It’s not often that one is able to slip between multiple realities in a single day, but thanks to an invitation by the IMAX VR Experience Centre, I had the great fortune to spend my Valentine’s Day doing exactly that. Located across from the Grove, a popular tourist spot and shopping center in Hollywood, California, I stepped into the white, curvy lobby of the Experience Centre. Big screen displays glowed, advertising the various VR “experiences” which the Centre offers. Leaderboards, experience times, rating systems, and coming soon digital posters all work together to make entryway into the world of virtual reality familiar, quite like being in the lobby of a movie theater.
VR “experiences,” which consist of games, rides and interactive, immersive worlds, are set up like movie showtimes. Simply pick your experience, your showtime, and purchase your ticket. Most experiences run between five and fifteen minutes, with tickets costing between $7 and $10. Alternatively, you can purchase a sampler pack, usually themed, which will allow 25 minutes to enjoy a number of experiences. New to VR? Grab the beginner package and enjoy a selection newbie friendly experience in virtual reality. Can’t get enough sports? Get your game on with the sports sampler, which includes mini golf and Knockout League boxing. Once you have purchased a ticket for your preferred experience and time, or a sampler pack, you move to one side of the lobby and sit through a short video which will introduce you to virtual reality, the basics and features of the IMAX VR pods, and provide some excitement in the form of teasers and coming soon attractions. At long last, I was ready to step through the narrow door and into the main VR room.
The inside of the VR “theater” is black, making it feel eerily endless, and the blue strip lights, arranged in squares over each pod, are reminiscent of the blue grid line boundary markings within VR games. Fourteen pods live within this space, each pod equipped with its own virtual reality experience and an attendant or three. Pods are 12 by 12 feet, and can hold one person per standing game, or three people per sitting game. The walls are high enough to keep players safe within their virtual worlds, while still being low enough to allow friends to observe both the player and the screens mounted on the back wall of the pod. These screens provide onlookers with a first person view of what the player is seeing, making VR a highly entertaining spectator sport. A lounge area resides near the entry, providing seats for those not playing, as well as a point of sales system, which allows you to enjoy additional VR experiences without having to exit to the lobby in order to pay the main cashier.
Each pod comes equipped with mesh, zipper storage space for personal belongings, a headset, earphones, and the appropriate accessory for the experience featured in that pod. For Eagle Flight, that means a rather traditional gaming controller, for Knockout League it means a pair of controllers and a haptic vest, while John Wick boasts a VR rifle. The carpeting is both two-toned and two-textured, creating a square around the inside the pod itself, allowing attendants to see if players are getting too close to the boundary. This also gives players a tactile warning of stepping on a rubbery strip if they stray too close to the edge of the pod. Attendants help players with their vests, earphones and other accessories, and also provide basic game assistance should they get stuck in game, or somehow manage to do something odd like fling their earphones across the pod. But who would do a thing like that?
As an avid fan of Ready Player One, my imagination spun wildly out of control with the words “haptic vests,” and I could hardly contain my excitement at the opportunity to try one out. It is entirely possible that science fiction had built up unreasonable expectations, but I found these to be a slight letdown. Fortunately, they were the only real disappointment of the entire experience. Being significantly smaller than your average gamer, standing at 5’2″ and tending towards the slimmer side, I found the sizing to be a bit of an issue. While the vests are adjustable, I was unable make them small enough to sit as snugly around my body as I would have liked. Fortunately, they still provided plenty of feedback, though the feedback tended to be pre-programmed vibrations rather than being reactionary to my virtual game opponents. Rather like having a lightweight subwoofer attached to your back, these these vests help to ‘amp you up,’ letting you feel the vibration of the engines of a spaceship passing close overhead, or the rhythm of the music during a boxing match, but do not provide haptic feedback; at least, not enough to be noticed if you are struck by a laser blast, or if you take a brutal fist to the face.
