Archive | May, 2018

Star Wars vs. Alien VR Shootout

22 May

I’m back from two terrifying trips to the outer limits of civilization. But while I was in Orange County, I checked out two of the most cutting-edge location-based VR experiences on the planet: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and ALIEN: DESCENT.

Some quick background. In the last few years, VR has generated a lot of buzz and comes in a lot of flavors. I’m specifically talking about the free-roaming, location-based flavor, which seemed too far-out to be feasible even just a few years ago.

– Free-roaming: you can walk around while in VR, thanks to some incredibly cool tracking technology. This is something of a minor miracle, considering that VR effectively makes you blind to your actual environment.

– Location-based: the experience incorporates features that are exclusively available in a specific, purpose-built venue.

Ie8ed661ff8c118bf8d4cb465400a9a59n other words, these experiences are likely to be more sophisticated and immersive than what is available with a typical home-based setup.

Both experiences were awesome, but I couldn’t help asking myself: which experience was more awesome? There isn’t an easy answer to this, so I did the obvious thing: generated a custom 6-point evaluation matrix to drive an obsessively thorough analysis.

Suited up? Blaster charged? Let’s have a VR shootout!

Spoilers ahead!

1. RR. Yup, Real Reality. You know, all that boring stuff that surrounds us when we’re not trying to escape it by pouring ourselves into yet another screen. From the moment I arrived, I was tuned into how effectively the non-virtual environment of these location-based experiences set me up for the main virtual attraction.

1_2018_DTD.0503.C-750x501.jpgSTAR WARS: At the Downtown Disney location, the exterior theming and signage is primarily oriented on letting you know that you’re at THE VOID — the company that produced the experience. A few Star Wars display window graphics hint at what’s inside, but the lobby is similarly VOID-oriented. Overall, I was picking up on a multiplex design sensibility that enforces a clear distinction between the framing experience of the hosting facility and the show itself. I didn’t really think too much about this until I saw . . . .

alien-interior-2ALIEN: The experience and storytelling begins with exterior theming that features large-scale graphics that make you feel like you’re entering a futuristic outpost. The story continues inside where dark, moody lighting and sound effects, impressive set-pieces and wall graphics, costumed attendants, and even a full-sized Alien sculpture set the stage for deep-space¬†adventure. It was fantastic to feel like a part of the story from the second I walked in.

WINNER: ALIEN

GEparkerpen42. Q-Factor: As much as these experiences should be about immersive storytelling and transparent technology, there is an undeniable Bond-esque gadget fetish that temporarily takes over when you’re gearing up for your mission.

STAR WARS: The VOID uses a custom head-mounted display (HMD) that is reportedly higher resolution than what is generally available to consumers, and essentially unavailable anywhere other than in a true VOID experience. Sweet! Players also suit up with an “armored vest” that includes a special feature; more on that later. Since the experience transforms you into a stormtrooper, the vest and helmet feel very appropriate.

ALIEN: The HMD in this experience is actually a Gear VR. It’s a longer technical conversation to explain why this is so cool, but it’s basically the David to the VOID’s Goliath. Imagine heading onto the freeway on your bicycle only to discover that you’re effortlessly going 85. In addition, cyborgian devices are strapped to each forearm and shin and seem to provide a crucial tracking function, while making you feel like you’re gearing up for a dicey situation . . . which you are.

WINNER: TIE for innovation, novelty and theming

3. 4D: This is at the heart of why these experiences are different than what you can do at home. 4D generally refers to physical special effects that engage your other senses beyond what you’re seeing and hearing (in 3D) via the HMD and enhance that sense of disappearing into the experience.

STAR WARS: Based on my experience with The VOID’s excellent Ghostbusters show, 4D is something they do well, and Star Wars was no exception. Floor haptics, fans, and heaters are all used effectively to provide real tactile feedback that related to the virtual environment. There were also unexpected effects like scent enhancements, creative floor textures, fog blasts, and a couple props you could touch. A nice detail was that the armored vests also contained haptics that generated a stun effect when hit by enemy fire.

alien-exterior-detail-1.jpgALIEN: Fans and heaters were also in play, and floor haptics were used to drive epic “elevator” experiences that powerfully enhanced the visual design by creating the sense that you were moving through outrageously large volumes of space. There were also some rickety floor surfaces that added to the tactile sense of environment.

WINNER: STAR WARS: Slight edge with variety of 4D and creative uses.

4. Environment: VR is most exciting when it takes you somewhere that you otherwise couldn’t go. While this is primarily achieved by visual design, the underlying physical layout of the space can be designed to take advantage of some clever “sleight-of-foot” techniques. As you physically walk around, your sense of the actual physical space can be subtly manipulated to change your perception of the virtual space, which in turns adds to the sense of being transported into a new world.

Star-Wars-VR-Featured-10112017STAR WARS: This experience was full of surprises and moved you through lots of different environments from the inside of a transport ship to the surface of Mustafar to multiple levels of an Imperial base. There was an exciting sense of discovery and it was not easy to keep track of where you might actually be in real space, nor would you ever really want to, unless you’re a geek who can’t help trying to reverse engineer these experiences. The variety of locations is enriched by gorgeously rendered visual details that make you feel like you’re living the ultimate fan dream of walking through a Star Wars movie.

