Is This How Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream?

Nomadic’s forthcoming free roam attraction brings physical objects into the virtual world

Last Updated: October 27, 2017 @ 10:39 AM

Earlier this month, TheWrap put on a backpack and goggles, opened a door and entered a gritty, abandoned construction site. After switching on the flashlight sitting on the desk, nearly bumping into a file cabinet and rattling open a drawer to grab a pistol, TheWrap had a few seconds to push open a sliding door, step out on to a windy balcony and shoot down drones that were firing on the building. Then it was time to make a harrowing run across a wobbly plank several stories above a busy street and hop into a construction elevator for the grand finale.

That all happened in virtual reality. And a similar type of experience could – finally – be the thing that takes Hollywood’s favorite new toy fully mainstream.

TheWrap went on that VR adventure at a demo set up by virtual reality startup Nomadic, a company founded by former Lucasfilm special effects execs that was running a temporary installation at the Technicolor Experience Center in Culver City, California. The objects were all real – TheWrap held an actual flashlight with a working switch and opened a rickety file cabinet – and are fitted with sensors and mapped in 3-D so they appear in the virtual world in the exact same place they do in reality. That precision is critical to the whole thing; after all, reaching for a doorknob that’s off by an inch or two would ruin the illusion.

Nomadic CEO Doug Griffin told TheWrap he envisions its attractions being set up at places like malls and movie theaters – which could use a little help enticing customers after the weakest summer season in years – giving the hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t live in L.A. or Silicon Valley a legitimate high-end virtual reality experience. He said he sees the company using modular doors, walls and other building blocks, allowing venues to come up with a variety of experiences fairly easily. What’s more, rather than their first taste of VR being something cool but hardly transformative like the smartphone-based Google Cardboard apps some companies are pushing, Nomadic is making its customers’ first VR experience one of the best.

“We’re kind of doing the opposite of Google Cardboard,” Griffin said. “This is the best representation of VR.”

And while so many high-end virtual reality experiences rely on PC-based rigs with wires tying users to a stationary object, Nomadic’s platform involves being strapped to a computer-equipped backpack connected to a headset, which allows users to roam freely and feel truly immersed. To those who came up on early VR experiences that are more virtual than reality, it can be a shock to the system.

“If you have VR experience, you don’t touch a lot,” Nomadic CEO Doug Griffin told TheWrap. “Most of what’s around is not real. But people that haven’t been trained yet do touch things”

The company is targeting the first quarter of 2018 for an in-market consumer experience, but specific details on that haven’t been determined – although it should be exciting. Exact pricing also isn’t set yet, but Director of Marketing Lauren Messinger suggested a 15-minute-or-so run would cost around the price of a movie ticket in many markets.

That may not be the most affordable form of entertainment on a per-minute basis, but buying an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive and the necessary gaming PC runs into the thousands of dollars – and you still can’t run around without getting yanked back by a wire. After all, if fully immersive entertainment is going to take off – it has to be fully immersive. And as Hollywood keeps placing bigger and bigger bets on it, it’s hoping for a real breakthrough. Maybe it’s as simple as VR you can touch.

“We’re not trying to take an at-home experience and put it in a mall,” Griffin said. “The entire market wants location-based to be successful. It’s the highest fidelity experience.”