San Diego Comic-Con is a venerated institution of pop culture. What began as a gathering of comic book fans decades ago has since assimilated fandoms for fantasy and science fiction, movies, television, tabletop and video games, and now virtual reality. VR has been present at SDCC for the past few years but in limited capacity. 2016 changed that, with virtual reality being visible everywhere in and around the San Diego Convention Center. There were many opportunities to try VR experiences, there were daily panels discussing the topic of VR, and there were prosumer meet-ups. I was at the convention for all four days with an aggressive agenda of trying to attend each and every VR item. I failed to check off every item thanks to the famous SDCC queues and the overlapping of events.
There were more than a dozen opportunities to experience virtual reality at SDCC 2016. Most of these had lines that would take an hour or more of waiting and then offer a five minutes or less experience. You definitely had to commit yourself to get into most of the VR experiences at the con. I managed to try the Mr. Robot VR movie, the American Horror Story VR experience, the Teen Wolf VR experience, the Man in the High Castle VR experience, and I even watched the video that a group of animal rights activists were showing. I missed more VR experiences than I got to try. I lament missing the Conan O’Brien experience.
The television series Mr. Robot offered one of the best VR experiences at the con. The show’s creator and director Sam Esmail recorded a 10-minute VR video starring the show’s lead actor, Rami Malek. The video conforms to the tone and aesthetic of the series but is a standalone episode that explores one of Elliott’s past relationships. With Elliott being an unreliable narrator there’s no telling if the events in the video actually took place or were only in his mind. The video purposely employs glitched graphics, psychedelic graphics, and unusual camera angles to good effect. As a publicity stunt they packed thousands of people into Petco Park baseball stadium, gave us all Mr. Robot-branded Cardboard players and earbuds, and simulcast the video to the world on Thursday, July 21, at 10:45 a.m. The idea was that the video would only be shown once – live all around the world – and then taken down. I can state with certainty that the video I downloaded was only viewable once, even as I type this a week later.
Mr. Robot also rented a vacant storefront at 343 4th Avenue in the Gaslamp District. They converted its front room into a mockup of the computer repair shop that Elliott’s father owned in the series and its back room into Elliott’s apartment. You waited in line in the repair shop and then were led into the apartment where you slipped on a Gear VR and could watch the Mr. Robot VR video there, sitting in Elliott’s home. Since the VR video both begins and ends in the apartment the experience of being in the space both physically and virtually was very satisfying. The video shown at this location was the same as the one shown at the stadium and was available to watch all weekend long, defying the claim that there was only one opportunity to watch the video. EDIT: the video has been made available in the Within app as of July 29, 2016.
American Horror Story Fearless
FXX went for a fully immersive experience, like Mr. Robot did, only didn’t execute it as well. The American Horror Story Fearless VR experience was housed in a black silo on the grass behind the Convention Center. Inside of the silo was a round room with gray walls and black platforms. The platforms were shaped to suggest reclining hospital beds. They faced away from the room’s center in the positions of the cardinal points of a compass. It was an eerie sight. They didn’t allow photography but it can be seen in this video around the 40 seconds mark. They had users lay on the platforms and covered them with paper blankets, then placed Vive headsets and headphones over our heads.
The experience that FXX presented was quite cool. The first thing you saw in the goggles was the last thing you saw before putting them on: your legs stuck out before you covered by a blanket. Looking from side to side allowed you to see the other people on hospital beds in the room with you. Seeing the physical space but not seeing the FXX employees in the goggles immediately turned up the paranoia, like they were going to startle me from under invisibility cloaks. The experience lasted about four minutes and I don’t recall all of it. My impression was that it was scary and caused shrieks and jumps from myself and the others. I remember laying on a hospital gurney being wheeled around by a scary clown who threw things at me and who locked me into some scary places. I remember falling down a chute. There was a spiked ceiling or wall that fell on me. It was a lot of really scary imagery and it made for a good time. If this was the extent of my American Horror Story Fearless VR experience I would be gushing about it right now, but unfortunately my VR experience was marred with technical problems.
The first thing I noticed in the headset is the graphical recreation of my physical space and being. The second thing I noticed was the video player controls. They never disappeared. At all times I was able to see the progress bar and time. I know the experience ran about four minutes thanks to this. Another problem was that when I reclined I was able to see the tracking towers in my view screen. Most of the experience had my head lifted away from the backrest so I could look around and take in the show, so not a major problem but still not good. Finally, the color in my headset wasn’t dark enough. It was as though someone tweaked the contrast to make all the blacks into grays. The immersive concept was really fun and a clever way to sell the VR experience, but the execution wasn’t great. All of the headsets seemed synced to start and stop simultaneously. I should have complained to the guy but I felt compelled to ride it out because I didn’t want to break sync. Foolish of me perhaps, but I didn’t want to mess it up for others.
