TIMES SQUARE IN August is unlikely to make any New York City resident's must-visit list. Yet here I am, with my wife, waiting in line for "Ghostbusters: Dimension," a VR experience at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum (one building removed from Dave & Buster's, around the corner from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.). Despite the air-conditioning, it's swelteringly hot, apparently a function of all the equipment waiting for us.
The line, as you might expect, has a distinct Comic-Con vibe: the mustachioed guy in a fantasy t-shirt, the excitable teenage boys, the family whose youngest is explaining that "seriously, ghosts are actually real." And at the front, a staff barker named Christopher Thornton, whose signature jumpsuit is the perfect shade of light gray. After trying to banish parts of the line that are on an opposing Pokemon Go Team, Christopher launches into his full orientation speech. "If you are feeling sick, dizzy or disoriented," he says, "reach out and touch a wall. All the walls are real."
Behind us, a digital sign flashes: "Do NOT climb! Do NOT run! Do NOT swim!"
"Swim?" I say to my wife. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
As a media designer, my company leverages the power of storytelling, media, and architecture to create deeply moving experiences (the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum are two of our projects). To that end, I've sought out countless VR experiences, hoping to find a transcendent moment that would justify the new medium. However, VR projects are generally missing two key ingredients that would help them move beyond novelty and into the medium's true promise: audience choice and human emotion.
There have been promising experiments, to be sure, and all have hinged on providing a physical reality to fully prove the reality of virtual reality. I've been able to duck under and around light sculptures using Google's Tilt Brush, a painting application for the HTC Vive; and looking around a glowing light sculpture, hanging impossibly in the air, made it far more real. I've been a bird flying over Manhattan, wind blowing on my face, flapping my arms while a hydraulic table tilted my body to avoid monolithic skyscrapers (a harrowing experience, as I'm afraid of heights); the full body interactions tricked the mind even more effectively. But while using the physical has made the virtual feel truly real, I haven't found that it creates an emotional impact.
Then, this past winter, I tried a demo experience using the VOID, a VR system that combines high-end hardware with an interactive physical environment - and for the first time, saw a future for emotional engagement in VR. It was an exploration of a virtual ancient temple, and its jungle sounds and cinematic music made me feel like I was inside a movie. VOID co-founder James Jensen explained to me that once you match the virtual and the physical, "you have this moment of astonishment, this mind limbo. You can't figure it out, so you just accept it, and the virtual world becomes very real to you.'' This "mind limbo," while it's the mechanism that makes VR believable, isn't at all what creates the emotional core; it's actually the least interesting part of the experience. Rather, it's the people you share the experience with that creates the emotional bond.
In VR, it's the people you share the experience with that creates the emotional bond.
And while the VOID is opening a theme park outside Salt Lake City later this year, it opened its first official experience last month at the Times Square Tussaud's. (Yes, yes, we know - Times Square has always been a VOID.) Given that Madame Tussaud's first wax figure was of Voltaire in 1777, a wax museum may seem like an archaic venue in which to experience the future, but the tourist attraction has a long history of featuring cutting edge entertainment technology, from penny arcades to motion pictures, long before their mass-market adoption.
The VOID, which stands for Vision of Infinite Dimensions, may be VR, but it's mapped over a corresponding physical space in which every virtual object has a real-world equivalent; if you reach out to touch a TV set that appears in VR, for example, in meatspace you'd actually be touching a gray box. Like an ayahuasca shaman preparing us for a psychedelic trip, Christopher stresses that walking around and touching our surroundings is key for immersion: that's what helps trick our senses into fully trusting the virtual environment.
"You'll be able to see each other," Christopher says. "We'll have avatars of you. Right now it's just guys, but we're working on adding ladies."
"That's unbelievable," my wife says. "I mean, given the new Ghostbusters film, come on." Even though she works on women's issues professionally, the future is beckoning her through her cultural and techno-skepticism. As I nod in agreement, staffers lead us and another couple through the entrance.