ALIEN: The impact of the sense of volume that I mentioned in the 4D section cannot be overemphasized. There are moments that are simply jaw-dropping as you feel dwarfed by the scale of the vast, dangerous caverns that you “move” down through before rising back up to the mysteries of the planetary surface. However, it’s hard not to notice that the layout of the experience essentially requires you to walk back and forth between a couple of discrete locations in the physical space, which are virtually reskinned as the story progresses. While this may seem like a killjoy technical observation, it’s not hard to figure it out, and it creates a subtle predictability that robs the experience of a certain element of surprise.

WINNER: STAR WARS

5. Story: Even the most breathtaking visuals will get old quickly if there isn’t an underlying story that gives a compelling reason to be walking through this world. This is a loaded topic given the huge popularity of all the IP involved, so I’ll try to keep it neutral.

an1-268229_r.jpegSTAR WARS: A video preshow provides a mission briefing about retrieving a powerful weapon that has fallen into the hands of the Empire. Your mission is to infiltrate the Imperial base while disguised as a stormtrooper. The story continues to be developed through non-player characters that provide additional information and react to your presence. As the experience unfolds, you acquire a blaster, so that you can . . . react back. Once shooting ensues, story goes somewhat by the wayside. In the climactic scene, we come face-to-face with Darth Vader who is throwing down some of that nasty lightsaber fu that was notably featured in Rogue One. There’s a surprising twist in this scene that ultimately provides a satisfactory resolution to the narrative.

alien-sculpture-4-effects.jpgALIEN: A video preshow prepares you for transport to an alien-infested mining station with the mission of rescuing survivors. This is probably incredibly subjective, but this felt like a cleaner, more direct in media res setup that fine-tuned my sense of agency in the experience from the get-go. The story is skillfully communicated in a visceral, mostly non-verbal way resulting in a more organic narrative of exploration as opposed to moving through a linear series of staged scenes. It was refreshing to live the story rather than be told the story.

However, there are a couple of big misses. First, you don’t really save anybody — in fact, in one place, one of the survivors begs you to end it for him. It wasn’t clear whether this was meant to be a narrative twist, or whether this confirms that the experience is mostly about shooting stuff. Second, there is no Queen Alien or other climactic showdown. In fact, when the experience ended, I was actually surprised and thought that maybe there had been a glitch that had ended it prematurely. The scariest, biggest Alien in the show is the life-size sculpture in the lobby, which was super cool, but set an unfulfilled expectation for me.

WINNER: STAR WARS

6. gary-larson-far-side-cartoon-what-we-say-to-dogs-blah-blah-gingerInteractivity: Arguably, the most compelling opportunity for this type of entertainment is providing guests with the ability to engage and affect both the environment and other players. In both experiences, a good portion of the interactivity involves shooting stuff. While attractions that feature shooting can be incredibly fun, even just holding a gun can be highly distracting and can make it hard to focus on other details. Both experiences seemed aware of this and handled it in different ways.

STAR WARS: One of the first things you do in the VR part of the experience is sit down on a bench. Now this may seem preposterously mundane, but sitting down in VR is actually quite amazing. When your brain and butt follow through in what amounts to an incredible leap of faith to make contact with something that you technically can’t see, it’s actually pretty cool. As mentioned above, you acquire your blaster a few scenes later in a similar fashion, by reaching out and grabbing a real item that you can’t actually see. Blaster in hand, you get plenty of chances to use it., including a pretty heavy firefight with some stormtroopers who have figured out that you shouldn’t be there. The performance and calibration of the gun is well-tuned and it was very satisfying to carefully aim a shot at a far-off target and hit it. A couple scenes feature puzzle-type interactions that require you to do something that isn’t shooting in order to advance. These interactions were few and far between though and didn’t require much group cooperation.

alien-descent-vr-arcade-experience-wireless-virtual-reality_vrroomALIEN: Let’s be honest. This one is mostly about the shooting, but oh what delicious shooting. Your gun fires laser bolts as well as grenades, each with its own trigger or button, with different reload periods and damage. The gun also has a laser sight that you can turn on or off (for extra challenge). Just sayin’, it was incredibly satisfying to fire this gun. The vast virtual spaces (see Environment above) for your projectiles to traverse was a major enhancement. Also, because of the way the story is setup and developed, I found myself communicating and interacting more with the other player as we worked together to shoot our way through.

A puzzling but intriguing twist is that the experience is launched with two teams of two players who are sent to different physical staging areas. After entering the virtual experience, you see what appears to be the other team, although I’m still not sure whether that was really them, or just an artificial construct to suggest a larger-scale experience. There simply wasn’t a payoff to this setup, and I didn’t find a scenario that required a collaborative effort, but it would have been really cool if there was.

WINNER: NEITHER. Yeah, I know the other word for that is TIE, but this is the area that needs to shine if this type of entertainment is going to be seen as anything other than a next-gen video game.

OVERALL WINNER: STAR WARS

On the basis of sheer points, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire blasts its way to victory by tallying a decisive win in two categories and a slight edge in a third. No slouch though, ALIEN: DESCENT posted a decisive win in one category and showed up strong in every other category.

CONCLUSION

I have been enthusiastically recommending both experiences, and feel that they represent solid strides forward for the VR industry as a whole, which seems to be floundering a bit in the Trough of Disillusionment.

Neither experience is perfect, and there’s still a huge opportunity to create something that pushes interactive capabilities to another level. For many people, one of these experiences may even be their first exposure to this type of sophisticated VR, if not VR period. The stakes are high to deliver on the hype, but the high quality and entertainment value of both shows is a good sign of things to come.

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