For The Only Truly Immersive VR Experience: Who You Gonna Call?
By Charlie Fink
Three places you will never find a real New Yorker: the Circle Line, the Observation Deck of The Empire State Building, and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum on 42nd Street. Yet there I stood, about to enter a place I once rushed past dismissively in order to experience the entertainment of the future. It hardly seems possible. Yet deep in Madame Tussauds star struck belly lies the only fully immersive free roam virtual reality facility in the northeast: the Ghostbusters Hyper-Reality Experience by The Void. The price is steep, sixty bucks (a $20 surcharge on top of the $40 Tussauds premium pass).
The Void, which created this “hyper-reality” experience with the Ghostbusters creative team, is famous for hosting a spectacular demo at TED 2016 in Vancouver. Steven Spielberg went through the experience and said it was “astounding.” Reportedly, he talked about it for days. Now he's launching his own free roam VR facility in Los Angeles later this year. More on that later.
I am counting on this weird, expensive journey to restore my faith in VR. Fittingly, in order to reach my goal, I had to make my way through several floors of cheesy, over dressed celebrity statuary.
Let’s be honest, there are many problems with virtual reality in the home right now, especially with high-end platforms: HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, but also with the Samsung Mobile Gear VR, which reportedly sold 5MM of it’s $69 head mounted displays in 2016. There’s now a growing industry of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, gamers, journalists, etc., with a big stake in the success of VR. We want it to work so bad we may not always be honest with ourselves. Going back and forth from the headset to the PC to manage and launch VR applications is not a good user experience. The headgear is hot and claustrophobic. Low resolution optics make everything look as if it’s seen through a “screen door”. Latency problems can still make you woozy. The hardware doesn’t always work. There’s no customer service number to call. Meanwhile, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Magic Leap are expected to make major announcements about augmented reality, a more seamless approach which could seriously disrupt the development of VR. But I digress. Back to the pilgrimage.
Madame Tussauds theming gets newer and better as you get closer to The Void’s Ghostbusters Hyper-Reality Experience. Anticipation builds.
I finally arrive at the Ghostbusters attraction entrance and show my premium ticket to the usher, whose name is Maria. She gives me a locker to stow my winter coat. She will also be my attendant throughout the entire experience. I’m told to put my phone away. Pictures are strictly forbidden. The backpack computer, haptic vest and helmet are mounted on the wall. You back into the harness, then the attendant releases the rig from its mount. Maria adjusts the headset. It’s a little large and slightly heavy, but affords plenty of room for glasses and air to circulate under the visor.
Maria hands me my blaster. I snap down the visor. The optics are perfect, wide field of view, high definition (no screen door!). “If you get dizzy lean on a wall,” she advises. “But I’ll be with you the whole time.” No other instructions are given. We go in. Maria disappears. I am the only player in the simulation. The field of view and optics are amazing. Everything I see is crystal clear and hyper real.
I enter what feels like a shabby old Toon town apartment, alone and untethered. I feel giddy. Small, goofy, animated ghosts appear among the dishes and fly around the room, drawing my gaze over everything. I’m not hot, I’m not uncomfortable. There is no lag, or latency. I test a doorknob. It’s an illusion. The other doorknob works. I get that I am on a set. I enter an “elevator.” An incredibly realistic hologram approaches. It is much more realistic than the animated ghosts.
The top floor recreates the climactic battle with the marshmallow monster from the movie. I’m on a ledge at the top of the skyscraper. I can see the whole city from here. I glance down and marvel at how convincing the illusion is. I come to a window washing platform. I’m relieved it has a real railing. The aluminum platform vibrates and bangs against the building as I sprint across it.
A fantastic promotional video from The Void which clearly shows the equipment, graphics, and the gameplay of The Ghostbusters Hyper-Reality experience. This a good behind the scenes look at how they pull the whole thing off with showbiz panache.
I feel something through the haptic vest every time a ghost hits me. A wall crumbles next to me as the marshmallow man attacks. The outside air rushes in. There’s a little dust or maybe a smoke effect. For a second I think it’s coming from my vest. I blast the marshmallow.
And then, just like that, it’s over. They say it took ten minutes. It went by very quickly. Maria takes my blaster and helps me take off the backpack. My first thought is that I’ve finally had my first truly immersive virtual reality experience.
My second thought: I want to do this again.
The Void is building its own large scale VR attraction in suburban Salt Lake City due to open very soon. You can bet I’ll soon be in line, and there is sure to be a long one. This is something we’ve not seen before. It has the potential to revolutionize entertainment by literally putting you in the movie.
Another amazing short video from The Void that shows how it’s done. Their large scale facility in Utah is opening this summer.
Public space VR is very challenging because profit is determined by the cost of mundane things like labor, real estate and marketing. Typically, there aren’t enough seats at prime time, and not enough customers the rest of the time. If these centers can’t make enough money, it may be that in the future, if you want to experience truly, fully immersive free roam virtual reality, you have to be in the police or the military. That would be a loss for the rest of us.
Charlie Fink is an executive, writer and consultant with over three decades of experience in media, technology and the intersection between them. As an avid storyteller, entrepreneur, and award winning producer, Charlie has built a career building businesses across industries. With his tenure as an executive in companies such as Disney, Virtual World, and AOL, Charlie has honed an extensive knowledge and expertise.