I Got An Early Look At Dreamscape's Virtual Experiences At AMC Garden State Plaza - And One Day I'll Get To Tell My Grandkids About It
If you're like me, you knew even in early 2020 that, despite everything, movie theaters weren't going anywhere. There was reason for concern, sure, and there still is; Now with the rise of simulatneous streaming releases, and with so much content available on demand in general, there's not as much need for people to go out just to see a movie. If you're seeing a movie in theaters, you either really care about it, or you really love movie theaters.
Just because the concept of the movie theater isn't really in danger anymore, though, doesn't mean that the theater as we know it couldn't use some improvement.
I'm not talking about the reclining seats or on-demand food, either - while it's true that some of these more comforting, homey features may make it more tempting to go out to the movies, what any business really wants to provide is an experience that people can't get anywhere else. Now that movie theaters and home theaters are starting to blend together in terms of experience, the question is, what can we do to make this a unique experience?
Frankly, there has been a space to fill in that arena for a while - remember when movie theaters used to have full-on arcades in them?
That's the space President and COO Aaron Grosky wanted to fill when he set out to create his company, Dreamscape Immersive, in 2016, long before the pandemic put movie theaters everywhere in jeopardy. Dreamscape Immersive is a location-based VR startup led by co-chairmen Walter Parkes, COO Aaron Grosky, former Chief Creative Officer of Disney Imagineering, Bruce Vaughn, and global music events producer and serial entrepreneur Kevin Wall. They're working to use the tools we've recently been given with VR technology to create immersive experiences - not quite movies, not quite games, but something new and different entirely.
I got the chance to try three of the different virtual experiences at the new Dreamscape that just opened up AMC Garden State Plaza on Friday, and it was an exciting look at what movie theaters can become now that they're not necessities anymore.
I also got the chance to speak with Grosky, who told me that the goal for Dreamscape is to bring the experience of some of those new, more immersive VR rides at Disney World into people's hometowns - and let me tell you, that's exactly what they're doing.
A Dreamscape in your AMC is like the arcade it used to have on steroids. It reminds me of that scene in Back to the Future, where the kids scoff at the old 80's arcade game: "You have to use your hands? That's like a baby's toy!" We were five years or ten years ahead of ourselves there, but honestly, the rest wasn't far off at all.
Now, it's worth noting that this is a platform still in its infancy, and with that come a few handicaps. The VR you're seeing in these experiences is nothing like the stuff you've come to expect in modern video games - it can't be, because in order to make it immersive, programmers literally had to learn how to add another DIMENSION to everything they already needed to do.
Since I got to try all three of Dreamscape's experiences at the Garden State Plaza, I'm going to give you the rundown so that you know what to expect from this entirely new medium - what's to love, what maybe needs some tweaking, and the best parts of each individual experience. (If you don't want spoilers for the VR surprises, stop before you get to those!)
What I loved:
- VR very much drops you in. I was fully aware that I was in a virtual world, but I still found myself just disoriented enough that it felt like my senses DIDN'T know - which added to the overall effect. It's true what they say, you don't understand virtual reality until you try it yourself. At times, it really was like being on a ride.
- They make connecting to the world very simple. The attendants (or tour guides, as they're called at Dreamscape) walk you through putting your gear on and are very thorough about it - you sit in a seat, and it's all already set up to be convenient. The backpack containing the computer is behind you, the hand and foot sensors are on either side, and the VR headset is - you guessed it - right next to your head. This makes it all much less intimidating.
- There's a lot of freedom in telling a story through a new medium - the programmer can choose how much or how little story is involved in what you're doing, and there are a number of ways to take it - one of these experiences was like a racing game, another like a showcase, and still another like an escape room.
- It's a choose your own adventure in the truest sense: You get to pick where the story goes. This is truer in some adventures than in others (we'll get to that in a moment) but the principle still stands: YOU are the one causing things to happen here.
- The attention to detail in the storytelling of some of these worlds, especially the Alien Zoo, is very good. There are little pamphlets you can read on the different creatures, with tons of details on what they're like and how they function. (The backstory on the frogcats is simply adorable.)
- Personally, sometimes I want to escape, but I don't have the energy to invest in the characters and drama of a movie, or else I don't have the time. At about 30 minutes each, and with yourself as the main character, that's not an issue for VR experiences - so if you like the idea of GOING to the movies, but there isn't really anything you want to see, Dreamscape is the perfect solution.
Places I saw room for growth:
- This is a technology that will benefit greatly from reiteration. I say this with love, because there are so many places this can go: It's not finished yet. There's still something Polar-Express-y and clunky about VR worlds and how you move through them in general, and the ones you find in Dreamscape are no exception.
