At Marvel Studio’s Comic-Con panel on Saturday, director Taika Waititi answered a question about his upcoming film Thor: Ragnarok with a new spin on an old platitude. “Whatever’s inside that rectangle,” he said, “is all that matters.” Given the way virtual reality swept the pop-culture festival this year, though, he might have been the only person in San Diego who cared about staying inside the frame.
Comic-Con International is only partly about the panels and the show floor; the rest of it, open to the public, comprises a seemingly endless array of fan-pandering setups that the marketing world calls “activations.” This year, fans could tackle a room-escape puzzle set in the world of The Expanse, or have their photos taken with a Snapchat-like filter that turned them into orcs from the Netflix movie Bright. But the longest lines, and the most overheard discussions, were reserved for VR activations. While Waititi sat in Hall H talking about rectangles, people waited for upwards of three and a half hours to break out of that rectangle, to put on a headset for five minutes and freak out while Stranger Things’ Demogorgon stalked them through a house.
This has been the way of the entertainment world for some time now. Just about every genre show and movie creates some sort of companion VR piece for ancillary marketing purposes; Game of Thrones begat Interstellar, which begat Sleepy Hollow, which begat begeverything begelse. At Comic-Con alone, Stranger Things was joined by VR experiences for Blade Runner 2049, It, The Mummy, the Paranormal Activity franchise, and The Tick—as well as a mixed-reality experience based on FX’s Legion, and some sort of AR thing that involved the Black Eyed Peas. (Why? Not sure. As far as I can tell, it’s the Ed Sheeran Game of Thrones cameo of the VR/AR landscape.)
This is great, right? This is just proof that the appetite for Doing Cool Stuff in Headsets continues to grow, right? And if movie studios are buying in to fund these things, that’s even better, right? Couple that with the Comic-Con premiere of the first trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation—the one that credited Spielberg not as a mere “director,” but as a “cinematic game changer”—and who could resist feeling bullish about VR?
As it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. Of all those spectacles that came to Comic-Con, all the ingenuity that their Hollywood x Silicon Valley partnerships had to offer, only one delivered on the true promise of the technology. And it was anything but a one-player experience.
VR for the Masses
VR at the moment contains multitudes. It’s a fragmented industry, trying to balance its relative infancy with the expectations (and funding) usually reserved for world-changing technology. It also can land just about anywhere on the quality continuum, from inducing legitimate presence—the phenomenon that occurs when everything comes together to trick your brain and body into reacting as though you’re truly in that virtual space, truly there—to being straight-up uncomfortable. Hell, sometimes a single experience can provoke both of those reactions, depending on who’s wearing the headset.
Case in point: The Blade Runner 2049 Experience, a brief VR set piece that takes you inside the world of the movie coming later this year. At Comic-Con, up to 24 people at a time sat in movie-theater seats and donned Gear VR mobile headsets, then hung on for a five-minute flying-car chase in pursuit of a rogue replicant, during which the seats pitched and rolled in time with the VR action. That synchronization, along with other real-world effects like fans aimed at your face, is a hallmark of the growing “location-based” segment of VR, the various theme-park rides and lazer-tag-like adventures that combine virtual reality with on-site bells and whistles.
In theory, it’s a transporting experience. The phone-powered headsets, though, meant that participants could only move their heads around, not their torsos; when I leaned forward in my chair to examine the speedometer in my flying car, I didn’t get any closer to it. Even an eye-brain conflict as minor as that can plant seeds of discomfort, and it made soaring through the cityscape a not entirely turbulence-free experience.
The Stranger Things experience had no such problems; it ran on the HTC Vive, a powerful PC-driven headset that lets you crouch and lean, even walk if you choose. The Demogorgon’s slow, deliberate invasion of Will’s house—punctuated by lightning flashes and seemingly possessed household objects—became as claustrophobically creepy as it was on the Netflix show. Its horsepower, though, came with a harness: Moving more than a couple of feet in any direction would prompt the developer overseeing the demo to tap your arm, reminding you to rein it in.
Are these shortcomings of VR? No. They’re shortcomings of VR at mass-scale events.
