Bring something to read if you’re lining up for VR at SDCC

Last weekend was San Diego Comic-Con. Like every year, the reviews are that it was a total blast and can’t wait to do it again. Also, the lines and line management were out of control. This year there’s a special addendum to those complaints: virtual reality lines take too long. I wasn’t an attendee before Hollywood took over the convention, but I was there to witness the before and after of the virtual reality invasion. I can honestly say that I can’t tell the difference; the lines for everything are lengthy. Further, virtual reality lines take a long time everywhere. I’ve tried VR arcades, VR expos, and VR in my living room and they all take awhile. The real question is were the waits in VR lines at San Diego Comic-Con worth it? It depends upon the attraction.

There are basically three location types for events at SDCC. You have events within the Convention Center, which for VR means events within the Exhibit Hall. The VR purveyors have limited space to line up people within the Exhibit Hall so they cap their lines. If you approach a capped line you will be offered a time-stamped pass (while supplies last) that specifies a time you can return and enter the line. You have events outside of the Convention Center, refered to as “off-sites”. Off-sites are not overseen by Comic-Con International (CCI) and they set their own rules. The lines for some off-sites are legendarily long, second only to the large Halls of the Convention Center. The third location type is a little puzzling to me. It’s the Futurism and Tech Pavilion (last year it was called “VR Con”). It’s an off-site that’s run by a group other than CCI yet it’s still an official part of the San Diego Comic-Con. It’s basically a smaller convention riding the coattails of a larger convention. It follows the other off-sites in allowing its lines to grow to any length, although mercifully not too many people (by comparison) visited it.

TBS, booth 3629

The Exhibit Hall had only two virtual reality experiences of which I knew. I was lucky enough to try them both. The first one that I tried was for the TBS show People of Earth. They had me sit on a reclined chair, like the kind that psychiatrists have in their offices, then they put a Gear VR and headphones upon my head. The video I watched had me abducted by the three main aliens on the program. The experience was augmented by having real world effects sync up with the video, so when I was gassed in the video my actual body was sprayed with mist and when my toe was tagged a gust of air shot up my leg. It was a nice way to improve upon a 360-degree video. I would say it was worth the hour-long wait.

Marvel booth 2329

My second VR experience in the Exhibit Hall was at the Marvel booth for their new VR game Marvel Power Unlimited VR. It’s a multi-player game so four of us all played at once in a shared world. They had it set-up where a giant four-screen monitor towered over the play area, allowing passers-by to watch. The game is one of the best games I have played in virtual reality to date. Each of us was a different hero – I was Hulk – and each of us had different hand gestures to trigger different effects – I was able to ball my fists to smash goons, smash the ground, and smash stuff, plus I could grab enemies by their heads and toss them like rag dolls. The game is exclusive to Oculus Rift. If I had the money to buy a VR PC and Rift headset this game would have triggered the sale. Was it worth the hour wait in line? Easily yes and if I had the opportunity I would have waited again and again to try all the characters.

The Blade Runner 2049 theater

As pleasant as my experiences in the Exhibit Hall were, my experiences in the off-site lines were the opposite. I should start by saying that I didn’t get to try all of the off-site VR because an emergency had me leave the convention a day early. The only off-site that I viewed was for Blade Runner 2049. Warner Brothers pitched a giant tent on a parking lot and filled it with one of the best off-sites I have ever experienced at the convention. You could take the short line for just the exhibit or the long line for the VR experience plus the exhibit. My wait in the VR line was two and a half hours but I’ve heard that some people waited twice as long as I did. In this case the people who took just the exhibit had the right idea; the VR part wasn’t worth the wait. They took groups into a darkened theater where we sat in motion seats and watched the Gear VR app Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit. The motion seats were fun, making it feel a little like Star Tours, but knowing that I waited in line one and a half hours longer for this experience took away some of the fun. The exhibit was excellent though: they created a moody and atmospheric space that’s reminiscent of the world of Blade Runner. It was full of neon and vice, with movie props and costumed actors that took it to the next level.

An example of the mood of Blade Runner 2049 off-site

I spent an hour in line to get into the Legion off-site. FXX had a reservation system where you could register online the day before the convention began. It sold out in minutes once it went live. After that all you could get were stand-by reservations. If you didn’t have either reservation type then they wouldn’t let you in either line. I had a stand-by. So the deal with this off-site is that they had four Hololens headsets inside and each experience took about 20 minutes, meaning they could handle only 12 people per hour. I waited in the stand-by line for an hour and in that time I saw two people from my line get to enter. I was the 11th person in line. At two per hour it made sense for me to leave. I’ve read accounts of what went on inside and it sounds like a great experience, just not worth the potential five hour wait I faced. Doing the math it would seem like only 400 or 500 people got to experience what FXX was delivering. That’s a very exclusive experience for a convention with 140,000 attendees.

The other off-sites that I missed were for the movie It, for the movie Bright, and for the series Stranger Things. These experiences plus another go at Legion were my Sunday plans that I didn’t get to attempt. I’ve read accounts of all these experiences and across the board they had lines that were an hour or more. From what I’ve read the Stranger Things VR experience was a hoot that was worth the wait, but the others were less well received.

The Mummy: Prodigum Strike in the Futurism and Tech Pavilion

The Futurism and Tech Pavilion really was like a convention unto itself. It filled a ballroom and its exterior hallway on the second floor of the Omni hotel. There were booths with VR experiences, robots, and scientists. All of the VR booths had lines, but their lengths varied by how engrossing their content looked. The line to try Raw Data (a game) in an Exit Reality booth was about an hour. The line to try Monkey King (an animated short) on PSVR was half of that. The Pavilion had fourteen booths with eight of them offering virtual reality and one of them offering augmented reality. This cluster of stuff allowed people to size up the lines and pick and choose from them much easier than elsewhere. I think it helps that none of the experiences were Hollywood brands, because I’m sure that would have strained everything in the Pavilion. Across the board, every line I waited in at this location was worth the wait.

I had a great time at the convention. Even though I waited in a monster line for a couple of off-site experiences, most of the things I did had wait times of less than a hour each. An hour is a theme park level wait time. If I’m going to queue for that long I had better get something worth the wait and that’s mostly what I got. It seems like the Hollywood VR stuff was what really suffered. Even though they’re aiming high and generally hitting their marks, their queue times offset a lot of the enjoyment. I don’t want to see them aim lower because they really do offer some magical fun, but maybe they could bring more headsets or offer some line management like how it’s dealt with inside of the Exhibit Hall. All I know is I plan to download some videos onto my phone in advance and maybe bring something to read next time I’m at the con and want to go under the goggles.