Monday, September 9, 2013

First Laser Tag in Houston

(Here's the text of the article posted last year. Errors have been left unchanged.)

April, 1986
pp. 49-52

Two Firms Offer Space Fantasies

In a distant galaxy, warriors like Gandalf, Thorin, Mr. Micro and the Chameleon battle continuously with Sgt. York, Rambo, Captain Kirk and the entire Cleaver family—Ward, June, Wally and the Beaver—for control of the Photon. A few light years away on South Rice Avenue, the Starship Blue Force struggles against the Xenon Red Raiders on the planet Xenon.

Armed with infrared phasers, chest pods and sonic helmets, the Photon warriors zap each other until they have exhausted their energy and their time. After six and a half minutes, the Photonians relinquish the field to two fresh battalions who begin the battle again.

Packing turbo phasers and armor similar to that of the Photonians, the Blue Force and Red Raiders attack, the flash of lasers and rumble of battle sounds flooding the planet like a violent thunderstorm. The battle on Xenon lasts slightly longer, about seven minutes, before the soldiers call a truce to assess casualties.

As the Photonian warriors leave the battlefield and remove their gear, the reveal their true identities. Gandalf is an accountant, Thorin a lawyer, Rambo a truck driver, and the Cleavers are college students. Sgt. York fudged only slightly. He's a private on leave from the U.S. Marine Corps. The group has just finished playing Photon, a high-tech version of "capture the flag." The Starship Blue Force and the Xenon Red Raiders have just played Star Laser Force, a game similar to Photon.

Photon warriors don helmets, slip into chest pods and arm themselves to battle for control of the "planet."
Photon warriors don helmets, slip into chest pods and arm themselves to battle for control of the "planet."
Native Houstonian Bill Lewis began thinking of ways to stage a mock laser battle after watching Star Wars. He built and sold several businesses, including a driving school and a day care center, before embarking on Star Laser Force.

Lewis' engineers had worked several months on his concept when one Sunday he opened the newspaper to read about Photon operating in Dallas. Entrepreneur/inventor George Carter III had also begun thinking of ways to let would-be Luke Skywalkers shoot each other with laser beams.

"That was one of the lowest days in my life. I thought I had a unique idea then opened the paper to see a similar concept already going. It was a heavy blow to my ego," Lewis says.

Backing up a Photon warrior are Linda Synnott, president of Synchro Management and "commander of the universe," and Astrid Sheil, right, Synchro's marketing director and ambassador to Earth.

Bill Lewis in suit-up room holding one of the light guns
Bill Lewis began thinking of ways to stage mock laser battles after watching Star Wars.

Lewis tried to buy Photon stock, but Carter only offered franchises. Lewis still wanted his own project, so with encouragement from a businessman friend, he continued to develop Star Laser Force. The planet Xenon opened to visitors in October 1984. A Photon franchise did not appear in Houston until December 1985. Both planets are located in the same "galaxy" on the northwestern edge of Bellaire. Star Laser Force is at 5810 S. Rice Ave. Photon is at 6025 Chimney Rock.

Photon warriors battle on either the Alpha or Omega fields, each a mirror image of the other. Twilight falls on the fields as the warriors gather around their base station. A voice which could pass for a female version of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey begins: "Welcome Photon Warriors. Commence strategic maneuvers at audible command signals. 5-4-3-2-1. Begin." The players scatter, some to stalk through darkened passages, bunkers and towers, others to snipe at players from a bridge.

Each player wears a helmets rimmed with flashing red or green lights. In the shadows of the playing fields, the warriors look like bubble-headed aliens. A battery pack worn around the waist charges the phaser, helmet and chest pod. The phaser shoots an infrared beam a distance of 100 feet. The helmet produces a zing! when the wearer zaps someone, a sound best described as a space craft landing when the wearer has been hit, and a trailing off sound when the warrior fires and misses.

The hardware registers hits from any side. When someone is hit, his phaser goes dead and the lights on their helmet stop flashing for four seconds. The chest pod sends this information to a computer via radio transmitter. Players receive 10 points each time they "neutralize" another player and 200 points if they zap the enemy's base three times in a row. They lose 10 points each time they are hit. The score is tracked on televsion screens near the playing field exits and in the spectator gallery.

At Star Laser Force on South Rice, the Starship Blue Force and Xenon Red Raiders seek each other in a maze of darkened passages. The players wear blue or red helmets, also rimmed with lights, and electronic counting devices suspended from motorcross shoulder pads.

Players aim their turbo lasers, which shoot a visible Xenon beam, at the helmet or shoulder pads to register a hit. When someone is hit, his gun goes dead, his helmet lights flash and the "hit" is heard in his helmet. The gun makes no noise for a miss. A person receives 10 points each time he is hit, so the winner has the lowest score at the end of the game.

"This is the next step after video games. It has taken the process one step farther and made the participant part of the game," explains Astrid Sheil, known as "Ayla" on the planet Photon, "Ambassador to Earth" around the office, and director of marketing for Synchro Management, which runs the local Photon franchise.