Are these shortcomings of VR? No. They’re shortcomings of VR at mass-scale events. When you’ve got hundreds or thousands of people flowing through your experience over three or four days, you need something stable, or at least manageable—and that means compromise. You could outfit the Blade Runner activation with a more powerful headset, but it would necessitate a high-powered PC under each seat, as well as a spaghetti box worth of snaking cables to contend with. Similarly, a much larger version of the Stranger Things experience exists, using a special tracking system that allows you to roam in a 400-square-foot area, but it’s simply not viable for accommodating massive crowds in a relatively small space. (As long as we’re fantasizing, you could do away with cables altogether by suiting participants up with a backpack-mounted computer, as at The Void in Utah, but that’s a setup and oversight nightmare even the Duffer Brothers wouldn’t take on.)
All these problems are, at least in theory, short-lived. Google is bringing wireless, fully tracked VR headsets to market this year, and Oculus has shown prototypes of its own “standalone” headset. Next year at Comic-Con will likely have fewer cables, and a lot less minor discomfort. But for now, it felt a lot like being Wade Watts and his hand-me-down gear in Ready Player One: trying to see into tomorrow with yesterday’s equipment.
When I did catch a glimpse of the future, though, it wasn’t where I expected to find it.
The State of Play
The small foliage-covered building, squatting on a grassy area between the San Diego Convention Center’s Hall H and a neighboring hotel, betrayed nothing, other than the logo for the show Legion. All I knew is that someone outside had measured the distance between my pupils, jotted the number down on a hospital bracelet, and put the bracelet on my wrist. But when the door opened and I stepped through, I realized why the bracelet had David Haller’s name on it.
Haller is Legion’s protagonist, a many-personalitied Marvel Comics mutant who can do everything from hear others’ thoughts to manipulate objects with his mind, and the sterile white space was outfitted to look like a medical facility. The woman that I met in the narrow hallway inside didn’t tell me that, though; she simply slipped a Microsoft HoloLens over my head and began to question me: “Do you remember being here before?” “Are they coming after you?” There was no one else around. She was looking deep into my eyes. I’m not going to tell you I turned into David Haller, but I’m also not going to tell you that I didn’t start acting, at least a little bit, like a confused, brainwashed mutant.
The HoloLens isn’t a virtual reality headset. Instead, it delivers what companies have begun calling “mixed reality.” Rather than covering your eyes with an opaque display that appears to wrap all the way around you, it projects holographic objects onto a transparent visor, giving them the appearance of existing in the outside world.
Like other mixed-reality headsets, the HoloLens is very much a work in progress. But those limitations fell away in the face of the drama I’d been conscripted into.
That coexistence of the impossible and the organic made for an entirely new storytelling hybrid, effectively allowing the Legion experience to tease apart the simulation and the story. The doctor could react to my real-time responses and adjust on the fly better than any AI, while the HoloLens audio could create the illusion of an inner voice that taught me how to “use” my “powers” (i.e., how to use finger gestures to manipulate the virtual objects I saw). The net effect—and believe me, I know how ridiculous this sounds—was of an experiential McDLT: it kept the human side human, and the digital side digital.
Like other mixed-reality headsets, the HoloLens is very much a work in progress; the virtual objects only exist inside a small field of your vision. But those limitations fell away in the face of the drama I’d been conscripted into. You know that cringing fear of being singled out by a comedian, or being asked to improvise? Turns out when there’s no one around to watch you, it’s a lot easier to play along. It also didn’t hurt that the woman and other performers, as I found out later, had been cast in consultation with Punchdrunk International, the company behind the interactive theater experience Sleep No More. (The experience as a whole was produced and directed by the studio Here Be Dragons.) It was disorienting; it was alarming. I was completely sold.
But I wasn’t done. Once “trained,” I was ushered into a small office with another doctor, which set off another interrogation sequence, with more “mind-reading” and “telekinesis,” and ultimately a face-to-face showdown with this doctor (whose body, the voices in my head told me, had been inhabited by a psionically powerful mutant friend). He hectored me, pulled me to my feet, grabbed me by the wrists, and finally ushered me through a back door with the noise and force of a military exfiltration.
Just as suddenly as I’d entered the experience, I was outside of it again, in another sterile white hallway. That’s where I remained for a few moments, breathing hard, before walking outside into the San Diego sunshine. Wondering how 10 minutes had felt like forever. And realizing that it’s not the gear that makes the experience—it’s having a Player Two to share it with.