Across the street from the Empire State Building, the virtual reality experience at VR World is as boisterous and social as you'd expect any New York tourist trap to be.
A young woman playing Elven Assassin screams and falls over when a giant troll ambushes her siege tower – scrambling back up while her boyfriend laughs uproariously. A couple of stations over, a suited man is killed by the same faceless Superhot assassin for the fourth straight time; his son stands nearby, pleading with him to throw the ninja stars forwards. Downstairs, a mom watching her son cross The Plank keeps goading him to look down. He does. Big mistake.
VR World deviates from the dark, classical theatres or techno motifs of other VR centres we have visited. The three-story, 20,000 square-foot space contains everything from a full bar to a terrace lounge with stylish, comfy furniture. The space is full of excited chatter, upbeat ambient music, and cheerful staffers giving helpful advice and encouragement.
The self-reported "largest virtual reality experience centre" in the West, VR World challenges the Facebook Spaces style of "social VR". Typically, VR users strap on their headsets and noise-cancelling headphones to completely block out the outside world, and can only interact with others inside virtual spaces. But it turns out that having a familiar, encouraging voice in your ear as you fight zombies or partake in space piracy makes fantastical narratives feel much more grounded – and more fun for newbie VR users exploring virtual worlds for the first time.
It's an awesome way to try out the technology or introduce friends or loved ones to VR – and even VR enthusiasts with their own headsets at home may find a reason to visit.
Finding a place
Each of VR World's three main areas has its own theme. The ground floor taken up with eye-catching rigs like rotating flight simulator chairs and driver's seats; the terrace contains a peaceful theatre of rotating chairs for watching documentaries and music videos; and the second floor, full of the most popular games, is hallmarked by a frenetic, Apple Store-like atmosphere.
Since the centre's soft opening, it has housed 50 unique VR experiences: a mixture of films, games, and educational content, presented on a mixture of Vives, Rifts and smartphones. The lineup has remained static as VR World entertains new customers and determines which popular games and films deserve a permanent place.
But Jessica Gray, Marketing Manager for VR World, says they "have a goal of rotating content on a monthly basis" – a system designed to evolve over time and to "bring people back… so they can build upon their experience." And as new iterations of headsets and accessories become available, they plan on being "the first ones to make these improvements accessible to our audience."
As you enter the centre, you register for a personal RFID bracelet. Once you find an experience you'd like to try, you tap your wrist against the sensor and place yourself in a virtual line. With no physical queues, you're free to wander the building as you wait your turn. I took advantage of VR World's fully stocked bar, while I saw some loiterers dancing to the peppy techno playlist.
Finding ways to entertain yourself for long periods can be an unfortunate necessity in a place like this. If three people wait in front of you for a 12-minute demo, that's almost 40 minutes of waiting. Currently, even if another experience has no line, you can't tap in to try it without losing your other place in the queue.
Boring wait times are unavoidable when you need to give users enough time to sink into a world, and one of the interesting dilemmas that any of the VR arcades popping up will face. But it's a quandary the VR World staff isn't chalking up as unavoidable.
The team is tracking data on how far visitors get in their games, which headsets take the longest to get set up, and which ones they enjoy the most
"We'll be making our RFID system more robust, incorporating the ability to manage flows and queues in the space with the goal of being able to, for example, put Superhot on several or all of our screens if we notice a long line for it," says Gray.
Until they upgrade that technology, they're working on proofs of concept for mixed reality experiences that will "gamify the physical space" of VR World for new and returning users, starting in the autumn. This will involve an immersive theatre experience with a story that lives outside of the headsets, which you'll be able to enjoy across multiple visits.
More immediately, creators are considering selling low-tech personal VR headsets and cardboards for visitors to enjoy as they wait. They've begun to host weekly gaming tournaments and VR driving contests; an arcade-style rewards system could inspire local visitors to keep coming back to challenge high scores and improve their VR e-sports skills.
As I tried out my first few experiences, I instinctively feared the worst: as a bespectacled guy with a larger-than-average head, I've had problems at other VR events with staff doing their best to rip out my hair, break my glasses, or give me a concussion getting the headset on. But the VR World staff were gentle and efficient in fitting the Rifts and Vives on adults and kids alike. And once the experiences started, they were constantly on hand to give advice should I get stuck or struggle with controls. The level of courtesy and enthusiasm from their workers made the experience as a whole that much more enjoyable, and will be a key component of any place like this.
Even so, with setup time included, the 10-to-12-minute average for each experience goes by really fast. For shooters like Superhot and Bloodhaven with level-based design and high score challenges, the timed structure makes perfect sense. But explorative, narrative-driven experiences like Rick and Morty can't be rushed without making the demo feel a little unsatisfying; I certainly wasn't smart enough to finish a level of the challenging puzzler I Expect You to Die in that span, even after multiple tries.
The VR World team is tracking data on how far visitors get in their games, which headsets take the longest to get set up, and which ones people enjoy the most – and they're also sharing that data with VR creators. They want to establish a symbiotic relationship with developers to help the medium evolve to best benefit VR users.
"We have a plan to develop a fellowship program that will invite VR and AR developers as residents in our space who can generate original content, analyse data that we collect, which we can then give back to our content and hardware providers – we're brand agnostic – so as to enable them to improve their products," says Gray.
Facilitating the future of VR
Beyond the professional sphere, the VR World team is also interested in bringing enthusiasm for VR creation to younger generations. Their Saturday program, 'If I Ride', encourages 4- to 12-year-olds (along with parents) to create virtual artwork using Tilt Brush, after which they can "bike through art they created with their own hands" in a virtual space. Through workshops, field trips, and training programs for both students and teachers, they're hoping to encourage "media literacy" and enthusiasm for studying VR technology at an early age.
Organisers are interested in bringing enthusiasm for VR creation to younger generations… They're also hoping to court New York's art industry
They're also hoping to court New York's art industry. The exhibition recently played host to BabyCastles, a community of local artists and hackers who aim to create mind-bending tech art, as they showcased some virtual pieces to the public. They also hosted the Sotheby's Art of VR after-party, an event we attended that explored how artists could preserve or monetise their work in VR.
Overall, the organisers are trying anything and everything to achieve their primary goal: "develop community and facilitate the mainstream adoption" of VR. Their ambitious plans for the future include hosting talks and panels, attracting potential industry investors through parties and networking events, and facilitating discussions on how VR could impact society for the better.
Many VR creators and theatres have grandiose visions of where the industry could progress to in a decade, and promise exciting innovations to make their exhibitions or centres better in the future. But VR World surpasses others we've seen because it doesn't feel like a pilot program, or make VR feel like a young, experimental product.
Professional staff keeps the experiences flowing with few technical hiccups; the most popular consumer experiences are chosen to wow new users, and to motivate competitive visitors to return and one-up one another. And they're finding ways to take the bane of virtual theatres – long waits – and turn it into an opportunity to explore mixed-reality entertainment.
Ultimately, $39 for 8–10 hours of virtual reality, where pro VR technicians have to worry about setting up the rigs and worlds for you, is not at all a bad deal for casual fans looking to enjoy VR without taking it home with them. Or for people who already own older headsets, a visit to VR World could be an excellent way to try out the latest technology and see if it's worth your investment.
Video gaming arcades became all but obsolete as home consoles became ubiquitous, but so long as most consumers hesitate to adopt or regularly upgrade expensive VR hardware, the virtual arcades VR World plans to expand nationwide could fill that niche for next-gen experiences.