MTV’s VR experience was inside of the Exhibitor Hall. On one side of their booth was a tunnel where two people could stand and experience the VR. The other side of the booth had a table and stools where four more people could sit for the experience. The Teen Wolf experience was viewed through Gear VR using proprietary software with the software designer actually in the booth, aiding those who needed it. The Teen Wolf software was buggy. It took some doing to get to the main menu and it took more doing to keep from triggering a glitch by looking at the wrong thing. I’m an experienced Gear user and it took me three tries to get the video to start properly.
I chose the “Into the Tunnels” experience. It was billed as being the scarier of the two. It takes place in subterranean tunnels that are full of shadows and howls. I was quickly met by a friend (likely a character from the show, but I don’t watch it) who warned me not to look at the monster. Then the monster flashed on the screen, giving me a start. My friend and I were met by another ally and the two of them then repeated that it’s coming and not to look at it. When I saw it I positively stared. It pulled me through a veil, over to its side. There was a bit more flashing and scariness and then the video abruptly ended and I was at the main menu. It didn’t feel like the video completed. I’m not sure if it was interactive enough where my staring at the monster hastened the end of the video or if something else occurred. It was an unsatisfying end in either case. The MTV employee was busy helping someone else get past the buggy main menu to start so I sat for a minute before discarding the headset and headphones and leaving the booth.
The Man in the High Castle
Amazon set up two really neat exhibits right next to each other at the intersection of 1st Avenue and the Martin Luther King Promenade. One of their exhibits was to promote their new show Thunderbirds Are Go using a green screen photo op. The other exhibit was a museum of costumes and props from their show The Man in the High Castle. Within the museum was a VR experience for the same show. Amazon really wanted to go the distance with their experience. They distributed passports to everyone in line and these were stamped at various points as we exited the line and entered the exhibit. Once inside we all had to sign waivers in case something befell us. Our passports got stamped for that. I wandered around the museum for a few minutes until my name was called. A group of us listened to an employee explain the experience. We got stamped for that. When it was my turn they walked me into an elevator car. There were benches against two walls and a wide-angle camera against the third, and of course the elevator door on the fourth. I was sat opposite of the camera and told to pose like I’m seated at a desk. I sat slumped in a heap, as though I’ve before never sat at a desk. Then I was moved to the other bench and outfitted with a Vive headset and hand control.
I was playing a female operative on a mission to recover a reel of film. I had to sneak through offices with people outside of every door. The experience was mostly 360 still images with only one or two moving elements, such as smoke rising from an ashtray. At times they simulated motion by having one image dissolve into another showing me just a few steps further on. It was obvious that the offices were populated and that time was important. That was a clever tool for keeping the experience brisk and for keeping the queue moving. To hear the Amazon employees talk there were multiple outcomes of the story available, presumably to prevent users from stalling just to keep the headset on longer. Amazon had one of the stronger VR experiences at the con. They really worked on the immersive qualities by seating you in an elevator and having the VR experience begin in an elevator. The bench even rumbled to give the feeling of a moving elevator carriage. I think they topped Mr. Robot with this experience.
Across from Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle set-up was a table staffed by animal rights activists. They were there as San Diegans trying to make a difference and weren’t associated with the convention. They had a table with a half dozen Gear VR headsets on it and a stack of brochures produced by Animal Equality. I was pretty sure I knew what they were showing in their goggles and I was pretty sure I didn’t feel up to watching it. I watched it anyhow. Well, I wore the goggles but turned away from the main action for most of it. They were showing a video called iAnimal Pigs. I was aware of its existence but never felt inclined to watch it. It’s a powerful 360 video with the camera being positioned at various locations within a pig farm and slaughterhouse, but always near pigs’ eye level. It really puts you there to witness the conditions for yourself. The narrative alone is haunting, but being able to look into the eyes of these animals that are smarter than most house pets really shook me to my core. I have two dogs that I adore and the thought of putting them into situations like that undid me. I wasn’t able to finish the video. I was barely able to watch it even when I had the goggles on. Here I am days later and the visuals I saw there are still in my brain. Ugh. The video is available to watch on YouTube if you’re feeling strong, but beware that it is horrible for its effectiveness.
San Diego Comic-Con had more VR experiences than I had time, so I failed to watch them all. The ones that got away include DC’s Batman: Arkham VR, Samsung’s Suicide Squad “Belle Reve”, Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple, Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, and the Conan O’Brien VR experience. For some I failed to win tickets, for others I didn’t have time for their queues, and for Conan I didn’t realize it was a VR experience until it was too late to get in its line. What can I say, SDCC is a busy place and I’m just one guy. Hopefully I can plan it better next year.
I also want to note that half of my VR experiences at the convention were buggy. I understand that we’re in the early days of VR and the tech, even when used at home, provides buggy experiences sometimes. When you wait in line for hours for an experience that runs only a few minutes there is an expectation that the tech will work. My interest in the medium is stronger than many others so I’m forgiving, but I imagine that there were a lot of people walking away unimpressed when their experiences matched mine.