Thanks to VR, how we spend our evenings out could soon change dramatically.
I see a floating walkway through the opened door of my. I pause a moment to get my bearings, then — WHOOSH — I’m hit with the bright light and heat of boiling lava a few feet away. Stormtroopers stand to my right, blaster rifles in hand in case things get messy.
Three other people and I had been recruited to help the Rebel Alliance infiltrate an Imperial stronghold and steal something… important. (Isn’t it always?)
My fellow intergalactic spies and I are dressed for the part, wearing full Stormtrooper regalia so we won’t get noticed. So far, things have been going smoothly.
I steady myself as the moving platform beneath my feet makes its way to an ominous-looking castle surrounded by a sea of lava. Hot air blows on my face, and I can’t stop staring at the spectacular view of the boiling ocean that surrounds me.
I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was old enough to say “May the force be with you,” swing a toy lightsaber and dream of living in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve played the games, collected the toys, read the books, ridden the amusement park rides and (obviously) watched the movies and the TV shows.
“Watching movies, playing video games, there’s always been a separation between you and the Star Wars universe,” says Mohen Leo, director of immersive content at Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab experimental storytelling group.
Which explains why I couldn’t wait to play The Void’s Star Wars game and actually feel as if I lived in that world. When my son, 2, gets old enough, he’ll probably be joining me. A lot.
That’s because how we spend our evenings and weekends out is set to change radically. As more of us shop from our phones, malls and other venues are exploring immersive experiences that would give us reasons to visit. Some may offer VR games from the likes of The Void and Nomadic that include sensors and strategically placed fans and heaters for an extra level of immersion. Other experiences have a carnival atmosphere, with a mix of VR and real-world games. And then there’s Meow Wolf, an immersive theatrical experience created by an art collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with funding by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.
The result — as with arcades of the ’70s and ’80s and laser tag of the ’90s — is experiences we can’t have at home.
To the circus
Each company offering these interactive experiences comes at it with its own twist.
Take Two Bit Circus in Los Angeles. With its bright colors, flashing lights and VR games, the 38,000-square-foot space gives off a carnival arcade vibe with . Even a classic carnival game like balloon darts gets the modern treatment. At Two Bit Circus, the game projects images of balloons onto a wall. Two players grab balls out of a pit and throw them as fast as they can to pop as many balloons as possible. She who pops the most balloons, wins.
You can strap on a VR headset in a multiplayer arena to fight dragons, robots and zombies, or escape from a sinking submarine. There’s also a room that looks like the command bridge of a starship, where you and your friends operate the ship. There’s a bar, too, where up to 100 people can taste wines and then compete to identify them.
And of course, there’s a robot bartender.
The whole thing feels like an updated version of Chuck E. Cheese’s. That makes sense, given that the circus is run by Brent Bushnell, son of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, who helped start Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“We want to provide the sizzle, and showcase the cool stuff that’s possible,” Brent says.
Admission is free but experiences range from $1 to $25 per person.
Then there’s Nomadic and The Void, which both manage to cram the spirit of amusement park rides into spaces at your local mall, charging up to $35 to play.
There’s not much to see without a headset, apart from the sensors, heaters and fans that fill the area. Things change when you put on that headset, since all those sensors and physical objects connect to the game you’re playing. If you hold a flashlight in the real world, you can see where it’s pointed in the virtual one. If you see lava in that VR experience, a real-world heater will blow hot air on your face.
“We want people to say it’s amazing, but also know they could never have it at home,” says Doug Griffin, Nomadic founder and CEO, who’s also been involved with motion capture efforts at Walt Disney Animation Studios and Industrial Light & Magic.
The Void can be experienced in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida — as well as Dubai, Toronto and a resort near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Nomadic’s VR walk-around experience can be found in Orlando. The startup expects to open new VR spaces in Las Vegas and Los Angeles this year.
But you don’t have to rely on VR to get immersed in another world. Take Meow Wolf, a 20,000-square-foot art installation that’s been described as a “walk-in science-fiction novel,” which encourages visitors to go everywhere and touch everything. A tunnel takes you from a Victorian home to a “transdimensional travel agency,” itself a gateway to a forest of neon trees. The whole experience is aimed at piecing together the whereabouts of the family that once lived inside the house. First opened in Santa Fe in 2016, Meow Wolf is now set to expand to Las Vegas sometime this year.
Escapism is starting to feel very real.
I can’t wait for my next visit to the Star Wars universe.
This story appears in the Spring 2019 edition of CNET Magazine (click for more magazine stories).
Ian Sherr (@iansherr) is editor at large, writing about the mobile world, social media and how it impacts our lives. He fully believes the force is always with him.