venue also includes an escape room VR program, which Sawyer said could be modded to create a local brewery crawl, and has also hosted wine and paint nights.

VR cocktails take several forms. For example, back in 2017, Scotch maker Macallan partnered with Baptiste & Bottle in River North. The VR program was designed to accentuate the Scotch. At $95, the pricey gimmick was also a way Macallan could raise brand awareness with influencers.

Sawyer is driven by a desire to spread VR love to the masses, so he’s planning to keep drink prices affordable. Unlike the Macallan VR cocktails, Redline’s will cost under $10.

A bar with light woods and metal stools.
The bar area where customers would go if they want a VR cocktail.

Irons and Sawyer bring backgrounds in both computer animation and theater. Irons worked on Amazon Studios’s Tumble Leaf, an animated kids series that earned an Emmy. Seven years ago, Sawyer founded the Red Theater. Both are avid gamers and want to share their experience and make new fans of the VR experience.

Sawyer is proud to be a gamer and embrace nerd culture; he touted his position as the leader of Chicago’s Star Trek Meet-Up group. But there are other applications. The NBA has experimented with VR broadcasts, and that is something Redline is looking into. More musicians are also doing VR shows and Redline wants to make those concerts available.

Sawyer has relationships with game makers and often can work out licensing deals to obtain games normally not available. So that means the only way fans can virtually walk around the Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise is at Redline. There’s also race car simulators with steering wheels and pedals.

A projection screen showing a racing game with two steering wheel controllers.
Driving simulators are part of the experience.

He has also put great thought into making the space functional, comfortable, and inclusive. Sawyer acknowledges that video gamers haven’t traditionally gone out of their way to welcome women. He wants to change that.

“I didn’t want it to look like angry 12-year-old boy strip club time,” Sawyer said.

For example, instead of having those drab black walls illuminated by LED (the type of scene folks would see at laser tag center), Redline VR customers will see plants. The plants are also functional in the VR arena. In a boxing game, gamers could punch the plant as it was an opponent. That feels better than bloodying knuckles against a wall.

The brick exterior of Redline VR.
Redline VR has had its liquor license for about three weeks.

There are eight VR bays, five of them come with screens so folks not wearing headsets can see what’s going on through the HTC Vive Pro googles. Sawyer said the tech is cutting edge. Only military headsets are more advanced, he said.

VR isn’t Redline’s sole draw. Sawyer and Irons want to be a neighborhood draw and attract CTA and Metra commuters (there’s WiFi, too). They’ve already become a popular space for kids parties (parents can bring in their own food). There’s also a youth game setting that limits graphic violence.

The owners hope social media influencers, gamers, and drinkers can unite under one roof at Redline VR. Perhaps they can all jump in together on a multiplayer mission. Check out Redline today.

A Pac-Man-themed bathroom.
This bathroom is decorated with a Pac-Man theme.

Redline VR, 4700 N. Ravenswood Avenue, (773) 609-0056 for reservations or via the website. Rates are $10 per minute, but other promotions like a $45 per hour rate are available; groups reservations recommended; open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays; 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.

Redline VR

4700 N. Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago, IL (773) 609-0056 Visit Website

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