It wasn’t the first time I’ve traveled miles to attempt an adventure in virtual reality since the world reopened. But it was the most epic.
A massive installation that lets you explore a life-size virtual version of the International Space Station, The Infinite is the largest virtual reality exhibit of its kind. And with the world intermittently reopening amid the COVID-19 blasts, The Infinite also comes equipped with UV sanitizing stations for headphones, ridding them of germs before you put one on your face.
Just as Netflix has boomed while movie theaters have exploded, the pandemic has drawn in the fortunes of virtual reality. Virtual reality has thrived in living rooms, but lockdown and social distancing have decimated location-based virtual reality.
However, the recent success of The Infinite, which has toured two cities and plans to open up to three more before the end of the year, is not an anomaly. Other VR companies have reported activity approaching and sometimes exceeding pre-pandemic levels. These may not be the first places that come to mind when you hit the noise of the metaverse. But if you want to get a brush with what you will literally feel like, then location-based virtual reality is one of the first places you should go.
The metaverse – whatever it is now or ever will be – is a convergence of many technologies, the key to VR among them. It’s no coincidence that the current uproar around the metaverse has been fueled by the owner of the most popular VR headset,. Thanks to the touch points of sci-fi fantasy like VR is one of the foundations for the number of laymen who envision the complete metaverse in the future.
You can actually associate a real-world image of Ready Player One’s fictional “haptic feedback suit,” which simulates the physical sensations of virtual reality. And you can try running on something like an “omni-directional treadmill,” which lets you walk endlessly without moving anywhere.
You can’t have it at home, at least not without breaking the bank. Instead, they are in location-based experiences.
“It’s the limits of what’s possible,” Kent Bye, host of the Voices of VR podcast tells me. “And location-based entertainment is always pushed to the brink.”
Due to the nature of limit testing, location-based VR experiences vary widely. Infinity is one example. It could take the form of high-end virtual reality “theaters” run by the likes of Dreamscape or a social competition room – the VR version of the laser tag. At the other end is a VR game that you might be playing at Dave & Buster’s while the rest of the arcade games are ringing and playing in the background.
But whether it’s a “trip” in an amusement park or elaborate immersive art on display at the Sundance Film Festival, location-based virtual reality is the virtual reality you live outside of your home. You are there with other people, using devices and other architecture specially designed for this specific simulation adventure.
One advantage of building bespoke VR experiences is their ability to incorporate technology that pushes boundaries beyond the reach of any ordinary person.
“These location-based and immersive places can have this technology, to give people a chance to test it out,” said Dan Eckert, managing director of PwC artificial intelligence and emerging technology consultancy Dan Eckert. He noted that no one would craft a specialized system in their home to heat up the heat and smoke while riding a virtual Star Wars boat on the lava planet. But some location-based experiments can — and do.
The Teslasuit (no relation to Elon Musk) isn’t far from the haptic feedback coats Ready Player One imagines. The company says Virtuix’s Omni omni-directional treadmills, which let you run in virtual reality while you stay put, have been shipped to 500 locations around the world.
“Location-based entertainment is a demonstration ground for the latest immersive technologies that are very expensive for consumers,” Bay said.
One of my favorites was the spirometer I only saw once at the Tribessia Film Festival in 2016. By directing your gaze in any direction you want to go in an underwater VR setting in an underwater world, you are propelling yourself forward based on how deep you breathe. This quiet task put me into a meditative pattern of deep breathing that calmed the thorns in my nervous system and brought me to a mental tingle.
These experimental peripherals ebb and flow. Some make a foothold where the attractions in VR disappear, like Virtuix with the Omni, and others disappear, like the Deep Breathing Belt. But they still give you a chance to encounter what the future metaverse might feel like.
“VR has come and gone in the location-based entertainment industry many times, and each time the technology hasn’t been ready,” said Bob Cooney, a site-based entertainment industry expert who has mentored companies like Virtuix and Zero Latency. By 2019, he said, the VR company had won over approved site-based entertainment operators, leading to a high adoption rate.
“Then shut everything down.”
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The pandemic shutdowns have highlighted the home consumer’s allure of virtual reality, which is now represented by the Oculus Quest. When we couldn’t go anywhere or be near anyone, these slightly uncomfortable chests strapped to your face don’t look so ridiculous. They provided a virtual respite for traveling to remote lands or simulating the feeling of gathering close to other people.
Ramon T. Llamas, IDC’s director of research, estimates that 1.8 million virtual reality headsets shipped in the US before the pandemic in 2019. Those shipments rose to 2.8 million in 2020, as demand caused by the pandemic collided with supply chain constraints. But in 2021, with production faltering, shipments doubled to 5.7 million.
But sectors of location-based virtual reality, like all out-of-home entertainment, have been devastated. Sandbox VR, a series of 600-square-foot rooms to host six people fighting virtual zombies or visiting the planets of Star Trek, has been backed by the likes of Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry. Its US subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy protection in August 2020. The Void, a similar project allied with Disney to put fans inside the immersive worlds of Star Wars and Marvel, defaulted on its loans around the same time. More than one property owner in The Void auctioned his equipment as abandoned property, according to protocol.
And as the world reopens,. Far from experiences like The Infinite that launched multi-city tours, Sandbox VR has resurfaced from bankruptcy protection and has seen ticket sales surpass pre-pandemic levels. Canceled by COVID in a twisted joke, The Void is hoping to make a comeback, having racked up $20 million for its relaunch this year.
Inevitably, technology will advance to give people polished and affordable versions of next-level immersive elements in their homes that are currently the domain of location-based experiences. But the experts I spoke with don’t expect the allure of shared experiences to be extinguished.
As Eckert said, movie theaters didn’t disappear when television was invented. The surround sound of cinema and the big screen continues to capture our attention, as does the social gratification of going to the movies with a friend or laughing with the crowd in the dark.
In virtual reality [social fulfillment] It’s a “killer app,” Eckert said. “Yes, you can go out and dance on your own. But it’s always a lot better if you go with your friends.” Enjoying virtual reality — at least until being in VR progresses beyond kludgy cartoon avatars — goes along with the same human urges for shared physical familiarity.
The infinite exists because its creators also felt this desire. “We were truly struck by the emotional power of those footage,” said Felix Lagounis, co-founder and creative director of Felix & Paul Studios, who led the ISS project, when the first VR recordings from the ISS were rebroadcast back to Earth.
The International Space Station footage is already an Emmy Award-winning VR series calledBut the company felt a duty to make it available beyond gamers and early adopters who already had virtual reality on hand.
With a site-based community experiment, he said, “we wanted to share it with the world.”