During our introductory session, IMAX VR CEO Richard Glefond stressed that the IMAX VR experience is more than simply gaming, it is a social event. The accuracy of this statement became obvious almost immediately once we began playing. Even though the event was restricted to press, most of whom were individuals who had never met the others taking part in the VR experiences, people immediately began clustering around pods, watching complete strangers take on virtual opponents, throw punches, and pull triggers. On more than one occasion, I watched a player emerge from the pod to find that someone they had never met had snapped a series of pictures or short videos of them in the pod. They eagerly chatted about what the experience had been like inside the headset, what it looked like to onlookers, and gladly exchanged Twitter handles with a complete stranger order to share pictures. Seeing how much fun the Experience Centre was with a group of strangers, I found myself eager to come back and share the experience with a group of my friends.
Now that we’ve covered the IMAX VR Experience Centre itself, let’s dig into the nitty gritty: The experiences, or games, which it offers. While I was unable to dive into all of the various realities waiting for me, I was able to try out five different experiences. I was unable, or rather unwilling, to try out two of the experiences the IMAX VR Experience Centre has to offer: The Raving Rabbids VR Ride by Ubisoft, a rollercoaster experience which features a haptic chair, and Sony Pictures’ The Walk, where you are challenged to walk a tightrope strung between the 94th floor of two buildings. Time restrictions prevented me from getting to these two experiences, but I was assured by floor staff that, as I am fan of neither heights nor roller coasters, it was probably for the best. Those with a more bold disposition and iron-clad stomachs within our group seemed to very much enjoy these experiences, especially the Rabbids ride. All of the experiences, save for John Wick, used the Vive Virtual Reality Headset, which I find to deliver a comfortable display and clear picture, especially with the addition of a knit cap, (see tips at the end of the article) while not being overly heavy.
The first experience I got to take part in was a 3V3 match of Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight. I’d gotten to play Eagle Fight previously in a solo environment, and the game really is stunning. You can read a more in-depth description of this game at our launch day review, but the long and short of it is that in the distant future, nature has reclaimed the city of Paris. Zoo animals roam free as you soar over the abandoned city on the wings of eagles, which are, for all intents and purposes, attached to your ears.
While I had previously explored single player a good bit on my own, the IMAX VR Experience was the first time I had been able to explore multiplayer. It was an amazing experience to be sitting with three other people, playing and strategizing in real time. We took on a capture-the-flag style game, where our goal was to collect a rabbit and fly it back to our home nest, while another team of three opponents attempted to do the same. The X button would send out a shriek, and well aimed shrieks could make an opponent’s bird… well… explode. If an eagle exploded while carrying the rabbit, the coveted prize would be dropped, and retrieving it from the ground required no small amount of aerial dexterity to swoop down and pluck it back up while avoiding trees, buildings, and large, roaming mammals.
One player on our team turned out to be a natural at landing these devastating screeches, scoring 16 kills in her first game. She quickly became the designated protector of our team, covering our feathery butts as we attempted to dodge enemy shrieks and fly the rabbit back to the nest. While I had previously played Eagle Flight with minimal nausea, PVP required me to take many sharp dives, as well as to fly in zig-zag patterns, in order to make myself a more difficult target for enemies. These factors compounded pretty quickly after two rounds of play, and upon taking off my headgear, I was disoriented enough to need to spend a few minutes sitting as I waited for my stomach to stop turning loops. Fortunately, I found watching others in the heat of their experiences to be incredibly entertaining, so my recovery time was far from wasted.
My next experience had me strapping on a haptic vest and donning virtual boxing gloves as I stepped into the boxing ring with Knockout League by Grab Games. Even though I’m not a fan of sports games, this particular experience turned out to be my favorite once I got over a few frustrations. My haptic vest thudded against my back, sending waves of sound through my body, pumping me up as I learned to dodge punches, block and score hits of my own. While this was my favorite experience, it also turned out to be the most frustrating one for me because, rather like a guitarist trying to pick up Guitar Hero, I have many years of experience inside the sparring ring, and had to re-learn a number of mechanics for this game. Blocking in Knockout League requires raising both arms parallel in front of your face, with your palms towards your face, but this kind of block would be pretty useless for me in real life, as I am generally at both a size and strength disadvantage. As a result, I kept resorting to the sweeping side and cross blocks I’d learned in martial arts classes, none of which were acknowledged by the VR software.