- The interaction was great, but I wanted more of it. Each game had a couple of things you could pick up and touch, but it seemed like only those few things were interactive, and even some of those interactions were more limited than you wanted them to be - in the Alien Zoo, for example, you could actually pet one of the animals, and it felt very real, but it was just the one. In general, I wanted more things to explore.
- Similarly, I found myself wishing the adventures could be a tad less guided: For example, in the How To Train Your Dragon adventure, there was a very strict path you needed to follow, which made it feel at times like you weren't really the one steering the dragon at all. (I want to reiterate, though, that to me this barely feels like a valid criticism: The more time and manpower that can be put into the creation of these adventures, the more open-world they'll get. I have no doubt that the team behind Dreamscape is CAPABLE of making these improvements, we just need the technology to catch up.)
- The Tour Guides could benefit from the "cast member" mindset. Some of them seemed like they weren't quite sure how to blend their dual role as actual experience facilitatior and the character of Tour Guide for this fictional world - which, to be fair to them, is a difficult line to walk. I'd encourage the staff to lean into their characters - the groups in the experience will feel less strange about this unfamiliar experience if the staff is totally committed to the concept. Tour guides should think of themselves, at least partially, as actors - shout out to Manny, one particular tour guide we had that day who did an amazing job.
My favorite parts of each experience:
- This was a very cute showcase of all the wonderful things you can invent with VR experiences: The backstories were rich and full and you can tell a lot of thought went into it.
- Being able to reach out and pet the Elqui was so weird and cool, and they did a really great job finding material that actually feels the way it looks like it should.
- I loved popping all the little wishies set off by the flight of the giant bug. It was actually one of the most immersive things for me. I couldn't help myself - it was all the joy of popping bubbles as a little kid.
- The thrills that came from disturbing the Sicari were very real, and will only get realer as VR tech gets more advanced - I found myself wondering whether they'll have "less scary" versions that more closely resemble this original one down the line, when they have the ability to make that encounter more immersive.
Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon
- This, right here, is why it's a great idea to do this in movie theaters. On top of being able to tell stories with newly invented properties, people - kids especially - can live out the dream of being part of their favorite movies. I LOVE How To Train Your Dragon, and even though I am a full adult, I still found myself practically bouncing up and down with glee when Hiccup came onto the screen and called us all to take flight.
- Flying on a dragon is an experience I have literally always wanted, and I know I'm not alone there. I don't even think I have to say anything else about that, except to reiterate the point that I'm so excited to see the physical hardware (because for this one you had a bike instead of hand and foot sensors) advance to meet with what the VR can do. Once you can actually feel your dragon walking around on the ground, and feel little bumps of turbulence when you fly, that's it - you're never getting me off the dragon.
The Curse of the Lost Pearl
- This is very clearly the adventure that they've been working on the longest. There's detail in the story, there's detail in how the world around you interacts with you, and rather than standing on a moving platform, you're actually walking around in a virtual world. The game separates you from the people around you and has you walk a simple maze - an impressive feat on its own considering the size of the real-life room you're in - to get to the end.
- It's kind of like an escape room, which is another really cool way to use this technology. This adventure in particular is one I could see turning into something bigger with just a little more time, by adding more wrong turns and/or having us look for more objects to solve the puzzle. (But one step at a time.)
- There's a moment in this one where you walk through a projector screen showing a picture in black and white into a colorful new world. It's very Wizard of Oz and I stepped back and forth four or five times before I finally moved on to the next part. It just felt so neat.
- There's a part at the end of this one where you take a mine car outside to freedom - this part was so convincing that I'll go as far as to say it outclassed some of the VR experiences at Disney World. The picture wasn't more realistic at all, but somehow it convinced me that I was on a minecar roller-coaster more than being in that one part of the line at Rise of the Resistance convinced me that I was on a captured Rebel transport.
- Seeing your name played out on the title card as you fly past was really just the icing on the cake. I literally, literally felt like I was in a movie.
Overall, I was so very excited to see everything that Dreamscape had to offer, and I can't wait to see where it goes from here. You should definitely check out this new, novel experience while you get the chance: Each adventure is $19.99 on weekdays, or $23.99 on weekends or holidays, which is a comparable price to most similar activities, like escape rooms.
Of course, there's another reason I want to encourage people to rush out and try this as soon as they can: We may not realize it yet, but we're alive right now for the birth of what could be a new industry. Talkies combined movies and radio - Dreamscape's VR experiences could do the same thing for movies and video games. (And the faster we flock to it, the faster we can get there.)
Try it now so that someday, you can tell your grandkids, "Back in my day there were only three virtual realities, and I went to every one of 'em!"
They'll probably say some stuff like "You had to put on goggles? That's like a baby's toy!" but then you can think of the irony and laugh, because you know full well the value of experiencing history firsthand. (At least this time it'll be a positive piece of history, eh?)