As Adi Robertson and Ben Popper write in The Verge, “my partner and I step through a portal and into a bright, vaguely Mayan temple. I pick up a torch to light the way, and we set off on our adventure: over the course of less than ten minutes, we find a hidden passage, escape from a huge serpent in an underground lake, climb hundreds of feet to a beautiful vista, and, after getting through a cramped hall full of spiders, fulfill a mystical prophecy about a fractured star.
Then we take off our headsets, and it all disappears. I’m standing on stage playing a game called The Curse of the Serpent’s Eye in The Void, an experience created by the Utah-based company of the same name that is one part virtual reality, one part video game, one part interactive theater, and one part haunted house. Its creators call it ‘hyper-reality’: a virtual experience overlaid onto physical space, creating impossible places that visitors can touch as well as see.
Instead of a torch, I’m carrying a wooden dowel studded with small, shiny balls. Instead of the hissing snake, I see what look like powerful fans. And instead of the straight golden walls, there’s a round and nearly featureless gray labyrinth, turning us in circles forever.
On July 1st, after months of running limited ‘beta testing,’ The Void is opening its first public attraction: a Ghostbusters-themed experience in New York City’s Times Square, located inside the Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. For $50, visitors can strap on a VR headset and a backpack computer fashioned into a Ghostbusters proton pack, pick up a matching gun-shaped plastic prop, and act out a cinematic fantasy in real life.
After opening a door into a small New York City apartment, they’re accosted by tiny pink poltergeists, then make their way into an elevator and out a 40th-story window. A flock of living stone gargoyles and one angry Victorian spirit later, everything seems fine… until a familiar marshmallow-shaped face appears in the window.
Ghostbusters: Dimension is short and linear, although there are supposedly hidden Easter eggs for visitors to find—it’s a walk-through three-person experience, not a vast virtual world. But as technological achievements go, it’s a stunningly intricate one.
Players can see full-body avatars of their companions thanks to tracking markers on the headset and gun, and they walk freely through a tremendous amount of space by VR standards. Haptic feedback simulates the feeling of getting hit by a thrown object or friendly proton pack fire, and mist accompanies the whooshing of a ghost.
We tried it, and it may blow your mind if you ever get a chance to try it too. Over the last four years, virtual reality has emerged as one of tech’s most exciting new sectors: Facebook, Google, Samsung, and Sony are all in the process of producing and marketing virtual reality hardware.
Most of those devices are are being sold directly to consumers; the experiences they offer—games, short films, and the like—are meant to be played at home, sitting in a chair or else tethered to a nearby PC and power supply.
But there’s an entirely separate category of virtual reality that won’t be possible at home. You’ll be able to walk freely, without tripping over wires. You’ll actually feel the heat of a fire on your face, and the weightlessness in your stomach during a fall off a skyscraper. These are the virtual reality experiences currently being built into arcades, attractions, and theme parks.
In February of this year, China’s Shanda Group announced it would invest $350 million in virtual reality and build a VR theme park built in collaboration with The Void. IMAX, the widescreen theater chain, is working with the Swedish game studio Starbreeze to bring ‘premium location-based virtual reality … to multiplexes, malls and other commercial destinations.’ And established amusement parks are layering virtual reality onto their existing rides—Six Flags is currently upgrading nine roller coasters into VR experiences this summer.
In one way, there’s something contradictory about driving all the way to a theme park to get into a virtual world. In another, ‘virtual reality’ seems like an arbitrary term to throw around, when theme parks already offer simulator rides and 4D theaters—does adding a headset fundamentally change the experience?
But if these attractions catch on, they could give people a new way to live out the fantasies that Disney, Warner Brothers, and other companies have used to build multi-billion dollar empires. And to companies like The Void, VR isn’t just a new technology. It’s the key to building another world.”
This is what’s happening, and that’s that – there’s really no arguing with it; not unlike the “Dream Palaces” in Charles Eric Maine’s novel Escapement, which I keep coming back to again and again. Soon these “dream parks” will pop up everywhere, and encourage people, even more, to live almost completely in a fantasy world. Comic book movies long ago took over the multiplex, and show no sign of easing their iron grip on the box-office; it seems that perpetual adolescence is now in control.
One wonders, absolutely idly, what someone like Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson or a more thoughtful director recent vintage might do with such technology, but it seems that the two mediums are incompatible. This is the future of theatrical exhibition; traditional “movies,” in 2-D, 3-D or Imax, are about to undergo a revolution.
This is just the opening salvo in what will be a complete transformation of the filmgoing experience; narrative films in which the viewer is a key participant. In ten years, contemporary cinemas will be as outmoded as silent films were in the late 1920s; you watch, this is coming on fast.