My opponents felt like they were also incredibly close, and backing up only caused them to instantly move in and close the distance. Even with their presence being so close, I found I had to continue to move further and further forward in order to land more than one punch, which, quite simply, did not feel at all natural. That said, once I learned how to fight within VR, everything became incredibly natural, to the point where my previous training started surfacing, and I kept trying to follow up my one-two punches with a kick, something which is highly illegal in boxing, not at all acknowledged by the software, and proved to be incredibly entertaining to those watching my match.
What was supposed to be a quick, three minute round stretched a bit longer as I tried to re-adjust to the rules of the virtual ring, and even longer when I somehow managed to hook the controller in my left hand, which I had very close to my face in a guard position, around the cord for my earphones, and a left handed punch sent them flying across the pod and threw my visor askew. I laughed and held my visor in place, taking several brutal blows to the face, while my pod attendant retrieved my lost earphones and helped me attach my headgear again. The rest of the fight was incredibly fun, and was physically demanding enough for me to work up a light sweat. I finished up without a hint of motion sickness and a healthy dose of adrenaline. I was pumped up, and wanted nothing more than to go another round.
Trials on Tatooine
Still a little winded, I decided to take a short break to check out Trials on Tatooine, a Star Wars virtual reality experience by Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB. This game is visually stunning, and I really did feel like I was standing on Luke’s home planet in the opening scenes of A New Hope. After two very involved games, this introductory experience felt different, as I had little more to do than stand around and drink in my surroundings for a good portion of the experience. Spaceships rushed overhead, far too close for comfort, and thanks to my haptic vest, I could feel the engine vibrations, escalating the experience. This is an excellent first game for VR beginners, as it gives you plenty of time to adapt to standing within virtual reality, provides a few simple tasks to orient yourself to interacting with virtual space, and then lets you use a lightsaber!
While this experience is short and not very challenging, it’s hard to properly articulate the sheer joy of turning on a lightsaber for the first time. I couldn’t stop smiling, and really wanted to go watch the original Star Wars trilogy again. Everything about this experience, from the opening crawler to the three moons in the sky, feels perfect. Others expressed the same sentiment, and as I was taking off my gear, the booth attendant grinned as he told me, “We had some eleven year old girls come in and played it for a birthday party, they started screaming when they got the lightsaber and turned it on! Actually screaming!”
Lightsaber in hand, you play a deadly game of ping pong with some approaching Storm Troopers, deflecting their lasers back at them in order to protect your new pal, R2-D2. It’s short, but it’s rewarding. Once out of my headgear, I didn’t move too far from the pod because this is, without a doubt, one of the most fun VR games to watch someone else play. From ducking down out of fear of low-flying space ships, to the bliss of holding your very first lightsaber, to the challenge of trying to actually use said lightsaber for the first time, this short experience causes the most entertaining of reactions, and is as much a joy for the observer as it is the player.
John Wick Chronicles
The John Wick Chronicles, created by Lionsgate and Starbreeze Studios, was the only game to feature the Star VR headset, a new to market tech created by Starbreeze and Acer. This visor boasts an impressive 280 degree view, making it perfect for an action-oriented experience like John Wick. I found myself in a scaled down level of the full game, which you can read more about here, alone on a rooftop with incredibly limited cover and a single weapon. The peripheral vision offered by the Star VR headset was much needed, as snipers could appear and fire on me from anywhere, requiring constant vigilance and scanning.
