Too lazy to learn how to ski or snowboard? Too broke to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii? No problem! Virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have proven a boon to the humble slob and the financially challenged, letting players explore the world – this one and others, or even outer space – from the comfort of their very own sofa. It’s a development that’s been a long time coming; there are more than two decades between modern devices and the first commercially available VR headset, Nintendo’s headache machine, the Virtual Boy.
Perhaps inevitably, VR’s increasingly mainstream appeal (it could be argued that there’s nothing accessible about the >$1,000 price tag attached to some VR-ready systems though) has helped the technology become a fixture of just about every industry, inclusive of healthcare (especially pain control), logistics, the military, and aviation. One of VR’s most recent forays into the real world has been through its inclusion at venues along New York’s storied streets, from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope and the wide roads of the Bowery to the brownstones of Orchard Street.
Can’t get to New York? VR has made it possible for shoppers as far afield as Asia to explore the Herald Square Macy’s on Singles Day, a Chinese celebration of all things commercial. Nearly $18bn in sales was generated on Singles Day in 2016 (by comparison, $0.1bn was spent in 2009), so it should come as no surprise that US brands like Michael Kors and Calvin Klein are eager to get involved. That’s where VR comes in; usinga Google Cardboard-like headset, shoppers can explore a virtual department store and buy things (in yuan) simply by walking up to them and clicking a button.
Michael Kors’ marketing around the campaign focused on casino gaming; specifically, playing them to win discount codes. While perhaps not intentional, it’s fitting that Michael Kors chose an industry renowned for its love of VR (and tech in general) to represent its Singles Day collection. Globally casino brands are pushing for a livestreamed gaming experience that will almost inevitably come to embrace virtual reality in the future – though full VR poker and roulette games do exist on the 250,000-selling Oculus Rift platform too.
New York’s more permanent VR installations include Jump Into the Light, a cinema playing everything from horror movies to documentaries, all through the Oculus and Vive. The Bowery establishment also offers arguably the most important invention of recent years too, in 3D selfies. There are also VR playgrounds in Samsung’s official store on 13th Street and at the Vrbar in Park Slope. The latter lets visitors play Sweet Escape, a game similar in format to Crytek’s The Climb, albeit with mountains of sweets in place of the rocks.
But let’s be honest, there’s only one VR experience that matters – Ghostbusters: Dimension. Mentioned in a recent New York Post article, this spook-hunting experience in Madame Tussauds has the player equip a proton pack and a curiously non-canon rifle, and chase down things that go bump in the night – and giant men made of marshmallows. Ghostbusters: Dimension makes clever use of technology; players can explore a vast building despite having just 1,000 square feet of real-world space to rattle around in.
It’s that latter point – the illusion of space – that’s so integral to the appeal of virtual reality. In a city of 8.5m people, open terrain comes at a premium. However, the ability of VR to simulate verticality is perhaps its most bankable element in cramped surroundings. As in the case of Ghostbusters: Dimension, Madame Tussauds has made the best use of limited space by having players ascend the floors of a building; in that, VR spirit-catchers can visit several different places without having to worry about the bounds of the room they’re in.
New York serves as the perfect example of VR’s practical uses but the technology’s popularity as a marketing tool means that it risks becoming commonplace – even prosaic – within the next decade or so. The next few years are likely to be some of the more interesting in VR’s development, as developers aim for the ultimate in immersive experiences.