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When I arrive at the upscale Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles, I only know the broad background of Dreamscape Immersive. It is a startup funded partly by Steven Spielberg and partly by AMC, with plans to open up VR centers in theaters and other locations around the world. I also know they are using full-body tracking tech developed in Switzerland for an increased sense of immersion.
I’ve been impressed by similar experiences from The VOID with Ghostbusters and Star Wars, so Dreamscape has some high standards to meet. And at $20 per ticket, they are faced with the same questions as The VOID. Can they draw enough people at that price to make a business out of VR attractions? Is a 10-20 minute VR experience enhanced with environmental effects good enough to keep people coming?
I don’t know those answers. But with 14 showings per day and six people per showing each paying $20, Alien Zoo is now sold out through March 2. The company will add five more days to the calendar soon so there’s still a chance to get tickets as of this writing.
When I leave the Alien Zoo after about 20 minutes, I find myself in a different mindset as compared with Star Wars or Ghostbusters.
Hands-on with Alien Zoo
The VOID’s experiences invite you to fight.
With Ghostbusters and Star Wars, you’re either fighting ghosts or you’re fighting stormtroopers. Those are certainly engaging foes, but The VOID’s locations around the world currently are inviting people to interact with characters made famous in movies by fighting them in a way that feels a lot like a shooter video game. This invites comparisons to those other forms of entertainment.
Star Wars Battlefront II is $40 to $60 and offers hours upon hours of entertainment. A ticket to the movies can be upward of $20 in some places for two solid hours of entertainment. If you’re making those mental comparisons, a $20 ticket to a 15-minute experience in VR doesn’t look great.
Alien Zoo defies those comparisons though.
Dreamscape’s initial experience is an original story, so it doesn’t overtly stack up against an existing movie or game. And the way Alien Zoo’s creators invite you to interact with its world unlocks a different combination of feelings.
It starts the moment I step through the door.
Dreamscape Immersive is set up next to the Tesla store. Only the words “Alien Zoo” on the side really give an indication what’s inside.
The waiting room is covered with artifacts and information about various alien creatures. I find myself instantly drawn into this world. The realization sets in pretty quickly. A zoo. An alien zoo. I’m going to visit an actual alien zoo.
My mind fills with visions of collecting Pokemon when I see the cards on the walls. Each card is a colorful drawing of a strange creature accompanied by text describing it. They look like something you might find at a National Park describing the wildlife. I’m directed to one of the tablets to sign a waiver and select my avatar.
I shuffle into a loading area that looks vaguely familiar — six backpack PCs with Oculus Rifts attached. I spotted Oculus Rifts being used by The VOID too, but those are buried inside a big helmet meant to keep you safe if you should bump into a wall. The Rifts used by Dreamscape are more exposed. Like The VOID, the backpacks are conveniently hanging so I step up and put my arms through the straps. Two lightweight sensors are attached to the top of my feet and two gloves put another pair of sensors on the back of my hands.
The headset fogs up a little when I first put it on but that goes away quickly. They ask myself and the five others to step forward. Almost as if a switch is flipped, what was mostly an empty virtual space is suddenly occupied by six people looking at themselves in the mirror for the first time. I’m pretty impressed by the quality of the body tracking, lifting up my feet from the floor and crossing my arms. As a demonstration, they have us shake hands with one another and do high fives. It works great. There’s no finger tracking, but the overall sense of body ownership is incredible.
Then we walk a few steps into a loading area and start to learn about the Alien Zoo. Spoilers ahead.
We are on a large circular hovering platform with a solid railing on which to hold. I look down at the rail as my hand grips it. The avatar’s hand isn’t in the exact same position as mine, but it isn’t so inaccurate as to be uncomfortable. Music is produced by Hans Zimmer, and as the hovercraft starts to rumble to life (the ground is shaking) we move out into the zoo. I completely forget the outside world.
A pair of moments in the Jurassic Park films capture an incredible sense of wonder and awe. The first is when Dr. Ellie Sattler sees the dinosaurs for the first time in the original 1993 movie, and the second is in the 2015 sequel when we see the completed Jurassic World from the kid’s hotel room.
I feel that sense of awe. Not the sense of awe you get watching dinosaurs on the big screen. This is something closer to Dr. Sattler’s sense of awe seeing real live dinosaurs for the first time. My mind is telling me this is actually happening to me.
The tour through the zoo progresses with up close encounters of various alien creatures. I don’t want to spoil too much more, but Dreamscape fills the experience with a number of sensory enhancements including liquid, scents, wind and even a magical moment where you can actually touch an alien.
Alien Zoo is just a test run by Dreamscape and everything from its equipment to the experiences offered at their locations is likely to change as they evolve. Dreamscape set a lower age limit of 10 to visit the Alien Zoo, for instance, though it is possible that might change. I note a few moments where the frame rate seems to drop slightly but it isn’t enough to be uncomfortable. Near the end, the story feels a bit heavy-handed and its environment a little stiff, like cardboard, but as we return to the Westfield Century City mall I can’t help but smile.
My trip to the Alien Zoo was a lot of fun.
Comparison to The VOID
Aside from the differences in tone between this initial experience from Dreamscape and those offered worldwide by The VOID, Dreamscape also seems to use less space to tell its story.
The VOID sends you from room to room in tight corridors while Dreamscape keeps you on that hovering platform most of the time. Walking so much in the VOID makes bumping into other people a real concern. Dreamscape’s full-body tracking and the wide circular area in which you spend most of your time offers a sense of security that ensures you aren’t accidentally bumping into your fellow zoo visitors all the time. Instead of being worried about bumping into these people, at one point during my visit to the Alien Zoo I handed a flashlight to one of the other participants so he could point it around us in the dark. It all felt so natural.
I don’t know whether Dreamscape solved the equation, any more than The VOID, that’ll make location-based VR profitable. Both companies provide incredible experiences though. Neither is perfect, but it is still early days and the bugs in these systems don’t interfere with the experience enough to make it disappointing.
Disappointment only seems to come when you start comparing the cost of this form of entertainment to others. I don’t think those comparisons are necessarily fair. You could argue paintball or laser tag or a trip to the actual zoo is a cost comparison that’s more fitting. Regardless, because Alien Zoo embraces the human desire to explore and learn, rather than shooting bad things from movies, it seems harder to make those comparisons.
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