Arts & Design

VR experiences worth leaving home for

Location-based VR offers the perfect blend of adventure and safety for people hungry for new experiences after over a year at home.

By Jackie Snow — July 20, 2021

At a demo of a VR experience that was part of last year’s “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibit in London, John Kellogg didn’t just learn about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, he felt like he experienced it just like British explorers encountered it in 1922. Sitting in a Positron Voyager virtual reality (VR) chair, an egg-shaped seat designed to create a cinematic experience, and equipped with an HP VR backpack to allow free motion, Kellogg felt as though he was moving through the tomb, shifting and turning in the Voyager chair while exploring true-to-life digital recreations of ancient artifacts that seemed real enough to touch.

Kellogg, a vice president at the audio and media technology company Xperi, has tested out dozens of VR setups. But the Tutankhamun experience blew him away.

“It’s like being in a movie, observing what’s going on,” he says.

When the pandemic hit a few months later, destination VR experiences — known as location-based VR — saw a downturn just like every other kind of out-of-home entertainment. But now, location-based VR is roaring back in major cities, offering excitement and adventure to people who are ready to leave home and have new experiences again, but may not be comfortable traveling too far. The market for location-based VR is expected to grow by 30% in the next five years, with new experiences popping up at entertainment centers, VR arcades, indoor theme parks, and even retail stores.

“We’re seeing pent-up demand for being able to get together with family and friends and do something only possible in VR, like being in the middle of LA and feeling like you’re scuba diving, or getting together and flying with dragons,” says Joanna Popper, HP’s global head of VR for location-based entertainment.

Participants take a virtual reality tour of Tutankhamun’s tomb while sitting in the Positron Voyager VR chair at the Saatchi Gallery Museum in London.

Chadwick Turner

Guests can experience the photorealistic version of Tutankhamun’s tomb through the Positron Voyager VR chair at the Saatchi Gallery Museum in London.

New location-based VR experiences launching this year give consumers a chance to level up from in-home VR technology, with the addition of special rigs to simulate movement, physical props, room to move, and sensory elements like scent, wind, heat, and immersive audio. The new Harry Potter flagship store in New York, for example, just debuted two 30-minute, VR-powered immersive, multiplayer experiences developed by Dreamscape VR: Chaos at Hogwarts, which lets people explore the famed wizarding school, casting spells and discovering secrets; and Wizards Take Flight, which lets players soar on a broom over London while fighting off Death Eaters.

Visitors use HP technology to virtually climb the Matterhorn at the Museum of Transport in Switzerland.

©Red Bull Content Pool

Visitors use HP technology to virtually climb the Matterhorn at the Museum of Transport in Switzerland.

Many locations are large enough to keep guests from getting too close to each other and provide natural social distancing, with some limiting party sizes to four-to-eight users at a time. And since the VR tech is shared among users and comes in contact with people’s faces, sanitization is standard operating procedure, offering peace of mind for people who are still cautious about venturing into crowded locales like airports or movie theaters.

“People are just excited to be back in the world and interacting and having fun,” says  Popper. 

Virtual access to natural wonders

VR experiences can offer access to the natural world without traveling to far-off destinations. In many cases, VR invites  more immersive experiences than people could get in person, especially if they have mobility limitations or other restrictions.

In Lucerne, Switzerland, for example, visitors to the Museum of Transport can virtually climb the 14,692-foot Matterhorn, the most inaccessible mountain peak in the Alps, and one of the deadliest climbs in the world. Sponsored by Red Bull and powered by HP VR backpacks, Red Bull The Edge equips visitors with climbing harnesses and VR headsets they’ll use to physically scale a climbing wall while virtually ascending the iconic snowy peak. 

 

RELATED: See how VR is creating an immersive, multisensory future for classical music.

 

In the US, Positron just partnered with Yosemite Cinema, an independent movie theater near California’s Yosemite National Park, on a new VR experience that combines visuals, movement, and scents to give viewers another way to savor the natural beauty of the area. The theater will install 20 Positron Voyager chairs and accompanying HP Reverb headsets for an exhibit premiering later this year designed to complement the real-life experience that many will have in the park.

