VR seat company Positron teamed up with Universal at SXSW this year to showcase a "Zero Gravity VR Experience" tied in with the studio's The Mummy reboot.
While it fell (way) short of simulating weightlessness, it was nonetheless a nice way to watch virtual reality. If only the stuff I was watching wasn't quite so shallow.
Like the movie it's based on, Universal's setup at SXSW is flashy and expensive. You walk into a nondescript ballroom at a convention center, and are greeted by a section of an aircraft's fuselage, together with a life-sized "Egyptian" sarcophagus from the movie. Behind a blackout curtain lay 20 or so VR seats, arranged as you'd expect seating in a high-class movie theater. These seats -- Positron Voyagers -- are the real stars of the show.
Positron debuted the Voyager at Sundance earlier this year, and has since been touting the seat at various VR and film shows. Resembling an Arne Jacobsen egg chair, but with none of the charm and subtlety, the Voyager contains motors to control pitch and yaw to simulate motion, a built-in Subpac for vibrations, as well as a standard Oculus Rift headset and some noise-canceling headphones.
The actual VR experience was of the shallow PR-grab variety: a 10-minute featurette narrated by Tom Cruise, showing how the movie's zero-gravity action sequence (which was pretty much 90 percent of the trailer) was filmed.
This featurette started with perhaps the most-impressive demonstration: You sit in a plane, it takes off. Thanks to its impressive dexterity and vibration motors, the seat effectively simulated the inertia you feel when you're "pinned back" on takeoff. Likewise, as the camera circled around, and the chair swiveled synchronously, it provided a real sense of place you don't get when you're sitting stationary -- it seems an effective way to reduce motion sickness by tricking your body into feeling like it's moving around.
Where the demonstration fell apart was in the "zero-gravity" sequences. Something definitely happened -- the seat tilted back, vibrations cut out, and so on -- but in no shape or form did it replicate weightlessness.
I really like the Voyager. Positron wants this chair in theaters everywhere, and it's partnered with IMAX to at least start working towards that goal. The problem now is content. It's difficult to get hyped about virtual reality, or this genuinely good chair, when watching a lifeless featurette, or honestly any of the shallow VR experiences Hollywood is tentatively churning out. VR isn't going anywhere, sure, but it's also not going to get people excited until they can watch something more interesting than a floating scientologist.
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