On a recent spring day, I spent a lunch break at an AMC in midtown, checking out the latest Imax spectacle. But I wasn’t playing hooky to see Transformers: The Last Knight; I was checking out Imax’s foray in virtual reality, its VR Centre.
The VR Centre is part of a pilot program Imax is currently rolling out across the globe — there’s already one location in Los Angeles, and more to come in the U.K., Japan, and China. (Imax is a Canadian company, thus the polite and goofy spelling of center.) At first glance, it reminded me of a combination of a very nice open-office plan and an old-school video arcade. Booths are set up to allow for room-scale VR (i.e., you can walk around with a VR headset on, and it tracks your movements), along with a few motion-assisted rides (think chairs that move around while you wear a headset). You pay roughly one buck per minute of VR, depending on which game you want to play.
I was able to try out three different VR games. One, a promo for The Mummy, had me riding out the side of a helicopter (in reality, a simple bench with some subwoofers attached) that whumped-whumped along with the chopper blades as I attempted to shoot down zombies chasing down a fleeing ambulance.
Another, The Walk, had me walking a tightrope (in real life, a piece of cord taped down to the ground) in between the Twin Towers, à la French daredevil’s Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk in between the Twin Towers, as immortalized in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Height is something that works extremely well in VR — your amygdala is so hardwired to make your gut do little flips when you look down from a great height, it doesn’t matter if your rational brain is aware that you’re actually just across some carpet in Murray Hill. (Unlike Petit, I fell off the wire several times. Tightrope walking: still difficult in VR!)
Finally, there was Raw Data, based (somewhat bafflingly) on the 2004 film I, Robot. This was a multiplayer VR shooter, as I used a pistol and Matrix-esque bullet time to blast away at robots along with an Imax employee. The gunplay felt quick and fluid, helped by a vest with a subwoofer strapped on the back that made every gunshot have a pleasant thunk when the gun fired.
None of the VR games lasted longer than about ten minutes. All worked well, with Imax using a combination of HTC Vive’s and Star VR headsets. Most importantly, they were all fun. Surprisingly so, actually.
It’s certainly better than playing that dusty Terminator Salvation arcade cabinet you find in plenty of movie theaters. But even more than that, I found myself enjoying it more than using VR at home. I’ve got a PSVR headset at home, and we’ve got an Oculus Rift in the office, but I haven’t found myself digging either of them out when I want to play games. Setting the systems up is a hassle, and they’re conspicuous enough that you want to put them away when not in use. I still find using a VR helmet for longer than about an hour to be a strain on my eyesight (probably because my brain gets tired of trying to focus on something that appears far away, but in reality is centimeters away from my eyeballs). And because the market is small, there really hasn’t been a “must play” game out there for VR yet. If I have a bit of free time to play video games, I’d rather play a few innings of MLB the Show 17 with a friend, stalk other players in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or inadvertently cause irreparable damage to my colony in Dwarf Fortress. All those require just a few seconds to get started.
“When I look at one of weaknesses of VR in the home, it’s that you spend a lot on equipment, you pay a lot for each adventure,” says Imax CEO Richard Gelfond. “And then you’re alone.” But what Imax (along with a few other start-ups, like Utah’s the Void) is offering is something lower cost, with less hassle and more social. The VR equipment is already set up, Imax employees help you get everything in place, and a good number of the games available are multiplayer. When you’re done, you just hand everything back and walk away. It’s expensive compared to a normal arcade game, but I’d need to pay for about 27 hours of VR at an Imax VR Centre before I’d get close to what it would cost to have the same setup at home.
VR, as it exists now, just doesn’t really work in the home. Unless you’re a hard-core gamer, the experience is too expensive, too unwieldy, and not compelling enough to justify. But paying $10 to blast away at 3-D zombies in a helicopter? That’s a value proposition that starts to make sense. Walking away from Imax’s VR Centre, it’s almost baffling that the current resurgence of VR, led by the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus by Facebook in 2014, decided to target the home market. Perhaps it was trying to avoid the debacle of the early ’90s VR boom-and-bust, where VR machines had to be arcade cabinets due to sheer size and tech restraints. But just because something can be in the home doesn’t mean it should be in the home.
Imax is finding its centers to be hits so far. Their L.A. complex is bringing in $15,000 a week, and one busy night in their recently opened New York VR Centre brought in $2,000. During evening hours, the booths are popular enough that a rep recommended that people book a time to play online before showing up, to make sure they get a chance to put on a headset. (Also, for those worried about VR pink eye, Imax CEO Gelfond reassured me that the headsets are getting sterilized. “We have a lot of experience with this because Imax 3-D has the same issue,” says Gelfond. “We clean it between every use.)
Others are trying similar things. The Void creates a mobile VR experience that’s gotten rave reviews from those lucky enough to try it. And there are thousands of VR arcades throughout Asia, where arcade culture never died out to the same degree it did in the U.S.
Of course, movie theaters are willing to let Imax carve out space in their lobbies (or even take over entire screening rooms) because overall movie attendance is in decline, thanks to streaming movies and increasingly high-quality TVs. And the classic arcades of my youth are gone because consoles became more powerful than bulky arcade cabinets. It’s possible that VR arcades are just a stopping point along the way to either in-home VR becoming commonplace, or augmented reality coming into its own 15 or 20 years down the line.
But for right now, even though I can see my PSVR headset from where I’m typing, and I have a copy of Eagle Flight installed and ready to go on my PS4, I think I’d rather head over to Kips Bay to catch a showing of It Comes at Night, and then pay a few more dollars to play Eagle Flight at the Imax VR Centre. When I’m done, instead of carefully bundling up the PlayStation camera, Move controllers, and PSVR headset; reconnecting HDMI cables; and putting my living room back to its original configuration, I’ll hand the headset back to a staff member and wander back out to the street, content with ten minutes of swooping through the skies before heading back down to the subway.