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VR Worlds Come To Life At NorthPark With Dreamscape 34

Video: Dreamscape/YouTube.

Stories that unfold around you. That’s how Dreamscape by AMC describes itself. I went to a preview at NorthPark Center this week to check out this new virtual reality experience that sends you – and up to five others – on an immersive and interactive computer-generated virtual journey.

Dreamscape is in a storefront on level two, between Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. It’s the company’s second location. The first is at Westfield Century Center in LA. And it’s coming soon to Ohio, the New York/New Jersey area, Dubai and beyond.

Once inside, I am assigned a group. We are geared up – each of us equipped with a VR headset, a lightweight backpack containing a computer, and hand and foot sensors.  Then we are led through a door to a dark room, about 20’x20’. That’s when the action starts. The entire experience is a shared journey. We are completely immersed in an ever-changing virtual landscape. It’s unlike any other VR I’ve experienced. NERD ALERT: Think of an early iteration of the holodeck from Star Trek.

Photo: Dreamscapes, Century City LA Location
Photo: Dreamscapes, Century City LA Location

I’ve watched, or created, other virtual reality or augmented reality content. The viewer is often limited to sitting in a swivel chair while watching a scene unfold. Or maybe they’re standing in a confined space, painting a virtual canvas. If there is navigation, it’s often done using a joystick.

Dreamscape is different because you and your teammates are walking around.  We first stand behind a red line and put on our headsets to “activate” our avatars.  Once activated, I see everyone’s virtual heads and limbs moving around in real time as we all look at each other and discover the space together. We are introduced to the “stage” beyond the red line that is surrounded by a railing, visible in both physical and virtual worlds. It’s often incorporated seamlessly into the virtual environments. Sometimes it disappears when we move to the center of the room. The railing serves as a place to pick up or interact with items in the stories of the virtual world. On a more practical level, it stops us from walking into real-world walls.

After the introduction is complete, the show begins.  We are virtually guided into the room and set free to navigate around the ever-changing environments. It’s a bit off-putting at first, but you soon get the hang of things. There are 3 shows at the NorthPark Center location. I chose “The Curse of the Lost Pearl” and “The Blu: Deep Rescue”

Video: Dreamscape/YouTube.

In reality, we are just walking around in circles in a square box. But the show does an excellent job of making you feel like you’re in vast outdoor tropical spaces, cavernous rooms or deep underwater. I often notice other team members admiring the details and scenery unfolding all around us.

At one point during Curse of the Lost Pearl, my team splits into two groups, separated by a booby trap. We are left to navigate through a maze to reconnect. In reality, the team just turns away from each other and walks in opposite directions. But, because we can no longer see each other through the virtual walls, we really feel like the others are lost in some unknown area of a temple. Later, we see our teammates across what looks like a vast chasm. The dissonance really challenges my sense of space – the chasm seems real, but I know these people are just feet away from me. Eventually, the team reunites to take on more challenges together.

Looking over a virtual ledge, I feel acrophobia. I take large steps over a perceived broken bridge or a crumbling floor. It’s all quite convincing. Earlier VR experiences have induced nausea in some people, but that’s now often alleviated by simply adding a nose to the viewer, or in this case, an entire body. No one in either of my groups felt sick or needed support from staff members, who monitor the room at all times and stand ready to lend assistance.

Video: Dreamscape/YouTube.

During The Blu, team members ride atop their own underwater “aqua scooters.”  This gives the feeling of separating from the group and driving into a vast underwater cavern. While I look around and enjoy the scenery and vibrant aquatic life, I can also turn to see my teammates navigating their aqua scooters, seemingly 100 feet away from me. Of course in reality, we are all standing still in one spot holding handle bars attached to the stage railing.

This is the magic of Dreamscape. The illusion of context and shared spatial awareness is created with the help of powerful graphic engines (Did I mention you’re wearing a computer on your back?), numerous cameras, sensors, fans, misters and vibrating floors.  All combine to make participants believe they are outside the proverbial “box,” the physical room, and sharing an experience together in real time

Dreamscape by AMC is bringing theme-park-level entertainment to a retail store near you (fingers crossed). But many others are working in this new space of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. The public media sphere is using these new forms of interactive and immersive storytelling in the classroom and elsewhere. Georgia Public Broadcasting last year unveiled its “Georgia Forests“project. It lets students take “virtual field trips” across the state to learn about unique ecosystems via 360 videos using Google’s cardboard. The NET Nebraska 360 video series “Watershed” has received critical acclaim, and ‘Under the Milky Way” won a regional Emmy.  At Art&Seek, we’ve dabbled in the space with our recent 360 videos looking at the Dallas Museum of Art’s Dior exhibit, and, last year,  the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s “Array.” News outlets are also using this tech in new ways to tell stories.

This new wave of tech could seem frightening. But today’s youth are its first natives. And they are quickly interacting with and embracing it. It’s still not mainstream. But the promise it offers to educate, inspire, entertain and connect us will likely be evident in the coming decade. AMC’s foray into this space is a first on a commercial scale. Hopefully, it won’t be the last.

Dreamscape at Northpark Center will run you $20 per ticket and is open to “travelers” 48″ tall, and at least 10 years old.“The full journey” lasts approximately 35 minutes and includes check-in, gear-up, and gear down.