“You’ll be flying over waterfalls and smelling the pine trees and campfire,” says Jeffrey Travis, CEO and founder of Positron. “Even when people go to the national park, they’ll still do things with us that you would not be able to do safely in real life.”

Elevated gameplay in the virtual realm

Location-based VR also creates new possibilities for gamers and groups of friends and families eager to create new memories together after months of being apart. 

The VR gaming company Zero Latency VR, known for its “free-roam” VR experiences in 52 venues and 24 countries, also just had a new game come  out — Far Cry VR: Dive into Insanity, the first AAA video game to make the jump into VR. The Zero Latency spaces are the size of a tennis court players can move around in with untethered gear like HP VR backpacks and HP VR headsets, unlike home setups where players are often bumping into coffee tables and wires.

“Location-based VR brings presence, interactivity, and immersion in a way that no other storytelling technology provides.”

—Joanna Popper, Global Head of VR for location-based entertainment, HP

Far Cry VR starts as a relaxing trip to a tropical island before players are kidnapped by a Far Cry bad guy and have to shoot their way out with team members as they move freely across the game space. For players used to the video game console version, the switch to playing it with Zero Latency will feel like a totally new experience, bringing players into the game and making it more social.

“What we’re providing is not only really high-quality graphics and really good gameplay,” says Tim Ruse, CEO of Zero Latency. “But also technology-wise, it is very smooth getting to play in this really cool space with your friends.”

The growing field gives people who might not be the traditional video game player a wider variety of options. Paradrop VR, an adventure attraction with new installations in Ukraine, Qatar, and the UK opening this year, lets guests glide through the air in different environments, collecting points by flying through targets. Some locations will soon get Paradrop VR’s new Discover series of games, including multiplayer VR, so you can fly with your friends, culminating in an online league which supports socializing, events and esports.

British Army Parachute Display Team trying out Paradrop Virtual Reality at iFly in the UK.

Paradrop VR

The Red Devils, The British Army Parachute Display Team, trying out ParadropVR at IFly, UK.

The experience relies on custom rigs, developed by Frontgrid, that look like compact paragliders that people sit in and steer using hand controls that move the rig itself up and down. Former paratrooper Matt Wells, the founder of Frontgrid, says it was essential to get the feeling of paragliding just right, including sudden drops and stretches of smooth sailing. 

“For location-based VR, it’s crucial to create something that you can’t experience at home,” Wells says. “You can’t float around in your bedroom.”

A new frontier in storytelling

Blending physical and virtual experience sets location-based VR apart from other kinds of entertainment, and creates new possibilities for immersive storytelling. 

“There are these fantastic stories out there that can be told in a different way,” Kellogg says. “It’s the new cinema. It’s being in the story instead of sitting outside of it and being totally immersed, with the complete suspension of disbelief.”

And like with movies, the focus on the story is critical to the success of location-based VR.

“It’s not about making a game,” says Aaron Grosky, CEO of Dreamscape VR, a company that has four locations (with more planned) and hosts  experiences like visiting an alien planet and its amazing wildlife, scuba diving with whales, and riding a dragon, as well as the Harry Potter experiences. “It’s about the power of story and narrative, and how you emotionally engage somebody and bring them in.”

Looking ahead, location-based VR creators envision new uses for the medium, beyond gaming and cinematic experiences. “There’s a lot of things that we haven’t tested yet that we are very curious about,” says Steve Zhao, founder of Sandbox VR, a company with five VR experiences at 11 locations across the globe with a new location opening in Las Vegas this summer and five more planned for later this year. Today, Sandbox VR lets players take on zombies or join a family-friendly hunt for treasure as a pirate on the high seas, but in the future, Zhao says they could use location-based VR for athletic experiences, concerts, and education. 

“Location-based VR brings presence, interactivity, and immersion in a way that no other storytelling technology provides,” HP’s Popper says. “You’re not just observing a story in virtual reality — you are part of that story.”