Inside, it's... well, it's actually a void. A gray featureless room, awaiting its virtual overlay. There's also equipment waiting for us: a chest plate to provide haptic feedback; a heavy backpack that contains a warm computer, enabling you to roam freely without being tethered to a PC; a large proton blaster; and "Rapture," the VOID's proprietary VR headset. It's all a bit cumbersome, but sometimes busting ghosts means not complaining. We don our gear and walk towards the nondescript physical door that apparently will open onto our virtual world.
I was hoping the transition would be seamless, but as they try to start the software, our headset visuals glitch on and off. The room shifts, your hand appears and then disappears, the others seem to teleport in and then vanish. We have to call out feedback for the technical team to get us all aligned, and as I listen to us transforming into four Ghostbusters, we sound more like the Three Stooges:
"Wait, how come I can't see anyone?"
"Hey, I see you!" I say to my wife, "even though you're a dude."
"Wait I don't see anyone! Oh wait, now I do... Wait, why is everyone a man?"
"I know, right?"
"Oh and everyone is the same man too!"
"All right, are we good?"
The flat gray room magically transforms to a musty dank hallway hung with old corroded pipes. I reach out to touch the virtual walls as instructed?and indeed, my senses take the visuals to be real, and overwrite the innate knowledge that it's all "fake-believe".
We walk through a series of spaces that are like Ghostbusters greatest hits: a musty hallway, a rickety elevator. The proton blasters in our hands prompt what we do; the digital apparitions and the voices in our ears prompt when we do it. At one point Slimer shoots towards us, mouth gaping wide, arms outstretched, and as we're slimed in VR, we feel a blast of cold air and a spray of moisture. (More than one of us yells out "Gross!")
For the climax, we find ourselves atop a tower; just as I whimper to the others about being terrified of heights, the scaffolding we're standing on starts to shake. When the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man inevitably rips off the roof and reaches for us, we cross the streams of our proton blasters - and watch as he turns from white to a light brown, heat emanating from his burning body, the scent of toasted marshmallow wafting into our noses. "Whooooooa," my wife says. Gender politics be damned - she's sold.
The movie's theme song cues the end of the experience, and as we leave the burnt sugar scent behind and pass through another door, staffers relieve us of our guns and goggles, and we transition back to reality-reality.
We linger to decompress, along with the other couple; crossing our proton-blaster streams turned out to be a bonding experience. While we talk and laugh about the experience and our reactions, I realize that it's the camaraderie of play-acting together that provides the emotional core of the experience.
People have connected through virtual networks - chatrooms, multiplayer videogames - for decades, but something deeper happens when a group of people share an experience while physically together. It's why schools thrive despite the internet and MOOCs, why churches weren't done in by televangelism, and why cities are experiencing rampant growth despite so many technologies for telecommuting. From what I've seen in my work, it's the physical presence of other people, the walking and sharing an experience, the bonding in space and time, that touches the deepest parts of us.
In movies, your emotional response hinges on empathy with the characters; you cry, or laugh, or howl, in resonance with their on-screen reactions, feeling what they feel. In VR that takes place in physical space with other people, it's more like children playing make-believe in the backyard: you play a character and it's the group's acceptance of the fantasy that sparks emotion. The cinematic elements, music, scenery, avatars, are cliché by design, archetypes to cue behavior, but it's the yelling along with your partners that makes it visceral. Sharing with other humans triggers you to feel, to extend yourself.
While the phenomenon of "presence" in VR is well-documented, inducing shared presence - experienced among people in different physical spaces, and bolstered by the immersive power of physical feedback - is the milestone that will unlock the medium for good. It's no wonder that companies like Microsoft and Facebook are pursuing social VR; they're all chasing what my ghostbusting cohort and I experienced in the VOID. As we leave Tussaud's, heading back to our routine lives, a mantra from Christopher's orientation echoes in my head. Everything is in there, he said. Everything is in there...