Through the deafening cries of “Virtual Reality is dead!” and “The industry is over!” I stand with a community who believe in VR and the sea of opportunities that await us. While stores pull headset demos off the floors and virtual reality companies fold left and right, I continue to support the immersive medium.
If you are mourning the loss of VR’s day in the sun, you’re looking in the wrong place! In addition to finding a home in a variety of industries — including health care, mining, manufacturing, and marketing — VR has rested its headset in the world of location-based entertainment (LBE). Many critics have spent years squawking that Virtual Reality was not viable for the consumer market. It turns out that the technology can penetrate the consumer space, but it was not using the formula that they were expecting.
With the promise of excitement and an experience you can’t enjoy from the comfort of your own home, location-based entertainment is something we have sought out for centuries. From the Bartholomew Fair that ran from 1133-1855 and featured puppet shows, musicians, and wire walkers, to the first Kinetoscope parlors of the late 1800s, there is a rich history that predates the arcades, amusement parks, and theatres we know today.
No stranger to location-based entertainment, I have spent a fair share of time downing popcorn at the movies and mastering the sport of skee ball at the arcade. As an avid VR enthusiast, I was excited to hear how this technology would make the jump from my at home rig to an experience I could go out and enjoy with friends.
I was first exposed to VR’s foray into the world of LBE at the Wearable Entertainment and Sports Toronto Conference (or WEST) in 2015. It was there that THE VOID founders Curtis Hickman and James Jensen made their Canadian debut and caused a nerd-frenzy that had some attendees offering up their first-born children in exchange for a ticket. For those that are unfamiliar with THE VOID, the hyper-reality experience allows you to step into and explore a virtual world with your friends. With a combination of VR hardware and motion tracking, haptic feedback, and special effects systems, you become fully immersed in the adventure.
What I found most surprising about THE VOID was the inclusion of external effects that added to the immersive element of the experience. Dropped into the Star Wars universe and disguised as a Stormtrooper, I was able to infiltrate an Imperial base. As you travel over a planet painted with lava you are met with the actual sensation of heat and a burning smell. It was an unexpected but captivating detail that made me appreciate how much work goes into building out an installation that can transport you to another world.
In 2017, I was introduced to Los Angeles-based Two Bit Circus at the annual VRTO – Virtual & Augmented Reality World Conference & Expo in Toronto. Founded by two technologists — who also happen to be trained circus clowns — Brent Bushell and Eric Gardman created the micro-amusement park, Two Bit Circus. Last October I had the opportunity to experience their VR menagerie. Donning an HTC Vive and backpack PC, I entered a modular labyrinth. Measuring six metres by four metres, the physical installation didn’t look like much to begin with, but when you pulled that headset down, you were faced with the Minotaur’s Maze. Fighting off arrow-shooting skeletons and navigating booby traps with the reflexes of Indiana Jones I made it through the maze successfully — but not without my stomach lurching once or twice. As you walk out onto a less-than-stable looking balcony outside of a castle window, you can feel the wind machine blowing as arrows whiz past your face. Once again that added visceral element — while simple — makes the experience all the more real.
Both THE VOID and Two Bit Circus feel like they have evolved from the arcade world, but what has also emerged in LBE is the marriage between Virtual Reality and theatre. While many filmmakers have crossed over into spherical video and VR pieces, theatre could be the perfect platform that mixes mediums for the ultimate immersive experience.