Arts & Design

Step into the mind-blowing world of location-based VR

Creative storytelling and future-forward tech come together for untethered, fully immersive films made to ignite your senses.

By Angela Matusik — June 28, 2018

Everyone remembers the first time.

You strap on a headset and step into a world you’d never be able to visit in person. Perhaps you’re floating in the deep as 20-ton whale shark drifts by; or you’re standing on the precipice of a soaring vista with the breeze ruffling your hair. Your heart beats faster, your senses sharpen to take in what’s around you, and you try to remind yourself that your brain is being fooled by technology, that this isn’t real.

That’s how it felt when I first gave location-based VR a go at SXSW four years ago, when the technology was still in its infancy. The event was a “Game of Thrones Experience” and as a rabid fan, I was only too eager to step into what appeared to be a rickety elevator shaft and be  instantly transported to one of the series’ most iconic settings, the North Wall. After a minute of peering over an icy cliff (while White Walkers were shooting fiery arrows in my direction) I was exhilarated in a way I hadn’t felt since my first upside-down rollercoaster ride as a kid. 

Location-based VR combines the industry’s most advanced visual effects with old-fashioned tactile and sensory stimulation.

Coming to a mall near you

Welcome to the world of location-based VR, a niche but rapidly growing form of entertainment that combines the industry’s most advanced visual effects with old-fashioned tactile and sensory stimulation.

Not long ago these experiences were only available to insiders at events like SXSW and Sundance, but thanks to advances in technology and inspired creators, venues around the world are starting to make immersive, site-specific VR experiences available for anyone with an entry ticket. “Location-based VR is anywhere you are doing a virtual reality experience outside of your home,” explains Joanna Popper, head of location-based VR entertainment for HP. “That could be a theme park, a cinema, an arcade, a family entertainment center, a cruise ship, a mall.”  

These experiences are very different from the 360-degree video one watches on portable headsets (like Google’s Cardboard or the Samsung Gear) and more intricate than anything you can create in your home with VR setups like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. With offerings that can range from hang gliding over mountains to diving with whales, location-based VR experiences are cropping up in permanent arcades or site-specific installations around the country. A recent Hollywood Reporter story projected that location based VR would be a one billion dollar business by the end of the year. 

Two new films show the range of what’s possible: “Hero” from Inkstories and Starbreeze Studios, and “Chorus” from WITHIN (both of which were recently showcased using HP equipment). 

Be the hero of the story

Wowing audiences at both the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, “Hero” not only transports the viewer to an inaccessible place – a public square in the middle of a Syrian village – but also asks the viewer to make decisions about where to go and how to respond after a violent event has occurred.

The person experiencing the film gets to make choices:  Should you move closer to the voices calling out to you? What happens when you reach your hand out towards another? Combining computer-generated animation with real-life sensations like heat, vibration and tactile feedback (you can feel surfaces such as the roughness of a tire or the cold smoothness of a pipe), “Hero” creates a deep emotional connection amid a volatile encounter. 

Navid Khonsari, one of the project’s creators, says although each audience member is presented with the same sensations, “everybody goes through the experience in their own way.” Whether they stop or proceed, whether they crawl, whether they scream… each person makes decisions at different points in the film,” he says.

Courtesy of Inkstories and Starbreeze Studios

A scene from "Hero," which takes place amid the aftermath of a violent event in a Syrian village.

This personalized experience is made possible by the merging of creativity and HP VR technology. In addition to a headset that allows a viewing field of 210 degrees, an HPZ VR backpack PC gives the wearer freedom of movement. It enables a truly untethered experience free from distracting cords and cables, so the wearer can touch things one by one and experience all the sensory feedback such as heat or vibration. Says Khonsari, “It's like an incredible jigsaw puzzle — that all the pieces actually came together — so that somebody can have that experience of being able to walk around in a virtual world.”

As HP’s Popper puts it: “Some people call it the difference between storytelling and story-living.”

WITHIN co-founder and CTO Aaron Koblin, HP's Joanna Popper and Colin Decker, WITHIN chief operating officer, trying out "Chorus," a location-based VR experience, presented at the Cannes Film Festival.

Courtesy of Joanna Popper

WITHIN co-founder and CTO Aaron Koblin, HP's Joanna Popper and Colin Decker, WITHIN chief operating officer, trying out "Chorus," a location-based VR experience, presented at the Cannes Film Festival.

More fun with friends

If “Hero” resonates with its viewers, often making them empathetic to the point of tears, “Chorus,” a WITHIN Original created by Tyler Hurd, is at the other end of the experience spectrum. Its goal? Pure joy.

You instantly join the narrative of this animated short, becoming one of a small band of futuristic, fantastical female heroes (intergalactic Amazons). You and your teammates must join rank to battle some enormous demons, all while your movements and visions are choreographed to the hypnotic beats of Justice, a French electronic band.

One of the experiences that HP showcased at the Cannes Film Festival’s Next VR event, “Chorus” is part sci-fi adventure, part interactive game, part music video. Colin Decker, WITHIN’s chief operating officer, describes it this way: “You very quickly realize you have abilities with your hands, lasers and whips and weird stuff,” he says. “The most magical moment is when two people are in an experience together, and they acknowledge each other as these absurd creature-avatars. They typically burst out in joyful laughter.”

 “One of the complaints about VR is that it is isolating,” says Popper, noting that “Chorus” is a great example of where the artform is heading. “But in many of the location-based experiences, you are able to go and share it with you friends and family. In this case, up to six people can enjoy it together.”

 “I think we will get to a point when you can go to a movie theater and everybody watching the movie will experience something different.”

Shane Wall, Chief Technology Officer, HP Inc.

Behind the magic: HP technology

For VR filmmakers, having the access to cutting-edge technology like HP’s VR-ready backpacks is crucial to realizing their vision. “If you want to have location-based experience that kind of maximum fidelity, having a backpack that can give you the freedom to move is huge. We love the backpacks that have some sonic stuff in them, so you can feel the beats and things like that,” Decker explains, who hopes to have “Chorus” available later this year.

For all the magic that current VR films and HP hardware provides, the landscape is changing quickly and the gear is evolving. “We’re constantly getting feedback from the market, and listening to what would make the experiences better,” says Popper.

HP’s Chief Technology Officer Shane Wall likens it to another familiar tech evolution — from the first primitive command lines of Microsoft’s 1980s DOS to today’s rich, cross-platform Windows experience.

 “It took a number of years to see that happen,” Wall remarked at the Cannes Film Festival. "We’re going to the same thing in VR. I am careful not to get too constrained by VR as we know it today.”

One piece of equipment sure to change is the headset. Today’s bulky setup “blocks your vision and is pretty antisocial,” says Wall, who predicts we’ll see wireless headsets within the next two years. And after that? “I think we will get to a point when you can go to a movie theater and everybody watching the movie will experience something different.”

Courtesy of VRstudios

Dave & Buster’s multiplayer VR attraction, "Jurassic World," launched earlier this month.

Find an experience near you

Are you ready to have your mind blown? No need to wait. Here are a few places to check out location-based VR this summer:  

VR WORLD NYC – A $40 pass buys you two hours of VR experiences

THE VOID – Bringing experiences like "Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire" to locations in Los Angeles, London, Florida and more

IMAX VR – Now you can experience VR at select AMC movie theaters

Zero Latency – Free-roam, multiplayer games, available in nine countries worldwide

Periscape VR – Give VR a whirl while waiting for your flight at JFK airport (shown above, top image)

Jurassic World VR Expedition at Dave & Busters – Fight velociraptors, T-Rexes and more at over 110 locations around the U.S.