by Amy Clark, Research Exec, Dubit
As part of the UK-Japan Network Week focused on location-based VR experiences, we visited London’s new digital art installation from The Dream Corporation. OTHERWORLD hosts 14 immersion rooms, in which guests can choose from 16 different VR experiences.
The Dream Corporation’s initial goal was to tackle concerns held around the effect of technology on psychological and emotional well-being. By using VR technology, the aim of installations in venues such as OTHERWORLD is to re-direct technology back to the individual, to provide fulfilment considered to be ‘lacking’ in life. We visited this playground for adults to unpack how this installation has been assembled, how immersive the experience really was, and how VR technology and gaming experiences are beginning to expand into social environments across major UK cities.
On first entry through the portal to the OTHERWORLD visitors are greeted with a pristine and futuristic archway lined with pods in two rows, separated by a ‘First Class lounge’ through the centre of the venue. It’s here that guests are directed towards tablets fixed within the table bench, which serves as part-drinks and food menu, part-OTHERWORLD map in preparation for entry into a VR pod and virtual content of the users choice. While music is played throughout the venue, this stage of the experience is coupled with an insight into the experiences of players who are already in the pods. Screams, calls to fellow players in adjacent pods, and an overwhelming number of ‘Help me Sakura!’ (that’s what needs to be shouted to get tech support from staff) exclamations filled the venue whilst we attempted to get our heads around where we were and what was going on.
The virtual ‘OTHERWORLD’ is constructed as an island, centred around a mountain that players must descend to reach a menu of VR games, categorised into the four seasons. To enter into these games, players in other pods appear as avatars, which can help in the initial exploration and ‘follow me, I think I know where we have to go’. This ability to see friends’ avatars and hear their voices through your headphones, expands the world beyond a purely personal experience.
This is useful, considering the instructions given upon initial entry to the pods become a distant memory, and as a result when initiating my first game (I chose Accounting Plus) I had my first encounter with ‘Sakura’ (a voice recognition feature that connects you with a tech assistant sat in a small room among the pods). This human-assistant points you in the right direction, checks you’re ok, and co-ordinates the contact you have with the rest of the team on the venue floor. I can imagine that without seeing this tech-room, it’s a bizarre moment when you realise that another human can see what you’re seeing through the VR headset, and makes you question whether this assistant is real or virtual, where they exist, and why they are doing a better job at controlling the game than you (as the player) are.
Players are told as they enter the pod that the experience will last for around 25 minutes. Expecting a natural ‘end point’ or prompt to leave the pod, we continued to play and explore until we were out of steam. Strangely, the lack of contact with the ‘real’ world messes with your concept of time. What we thought was 20 minutes turned out to be over an hour.
After leaving the venue and discovering how long we had spent in the pod, we became aware of the difficulty to keep track of where your friends are, and questioned whether there could be a more sociable component to the experience as a whole. It reminded me of the moment you come out of the cinema, off a rollercoaster, or out of a job interview; your instinct is to catch up with friends, see what you friends thought of it, and give your own review. When we came out of our pod, we were left to transition back into the ‘normal’ world without any of the chatter that you’d normally experience, leaving you feeling a bit lost and craving some human interaction.
Overall, I can definitely see venues like OTHERWORLD creeping into the social entertainment space, meaning it might not be long until more and more people consider meeting for a “regular trip” to a VR pod, over a trip to the local bowling alley or ‘bar down the road’. To get to that point however, the transition into, out of, and during these experiences need some tweaking.
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