We caught up with VR World Board Member Leo Tsimmer and Marketing Director Jessica Gray to discuss how they aim to place audiences inside the story
Every Halloween, human beings like to play with the idea of death. We dress up like the dead. We decorate our surroundings as if haunted by the dead. We try to communicate with the dead with ouija boards. We tell ghost stories and watch death play out in horror films. But what if you could actually have a near-death experience in your lifetime—as in, go to the other side and come back?
VR World, which opened its doors across the street from the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan this year, enables you to do just that this Fall—albeit through a VR headset! With 55 different VR experiences across three floors, it really is like an all-you-can-eat VR buffet, spanning all genres from gaming to art to film to science to documentary to music to social and environmental impact. In fact, it is the first and largest location-based cultural attraction for virtual, augmented and mixed reality in North America.
This Fall, VR World partnered up with Portal Experiences, an immersive entertainment company, to launch ‘Flatline Emergency Room’: a 7 minute immersive VR experience where you can experience what it’s like to die and come back to life. According to the company, the experience is ‘part David Lynch, part Mad Men taking you back in time to a New Jersey military hospital ward in 1955 where you relive the near-death experience of Gloria Hippie.
This transition from storytelling to story living is one that Steve Spielberg recently discussed in a Variety interview: “We need to get rid of the proscenium. We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or a computer screen. We’ve got to get rid of that and put the player inside the experience. That’s the future.”
VR has been the talk of the town for a while now, but many people have dismissed the hype as only being good for gaming or the porn industry. Perhaps this has been due to the fact that there’s been a missing link between VR and consumers, because while these high-tech experiences and apps have been launched, and headsets manufactured, but there hasn’t truly been anywhere for people to actually experience this tech for themselves (without breaking the bank, that is!). Therefore, it hasn’t really become part of everyday culture.
Well, VR World to the rescue—helping bridge anyone—young or poor, C-level exec or underprivileged school student, to the seemingly unattainable world of VR. We caught up with the VR World Board Member Leo Tsimmer and Marketing Director Jessica Gray to discuss how virtual reality empowers storytellers to deliver messages in incredibly powerful ways.
Emily: What do you see as the future of VR? How do you think it will evolve in the coming years and where do you see it going?
Leo: Where do I see it going is an easier question—how it will evolve really is up to the tech people. We’re a tech-enabled company but we’re essentially just targeting to provide the best of the best experience in VR, and that means content and hardware. We’re content and hardware agnostic with the goal of bringing the best to the public and showcasing it. So as far as where it goes, that’s really not up to me; it’s up to the brilliant minds that come up with this and many more things. For sure it’s VR, AR, AI, and the right way to refer to this is mixed reality.
Where it’s going—and this is the interesting part—the reason I’m so passionate about VR World and what we’re doing is, the company as a whole, we all believe that virtual reality is not a genre, it’s not gaming and entertainment, but it’s massively entering our daily lives. I can’t predict whether this is going to be a year from now, two years from now or six months from now–people that predict time are always wrong–but what we know is VR and AR will become something that we’re doing, that we are living, experiencing, feeling.
The goal for us is, yes, gaming is an easy entry and it’s a great introduction to VR, and if that’s all you want to do it’s fine, but in a way VR is an ecosphere of all things in mixed reality. So that’s what we’re trying to present. We think that it’s going there, it already happened–it’s certainly not just another entertainment slash gimmick technology.
A lot of people have dismissed the hype of VR, saying it’s only good for gaming, or that sort of thing. What do you think is the barrier that VR faces with being more accessible to the everyday person?
Leo: That’s a two-fold question. As far as dismissive, people that dismiss it, all they need to do is [try it]. VR is penetrating, enlightening, educating and does not let you go. I don’t know how to describe it. This isn’t something that exists, it’s not comparable to anything–you’ve got to go and experience it.
Jessica: One of the lessons that we’ve learned, especially because our job is to make VR accessible, is that people don’t really know what VR means. Even if you tell them that VR stands for virtual reality, they don’t understand the concept. If you look at translations of VR in other languages, whether they be Romantic, Germanic or otherwise, it also doesn’t mean anything really. We’ve kind of been having a conversation internally just [asking ourselves], ‘Did they pick the wrong name?’ Because it doesn’t communicate well.
Leo: The fourth day after we opened, we realized that just having a cool facade and a window that has our logo doesn’t really mean anything. We said, but we have ‘VR’ so that should be easy. Then we realized nobody knows what VR even stands for. I’m talking 95% of the population. So this is one of the problems.
The other problem is, it’s a well-known fact, virtual reality as an industry tried to enter the home market. Consumers said, ‘What is this? Why am I going to go for this system and not another?’
Jessica: ‘Why is it so expensive?’
Leo: The experience wasn’t exactly the most pleasant experience when the industry tried to enter massively two years ago. So you have an interesting situation where you now have hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in VR content and VR hardware, and you have this consumer market that’s pretty much impartial to VR. They don’t know it; they don’t understand the expenditure. People in New York don’t even have the space to experience it in that full scale. So we think that location-based VR experiences are something that’s a niche: It’s actually a wide open gap between the content and hardware and consumers. We’re just trying to close it or at least be part of it.
VR is a highly isolating experience. That’s another thing that the industry might not have realized. And with isolating experiences you’re always questioning why. Now you add the strange equipment to it, and you add an amazingly emotional experience. It’s a very difficult mixture of things. For us at VR World, one of the goals was to make this a very friendly experience. We shy away from the word ‘arcade’ because we embrace VR as an ecosphere, as I explained.
In a social setting, people find it easy. You put the glasses on; you have a couple of friends around. What we find is it’s that accessibility to VR is what makes it stick.
Jessica: The way that we’ve designed the flow of the space itself, we’ve kind of put the onus on the user to develop their own experience. So it’s not, you come up to this particular pop-up, we have four pieces, you go one, two, three, four and boom you’re done. You can develop your own organic experience here. You can pick and choose what you’re going to do, you can pause when you want, you can grab the headset and put it on your own head if you want to–it’s very, very user friendly in a way that people can get creative with it too. Their relationship with the technology becomes more personal and intimate because they have more agency in designing the whole experience.
Leo: Here you have your friends watching you–laughing together, freaking out together. It’s a special experience and not an isolating experience.
When you talk about the new playing field of mixed reality, how do you think this whole idea of going from storytelling to story-living is affecting VR developers in terms of how they are creating this content?
Leo: A storyteller’s challenge is always to direct a view and navigate a listener or a viewer through the path that the storyteller wants to bring them to. That’s been sort of answered by one of the better storytellers, Steven Spielberg, who turned his position on VR 180 degrees, saying that they are now seeing the promise, when a year ago they were not seeing that. Me, I’ll just refer to the better people of the narrative arts, but it seems to me that the power of impact virtual reality creates is going to empower the storytellers to deliver the message in more creative ways. I think that’s not something that’s theoretical or a hope–you’ve experienced VR so you get it. It’s the power of it that’s going to be the future of storytelling.
Jessica: Because it makes the user a protagonist, if you are the person who is the storyteller creating the VR experience, essentially you can–kind of like a game–give them different options, different perspectives, different views, different things to push at or whatever. I think that by giving people options in terms of how they want to consume or experience the story that’s being told, it will give people the agency and it will empower them in a way to be more proactive storytellers themselves. Whatever the story that’s being told and what those concepts are, the user with that agency will connect to it in a more profound way because they had a part in telling it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photos provided courtesy of VR Worldwide, Inc.