When I was first getting excited about virtual reality a couple of years ago there was one experience above all else that I wanted to try: The VOID. At that time they hadn’t yet built their home base in Utah and they hadn’t opened installations in other cities. You basically needed to know a guy or you needed to visit one of their installations on the rare occasion one was open. For those that aren’t aware of The VOID they offer a premium mixed reality experience. You wear trackers, a backpack, goggles, and carry a prop as you navigate their VR space. It requires physically walking around and interacting with items while your eyes are covered over with virtual reality goggles. What you get is tactile and environmental effects that match what you see, although what you see is virtual. My desire to try their set-up was so strong that I had planned a road trip to Linden to visit their facility, but before I would go they opened a location near-ish to me. I jumped at the chance. Shortly after I tried The VOID I had the opportunity to try other, similar experiences and I see now that while I put The VOID on a high pedestal there are others that deserve the same high regard.
About a month after trying The VOID I got to experience Dreamscape Immersive’s Alien Zoo at the Westfield Century City shopping mall. It’s a touring exhibit that parks in a single location for months at a time and for which you need to make a reservation to experience (although their goal is to add installations to movie theaters). The core experience here is riding atop a skiff that moves through an extraterrestrial animal park. Groups of six begin by choosing avatars, donning backpacks, trackers, and goggles and then shuffling into a small corral. There’s a brief rundown of how things work and then you walk from the corral onto the skiff. The skiff travels over land and through the air to let you get close to a variety of alien species. I don’t want to reveal the secrets of what you get to experience but I will say that it is a primarily gentle experience filled with wonder and with moments of intensity towards the end. Alien Zoo has the best mixed reality / environmental effects that I’ve experienced to date. My mind was able to draw a map of the space that we walked while under the goggles (because that’s a thing I do), but once the skiff started to move my immersion deepened and I left the planet Earth for a while; the tactile effects sold me. It is noteworthy that Alien Zoo is wheelchair friendly and I don’t think someone would enjoy themselves any less for being in one. Tickets are $20 for 12 minutes of VR plus an additional 15 minutes of gearing up and gearing down. I believe the tour is temporarily on hiatus.
Just a couple of days ago I drove to The Outlets at Orange to experience Pure Imagination’s Alien: Descent. This one is based on the Alien movie franchise. If you didn’t get that from the name or the exterior signs, then walking into the lobby will drive the point home. They’ve kitted the place out to look like you’re entering a troop transport from the movie. The experience is designed for two teams of two – Alpha and Bravo – who enter through separate doors but who experience simultaneously. Once through your door they place trackers on your person, give you a weapon and instructions on using it, then drop Gear VR headsets over your eyes and headphones over your ears. The experience begins with players going into a cryo-sleep. When you awake you’re on a foreign planet. The core experience here is action: you walk and you shoot stuff. You and your partner start off shoulder to shoulder on a metal platform. In the distance you can see the other team. Through your mics and headphone you can hear your partner but not the other team. You also receive audible instructions from Command. Again, I don’t want to give away the secrets of what you’ll experience, but I will say this is an intense experience. I would say more intense than The VOID’s Star Wars one. The ground around you moves, there are hot spots and cold spots, and when the targets accumulate you begin to question how it all ends. There was both shrieking and cheering. Alien: Descent felt very arcade game. As we were leaving we talked to the general manager, Michael, who said they plan to add scoring and shooting statistics eventually to allow it feel even more arcade-like. This experience suffers a bit from relying on Samsung headsets (my wife walked away with the seeds of a headache), but the audio and tremor cues really make it successful. Tickets are $22 for about 12 minutes of VR plus some extra time for training and gearing up. I have a side note to add. I am a fat and oddly-shaped human being. The staff here had a devil of a time getting the leg trackers to wrap around my calves (which look something like Popeye’s forearms). They tried their available extension straps and then needed to get even longer extensions after that. They met with success but needed patience to get there. As a fat guy I’m used to people being inconvenienced by my size and I thought we might need to refund our way out of this one, but the guys found solutions and did it without humiliating me or passing glances or making comments. Most places fail this test, but these Alien: Descent guys were awesome.
Even though, once upon a time, I held The VOID as the lone premium VR experience I have very much changed my mind now. This is in no way meant to diminish what The VOID is doing, but rather to say that they threw down the gauntlet and it has been seized by worthy competitors. The world of location-based virtual reality is better for what is happening now. I am more excited than ever to get out there and try more of these places. I guess I really need to question how long I’m willing to drive to try some of these. I spent three hours round trip to get to Alien: Descent and that might be my limit.