A scene from inside the Ready Player One virtual reality experience at The Gateway Showroom in Santa Monica, California. (The Gateway Showroom)
On a gorgeous spring day this past weekend in Santa Monica, a line of people waited on the street to go inside a dark, old Marco Polo furniture warehouse decorated with a mural of the Italian explorer. A crew of modern explorers inhabited this place now. They’ve opened their doors to whet the appetites of fans and curious observers like me who are hungry for Steven Spielberg's new film, “Ready Player One,” being released this week.
There are no massive stars in the $150 million film. The stars are virtual reality and the 1980s. The film takes place in the chaos of 2045 and its characters escape their dismal time on earth by donning clunky virtual reality headsets and retreating into a wildly popular alternative world set fifty years earlier. (If all this doesn’t compute, don’t worry—you’re probably not the target demographic.)
The VR showroom we all filed into is a darkened space decked out with ‘80s memorabilia: boom boxes and old joysticks, clunky Magnavox TVs, a wall montage constructed of floppy discs and cassettes depicting a Pac Man chomping up a Space Invaders alien. A 1981 DeLorean inhabited the far corner of the space, its doors butterflied open for anyone who wants to sit inside and channel the 1985 film, “Back to the Future.”
The Tears for Fears’ song “Shout” and A-ha’s “Take on Me” provided the New Age soundtrack for a giant room that filled up quickly with people looking to strap on backpack computers and headsets to shoot borgs and other aliens. Just a day earlier hundreds of thousands of people marched on cities across the U.S. protesting gun violence. So much cognitive dissonance.
The VR showroom featured a darkened space decked out with Eighties memorabilia, including a wall montage.. (The Gateway Showroom)
I’m first in line to test a game called the Gauntlet, where the player picks up a virtual bow and arrow, descends into a maze and tries to ward off zombie skeleton people. I told the booth attendant as he suited me up that I was a bit confused.
“What does this have to do with the movie?”
The player picks up a virtual bow and arrow, descends into a maze and wards off a zombie
He explained, “Gauntlet is an old video game, and because the movie’s all about 1980s retro games, they took an old video game and made it into a VR game.”
He patiently handed me two controllers that I needed to shoot arrows and teleport myself deeper into the scenes flashing on the headset. Doing these at the same time completely challenged my hand-eye coordination, and I'm slaughtered within a minute by a pair of zombie skeletons.
“This is by far the hardest game we have here,” the nice man said as a consolation prize. “It’s incredibly difficult.”
Two players take on the Ready Player One VR experience inside The Gateway Showroom in Santa Monica, California. (The Gateway Showroom)
On the other side of the warehouse was a cubicle with six folding chairs where attendees sat moving their heads up and down and around in search of new angles to observe. Two boys, about eight years old, were eagerly passing the headsets between them and their mothers. Apparently, each one has a different scene.
“Oh, poop, this one’s cool,” exclaimed one of the boys. They’d been here the day before, too.
“This is “Render the Metaverse,” the attendant explained. “Different worlds that these independent developers created in competition.”
“And what do you do when you’re in them?” I asked.
“Just observe the creations,” he said.
The VR creations were lovely, but it was gorgeous outside and I wished I was out in reality, not trapped in the virtual world
Indeed, the creations were lovely—an elaborate Japanese garden, a swank apartment, a lush snowscape. But it was gorgeous outside, and I wished I was out, in reality, not trapped in the virtual kind. Maybe I'd have a deeper appreciation for this technological wizardry if I lived in the dystopia of 2045—or if I were a 13-year-old boy in 2018.
In another booth, people were watching a trippy sequence of kaleidoscopic images set to music. I’ve heard about the promise of virtual reality since, well, practically the 1980s, and I’m not really sure what’s revolutionary about this compared to, say, sitting around and watching a music video, or, to be completely retro, just listening to music. The whole point of this showcase, apart from using it to pitch Spielberg's movie, is to evangelize uses of VR beyond the game room. Rob McCarty, chief gatekeeper of this Gateway VR showroom, said even people in the industry go nuts for potential applications of virtual reality—not just in film, but in real estate, selling cars, “anything that requires visualization, a brand tie-in experience" and allows a user to live it.
I’m not really sure what’s revolutionary about this compared to watching a music video or, to be completely retro, just listening to music
Warner Brothers had approached Gateway a month in advance of the movie’s release to create this tie-in for fans. After all, it’s hard to talk about virtual reality, or grok it from watching a video on YouTube; you need the hardware to experience it.
I couldn't ditch the virtual reality adventure altogether, so I headed over to a booth that was empty the entire time, made my way in, and helped myself to a headset, securing it just so. The vision before me was lovely: A group of men, on the top of a cloud-tipped mountain, practicing a tai chi series of slow, graceful movements. This video was created in two days by a team of three.
Was I supposed to do it along with them? I know enough about tai chi to know that I’m not coordinated enough to do it even without a VR headset strapped to my face. But it was pretty, and it was time to head outside. I had downloaded the book by Ernest Cline that the movie was based on, and I was looking forward to reading when I got home. Books, I realize, are the original, retro form of virtual reality.