Before playing, would-be Photonian warriors must acquire a Photon passport, which costs $5 and is good for one year. The passport contains a player's picture and a bar code similar to the Universal Product Codes on many grocery items. The card lets the player into the Photon computer.

It costs three "Clinks" to play one game of Photon. Linda Synnott—known as "The Commander" on the field, "Commander of the Universe" around the office, and president of Synchro Management—invented the Photonian coin. Players buy the Clinks for $1 a piece through a money changer.

Photon players don the power packs, which resemble the battery belts that television cameramen wear, and other gear before entering their passport, phaser and alias into the computer. The gear weighs well over 10 pounds, so players must be at least 4'6" tall.

At Star Laser, travelers to the planet Xenon first buy an identity card for $3.50. Games cost $3 each. Players put on shoulder pads, strap on their helmets and enter the transporter room for the journey to Xenon. The gear weighs about 8 pounds, and Lewis has let children as young as five play.

On both Photon and Xenon, adversaries may not make contact. Photonian warriors can't approach closer than five feet to another player, because their phasers don't work at close range. On Xenon, a player shooting another at close range may find the laser bouncing back at him. Photon also requires rubber-soled shoes. Both planets organize warriors in teams of 10.

Players run around a great deal, but they are not allowed to climb on or jump over the barriers. When a Photon warrior points his phaser, a red light on the back of the pistol will signal when the pistol is locked on target.

When the Photon games is over, the phasers stop working, and Hal's female counterpart interrupts: "Congratulations Photon Warriors. You have successfully completed your strategic manuevers. Disperse to exit. Disperse to exit. Disperse to exit."

"Six and a half minutes may not seem like a long time, but when you are down there on the field and your adrenalin is pumping, it can seem like an eternity," Synnott says.

At Photon, spectators can watch the action from the gallery, though they can't hear the hits and misses which register in the player's helmets. There is bacground music by Andreas Vollenweider, Jean Michael Jarre, Kitaro, Ravel, Copland, Holtz and Sousa, but players are so immersed in their game, they don't hear it. Lewis plays recordings of battle sounds during skirmishes on Xenon.

Synnott hopes to have phaser stations in the spectator gallery where people who don't want to mess up their hair with the helmet or are too short to play can still shoot at people on the playing fields. The system will be set up so it doesn't interfere with the play of the Photon warriors.

Each person plays an average of three games when he comes to Photon. On Saturday nights, 800-1,000 people play Photon. The lines to play can be 45-minutes long. The Photon center on Chimney Rock generates $33,000-$35,000 a week in revenues. Synnott expects revenues to range between $40,000 and $50,000 during the summer. Lewis says 5,000-10,000 people a week play Star Laser Force. He declined to reveal any revenue figures.

About 80 percent of the Photon players are male, and their average age is 22. During league play, about 65 percent of the players are male, with an average age of 28. League players take Photon seriously, often mapping out team strategies beforehand.

Synnott, a partner in a local law firm before quiting to start a Photon franchise, first learned of the game from a client in California. The two flew to Dallas where Synnott meet Carter and realized Photon's potential.

It took $1.4 million to finance and construction the first Photon location in Houston. Synnott raised $1 million of this through a limited partnership, which offered 50 units at $20,000 each. "We did not expect the mixture of investors that we got. We expected to attract a lot of yuppies and professionals, but we got a great many older, more conservative types," Synnott says.

Lewis financed the development of Star Laser Force with proceeds from the sale of his earlier businesses. He declined to reveal how much he has invested in the concept so far.

Synchro Management recently signed an agreement with Dominion Capital Corp. to package the partnerships and build Photon centers in Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Honolulu, cities where Synnott also holds the franchises. She plans at least two more local centers, one in the NASA/Clear Lake area and one in the FM 1960 area. Vacant grocery stores make prime locations for Photon centers. The Chimney Rock location was once a Safeway store.

Lewis hopes to open Star Laser Force locations in Lubbock, Bryan and Beaumont. He also has plans for a second planet Xenon in southwest Houston. All will be financed with his own capital, he says.

"The first time an older person plays he often feels foolish. They ask "Why am I, a mature adult, doing this?" Lewis says.

Synnott thinks they do it to escape reality. She believes that games like Photon will grow in popularity because they are escapist entertainment, like the movie musicals of the 1930s.

"When you are playing Photon, you are not thinking about your mortgage payment or your boss beating on you," she says.


  1. Interesting. I guess this tells me I visited Photon latest, since the upper level guns where there where you could shoot down on the players while the game was in progress. I should have kept a diary. :-)

  2. Ouch. Really sad to read this: "Lewis hopes to open Star Laser Force locations in Lubbock, Bryan and Beaumont. He also has plans for a second planet Xenon in southwest Houston."

    Damn, would've liked to see that dream come true. No thanks to Worlds of Wonder for killing that one :(