Armed with a haptic gun, lit by red LEDs matching those on my headgear, it was my mission to eradicate the small army of individuals, all of whom are dead set on ending my life and cutting my spy story short. This required a lot of ducking, moving, popping out and diving yet again for cover, making it a pretty impressive leg workout. By bringing the weapon closer to my face, I was able to use the rifle’s scope to partake in some precision shooting, sniping my enemies, rather than just showering bullets like Rambo. The game required that I constantly look around, scanning for new enemies setting up on nearby rooftops, and those who scaled the building to try and take me out at close range. One of those unfortunate souls was almost over the railing before I spotted him, and he ended up taking a bullet to the gonads. While mass slaughter within the John Wick game is no big deal, I actually felt kind of bad about that shot.
It was the constant need to look around which caused me to cut my John Wick experience short. While I was in control of the movement of both my head and body, something about my head constantly turning alerted my stomach that this was not reality, and that I needed to escape the headgear or risk exposing my lunch to the poor pod attendant. The motion sickness came on very fast, but fortunately, the effects passed almost as quickly, allowing me to continue my VR adventure in other experiences after only a few minutes of recovery. Despite the spell of motion sickness, John Wick was incredibly fun, even for someone like myself who is not a fan of traditional shooters. Having the ability to actually physically move behind blockades, and being able to use your body, not a thumbstick, to turn and aim made the entire experience much more intuitive and entertaining.
I was incredibly excited about getting to play demo of the unreleased Archangel VR game, but this was the experience I was most also afraid of, as I know my motion sickness does not often respond well to simulated movement. Given that it’s not everyday you get to command a six story tall war machine, (read: mech unit) I threw caution to the wind and dove into the pilot’s seat. Archangel is a full length companion game for the upcoming feature film of the same name, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds. While there is not a lot of information about this movie available yet, this companion game was designed exclusively for VR by Skydance Interactive, and is described as an intense, story-driven shooter. The demo consisted of a short segment near the middle of the game, and gave me a tantalizing taste of what’s to come.
I sat down, strapped on my headset, and braced myself to fight off the nausea as long as I could… and found myself perfectly comfortable within the game. The visual field is designed with plenty of visual anchors, mostly consisting of the mech’s controls and structure. Even though I had no control over the movement of the mech, the sensation was familiar and comfortable, rather like being a passenger in a car or a helicopter. The mech moved on its own according to a path scripted by the game, and the left and right controllers gave me command over the the left and right mech arms, respectively. The right arm came equipped with a machine gun which could be switched over to a more scoped, precision weapon, while pressing the down on the controller disk activated an energy shield, attached to what was approximately the wrist of the mech. The left arm came equipped with a tracer missile, pulling the trigger once would identify targets, and a second pull would let all hell loose on them.
Oddly enough, the mechanic that my brain had the most trouble overcoming in this experience was that each hand was its own, independent unit. Time and time again I found myself falling into gamepad mechanics, aiming with my left hand, then pulling the trigger on my right, only to find my gunfire going everywhere except where I thought I was aiming. It took a bit of time to retrain my brain that I could both aim and fire with my right hand, and that my left hand was more than just a directional control, it was a deadly force all its own.
My health ran out rather quickly since there were an overwhelming number of enemies, but I enjoyed the experience far more than I have ever enjoyed a first person shooter, (that includes you, Overwatch) perhaps just because of how much easier and more intuitive the aiming and shooting mechanic is. There’s something strangely comforting about knowing that you missed, not because of a thumbstick or a sticky button, but because you, very simply, missed. The post-apocalyptic landscape was beautifully rendered, and the demo did a nice job of easing me into combat, staring me off with some easier targets, allowing me to find my feet and learn what my weapons can do, before ramping up the difficulty and hurling me into in an intense, almost impossible situation.
After completing our experiences, we stepped out of the expansive black space and back into the almost blindingly white light of reality within the IMAX lobby. The stark difference between the large, black room and the narrow, shockingly white doorway of the lobby was a visceral reminder that we were moving back into reality, that the world of VR was behind us. I found myself yearning to run back into the theater and lose myself within the worlds waiting for me inside its many headsets.
