At Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Times Square today, we got to try out one of the world’s most expensive and immersive virtual reality experiences. On July 1st, Sony and a Utah startup called The Void will open Ghostbusters: Dimension, which lets you become a ghostbuster in what The Void likes to call a "hyper-real" world.
Dimension is part of a larger exhibit based on the new Ghostbusters movie, which also includes wax versions of the stars and a walk-through haunted house experience. With two partners, you enter an elaborate stage where the real world is mapped to the virtual one, capturing ghosts by shooting a plastic gun that stands in for a proton pack. You can see and talk to your fellow "ghostbusters" in VR, and you can feel the walls, sit in chairs, and sense being shot with a proton pack or touched by a ghost. It’s all possible because of a high-end headset, a haptic vest, a backpack computer, and a really sophisticated tracking system — all of which so far haven’t been seen outside some limited beta testing and an appearance at TED.
I went through Ghostbusters: Dimension with my colleague Adi Robertson, and what follows is a dialog comparing our thoughts on what was good and bad about The Void’s first big opening.
Adi: First of all, I feel like I have to set expectations here, because The Void has gotten hyped up as being totally realistic, and that’s a terrible way to think about it. The basic experience is a really (really, really) high-quality virtual reality shooting gallery, where you can walk around a real stage that’s got enough props to give you the broad strokes of physical space. So at the beginning, you walk into a little New York apartment, and the walls and doors and chair and TV are all real. But the tchotchkes on the shelf beside it don’t exist, and if you try to open a door you’re not supposed to, somebody yanks you back. It’s an awesome illusion and technical feat, but there’s always some active suspension of disbelief involved.
For people who haven't done high-end VR, this is going to blow their minds
Ben: I agree with that. But for me at least, the overall experience is extremely satisfying. In terms of the graphics and the body tracking, it felt like I was wearing an HTC Vive, but without the wires, since the computer was in my backpack. Add a whole set someone has built for you, plus the sensory effects like wind, mist, heat, and haptics, and you bump that up a level. You’ve also got a gun that tracked really well, which no current VR system has released. As someone who has done a lot of room-scale VR, it felt like the high-end version of that with a lot of hardware and environmental goodies. For people who haven’t already done high-end VR — wow, this is going to blow their minds.
Adi: Yeah, I’m curious what people will think. There’s the whole idea of having your mind blown by super high-quality VR, but there’s also the question of what you do once that’s already happened. Will most people want to linger in each space and just get a feel for being in an immersive environment, or will they get used to that pretty quickly and be more interested in the game-like elements? I never checked the actual ghost-busting stats you’re supposed to get at the end, but I would love for this to be like the new laser tag. If only it weren’t $50.
Ben: There are definitely a lot of compromises you have to make with this in order to produce something commercially viable. Personally I wish it was something you could do without entering the hell zone that is Times Square and without paying $50. But from a business perspective it makes a lot of sense. There are just so many people flowing through Madam Tussaud’s every day, including many tourists willing to pay for a really unique experience.
Ivan Reitman wants to tickle the cute little ghosts, and so do I
Getting back to the experience itself: it was slightly different for each of us even though we were sharing the same storyline. Afterwards, James Jensen, The Void’s Chief Visionary Officer, mentioned that there are little Easter eggs and even different endings depending on how you play. I would definitely be into doing the experience again to try a different path.
Another thing that would make me want to come back is the promise of hardware upgrades. Right now you have a gun, but no hand tracking. Jensen mentioned they were going to use Leap Motion sensors built into the headset to add hand tracking that would enable more detailed interactions, like turning doorknobs and lifting up objects. Void CEO Ken Bretschneider told me they are also working on gloves that would add really finely-tuned hand tracking. If that stuff was added to Ghostbusters, and they updated the software to work with it, I would be interested to go back and try it. The original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman told us he wants to be able to tickle the cute, little ghosts, and now so do I!
Adi: The big question right now is probably the balance The Void will have to strike between being profitable and making open, totally immersive worlds. We were having slightly different experiences partly because we were both jostling around each other in a pretty small area, since three people go in at once. Which is partly good — I liked things like having to team up and cross the streams at the end. At the same time, part of me wants an experience I can go through alone and really explore, which seems unlikely at this point. The Void is the closest most of us will get to a Holodeck, but it turns out running a Holodeck is a huge investment!
Ben: I think one of the amazing things about the VR industry is that there is such a broad spectrum of experiences you can have. The gap in quality and capability between different headsets is vast. And at the same time, the vast majority of the population hasn’t even tried VR. Creators haven’t mastered it as a storytelling medium. It’s all just so new and changing so rapidly.
It turns out a Holodeck is a pretty huge investment
I bet in a few years an at-home experience will deliver powerful, Holodeck-like experiences, at least from an audio/visual perspective. But unless you’re a very rich person with some spare rooms you would like to renovate as a VR funhouse, sensorial, immersive environments like the one we went through today are only going to come from projects like The Void.
If you’re already paying to go through Madame Tussauds, shelling out another $20 bucks for this is a no brainer. If you’re a Ghostbusters super fan who wants to step inside the movie, I think this is worth the $50. If you’re anyone else... man, that price is steep for a 10- to 12-minute experience. If you have an HTC Vive at home, you might be underwhelmed. But if you haven’t tried room-scale VR yet, this is definitely a great way to step into that world.
Adi: While I wouldn’t wish the Times Square Hell Zone on anybody, there is nothing quite like The Void out there. I think anyone who wants to see just how far you can go with VR should check it out, if they have the time and money. But I’m hoping this is just the first step — both for the Ghostbusters experience and The Void as a whole.
Ghostbusters: Dimension will open to the public on July 1st. Tickets, which include admission to Madame Tussauds, are available online for $49.75.