Ray Kallmeyer rushed down the center of a former Victoria’s Secret store last week clutching a trio of iced lattes as dance music blared overhead. Around him, two dozen people in HoloLens 2 headsets pored over 3D images that could only be seen through semi-transparent eyepieces.

“It’s opening day, so we’re trying to get some of the 420 crowd to stop in and experience it for free,” the 37-year-old said of Verse, an NFT Gallery that opened at Denver Pavilions on April 20. Less than five blocks away, tens of thousands celebrated Denver’s legal marijuana culture in Civic Center park. “It’s really for everybody, though.”

As Kallmeyer doled out coffee drinks, his staff carnival-barked at passersby to sample the gallery for free. Following the grand-opening, admission now costs anywhere from $20 (just to get in, but without a headset) to $89 (all the perks plus an NFT to take home). The typical experience lasts about a half hour.

NFTs (non-fungible tokens), or secure digital-media files that are purchased and stored online, are among a suite of buzzwords that have lately hijacked technology, business, art and media — including the metaverse, cryptocurrency and blockchain. These fast-evolving, digital systems, and currencies like Bitcoin and Ether, may seem arcane to the average person, but Kallmeyer shies away from all that.

If you go

Verse NFT gallery. Open noon-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 12:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday at 500 16th Street Mall. Tickets are $20-$85 per person. versenftcryptoart.com/denver

Electric Gamebox. 11 a.m-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $9-$30 per person. 825 Albion St. electricgamebox.com/locations/co-denver

“I don’t know how bank transactions work for me to be able to pull cash from an ATM,” he said. “But I don’t have to in order to use it. What this (NFT gallery) does is transform the worlds of collecting and creating art.”

That remains to be seen, but about $174 million has been spent on NFTs since November 2017, according to Forbes, so the market for viewing and collecting them is real. And yet, Verse’s 30-minute experience is only the latest in a metro area suddenly crowded with augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and web3 (or blockchain and crypto-driven) activities.

They generally fall under the guise of the metaverse — or the shared, 3D realm made possible by increasingly affordable hardware and robust wi-fi. They overlap heavily with immersive entertainment and, in fact, may soon be driving it, said Laura Davis, general manager of Electric Gamebox.

As Wired magazine recently pointed out, video games have for decades already been doing what the metaverse just promises. And VR in particular has been “about to happen” for more than 20 years.

“It’s always a little hard to get too excited,” said David Thomas, co-founder of Immersive Denver. “At the same time, the tech is slowly catching up to the promise. … And in short bursts, full-on VR can be fun.”

That’s not how it works at U.K.-based Electric Gamebox, which opened its first Denver location on Tuesday, April 19, at 9+CO, as the company hopes to become the augmented-reality version of a karaoke club.

For $9 to $30 per person, depending on day and date, groups of up to six can play cooperative or competitive games while wearing visors that turn their bodies into game controllers (i.e., walking or squatting to control your digital avatar). The games are mapped to touch-sensitive walls in each private gaming pod.

As with Meow Wolf Denver’s Convergence Station, or the touring Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo exhibits that have visited here, the Mile High City has become a crucial market for debuting and testing high-tech, immersive concepts.

Annie Phillips’ IRL Art, an NFT gallery at 2601 Walnut St., has been popularizing NFTs in particular since the late 2010s; a new metaverse-focused show called “Architek” launched there on March 25. Phillips also helped host ETHDenver, an event billed as “the Super Bowl of cryptocurrency,” in February, amid other local NFT groups like the Galatik Gang (member Chris Dyer is featured in Verse’s current installation).

This promotional image shows the main walkway at Verse NFT art gallery in Denver, where visitors walk to buy tickets and rent VR headsets. The location, now open in Denver Pavilions, is only the second in the U.S. (Provided by Dunn Communications)

Night Lights Denver, which curates projection-mapped art on the Daniels & Fischer Clocktower downtown, in December added a 3D layer to its programming with ChromaDepth glasses. On the grand-design side, on Aug. 31, Denver will see the long-delayed world premiere of Talking Heads leader David Byrne and writer Mala Gaonkar’s “Theater of the Mind,” an immersive new show that promises a dramatic, pioneering, tech-aided exploration of our inner lives.

Big and small hybrid virtual-physical shows — such as cell-carrier Visible’s Red Rocks experiments in September 2020 — and virtual reality-aided art installations like “No Place to Go” and “Zotto” are also popping up. Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu also opened the national tour of his harrowing, brilliant VR experience, “Carne y Arena,” at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace in 2020.

Coming up: Boulder’s Bitsbox and its $30,000 Kickstarter campaign for Bluprint, a kiddie metaverse that teaches world-building and coding. In May, newly minted Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson plans to drop a hybrid energy drink/NFT project (we’re confused, too) called Local Weather.

Kallmeyer, the CEO of Verse’s parent company Enklu, said Denver is only the second location of the gallery, although a New York version is opening soon, to be followed by other U.S. and international galleries.

“It’s almost like this space was made for us,” said Verse project manager Beth Cloutier on Wednesday as she surveyed the empty wooden cubbies where bras and underwear used to hang. “What differs in Denver from San Francisco is that we have specific themes in this show. Right now, I’m in the Fashion room. Across the way is the Solar Punk room, which is like cyberpunk, but optimistic.”

Verse’s Denver gallery also features local artists (such as Android Jones) and women (San Francisco did not have the latter), thanks to partnerships with local brick-and-mortar art galleries and the efforts of San Francisco-based Debra Nipp and Reid Butler. They’re crypto investors who curated about half of the opening-week pieces at Verse Denver.

Garrett Lesch, assistant general manager, and Keshone Lowe, supervisor, test out the touch function of a gaming box to demonstrate a game at Electric Gamebox’s new Denver location on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Eli Imadali/Special to The Denver Post)

“We’re trying to get under-represented and younger artists into the (digital) space, because when we walked out of Verse San Francisco, we said, ‘There are no females on those walls …,’ ” Nipp said, standing next to Butler on Wednesday.

Nipp, an NFT artist herself, founded Womxn + Crypto (womxncrypto.xyz). She said Verse’s Kallmeyer immediately “loved the idea of us helping fill this gallery’s walls.”

So what does the art in a holographic gallery look like? Colorful, undulating shapes and 2-D images glimpsed through the headset, some of them psychedelically animated, include giant horses, abstract sculptures, cartoonish portraits and dancers. Geometric globes and QR codes replace artist statements, and much of the art is on sale for $25 apiece. The space was secured by Non Plus Ultra, which also finds venues for exhibitions such as “Immersive Van Gogh,” “The Art of Banksy” and “Museum for Black Girls.”

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At Electric Gamebox, it’s less about razzle-dazzle than it is about making the technology invisible so that birthday parties, corporate events and groups of friends can play games and drink. The latter perk is about six months out, according to Electric Gamebox.

Like Verse, it’s not really aimed at kids under 5 but it’s still friendly to them (for the 360 kiddie-VR experience, try Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum).

“Our presale bookings here have been higher than at any other location,” general manager Davis said as she stood in the lobby of the Denver location. The company hopes to open 200 more locations in the next two years, and 1,000 by 2025. “People in Denver are active and like trying new things. Even with the (technology), this is still a social experience that gets you out of the house.”

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