The number of available VR experiences are still somewhat limited, but this is generally the state of VR games at the moment. The industry is at something of a bottleneck, with most consumers unwilling to invest large amounts of money into the computers and gear required to run VR, while creators are hesitant to invest the time and money into creating games for such a small audience. IMAX has announced their intent to help push virtual reality into the mainstream, having created a $50 million fund for VR games. This fund, created with strategic partners such as Acer, CAA, China Media Capital, Enlight Media, The Raine Group, Studio City and WPP, hopes to help produce a more robust library of VR games over the next few years, with the goal of increasing interest in virtual reality, and with this increased interest, causing the cost of the required equipment to become more affordable.
If you can’t make it to Hollywood to explore the Experience Centre, there may be an IMAX Experience Centre coming near you. IMAX has announced that six more IMAX VR Experience Centres are set to open in California, New York, the UK, Japan, the Middle East and in Western Europe. Additionally, IMAX is in discussions to open four more locations thereafter, hoping to open more locations within multiplexes. These multiplex locations would allow moviegoers to purchase a combo ticket, which will include a feature film as well as a VR experience or game created for that film. IMAX is still experimenting with just what exactly a VR experience is and what it should include. Which technologies work best together, what kind of experiences resonate the most with guests, and which companies will produce the most captivating experiences are all still up in the air. Glefond explained the need for this kind of flexibility with a laugh and a simple statement: “It’s the wild west here, folks.”
If you’re new to VR and are planning to check out the IMAX VR Experience Centre, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
Take the time to really adjust your headset.
Ensure that your headset sits correctly, is comfortable, and that your vision within the visor is clear, as these are key factors in avoiding nausea. A slight misalignment can cause something akin to blurred or double vision, so make sure you continue to adjust your headset until you feel comfortable with what you are seeing.
Bring a beanie or skull cap if you have a small head or are bringing a child.
As I said above, correctly adjusting the headset is crucial to your enjoyment, and this can be a big challenge for those of us who are on the smaller end of the scale. A knit cap can add just enough bulk to your cranium help a headset sit comfortably and correctly.
Start out with beginner-friendly games which do not simulate motion.
There are few things more exciting than turning into an eagle and flying across Paris, but if you’re uncomfortable on boats or in 3D movies, that kind of experience should probably not be your first. Try out some beginner friendly virtual reality experiences, ones where you are in control of your body and movement, and get a feel for how your body reacts to virtual reality. This will give you a better idea about what kinds of experiences you can comfortably enjoy.
Don’t be afraid to ask to stop.
Each pod comes with an attendant just for you, and they won’t judge you if you need to stop for a minute. I needed several minutes to recover from a wave of motion sickness after my second round of Eagle’s Flight, and the staff could not have been more kind. They helped me to a sitting area, offered water, and were happy to talk to me to help keep my mind off the way the room was spinning. Better to call it quits early and try again later rather than potentially ruin your entire day with an upset stomach or a migraine. Consequently, if you are prone to migraines, you might find this article about using the Playstation VR as a migraine sufferer to be helpful.
You can build up a tolerance for VR.
My first few times in a headset were not pleasant, and a bad experience with Google Cardboard actually had me diving for the nearest trashcan. While I am still susceptible to spells of motion sickness, I can now comfortably spend roughly an hour in a headset. Several short sessions can do wonders to help your body acclimate to the sensations of virtual reality, and allow you more time in VR without nausea, headaches or motion sickness. Just because you can only hang in for a few minutes the first time doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll ever be limited to. Give your body the time to adapt to a new reality.
The flagship IMAX VR Experience Centre is open now, located at 157 South Fairfax in Los Angeles, across from The Grove, and a short bus ride from the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame. You can check out the available virtual reality experiences, book a ticket, or learn more about renting out the space for a party or corporate event at their website. The Centre offers a new, exciting, and highly social VR experience, regardless of if this is your time in a headset or if you’re an old pro. Are you ready, player one?