Great Escape

Virtual Reality Is Not the Escape You Think It Is

We flee reality by documenting our lives on social media. VR is one of the few new technologies that forbid it.

“Take everything out of your pocket,” the attendant says. “Wallet, keys, phones — all of it.” I look at him quizzically. “Yes,” he reiterates. “Your phone. Put it in the locker.”

I had just made my way through three floors of wax figures and tourists at Madame Tussauds in Times Square to get here. Crowds of people stood posing beside lifeless celebrities, throwing up peace signs and pretending to kiss them on the cheek. Madame Tussauds is a place tailor-made for pulling out your phone and taking a picture. But I’m not here for the soulless wax-embalmed statues. I’m here for the virtual reality.

“Welcome to Ghostbusters: Dimension,” the attendant continues before unclipping the rope to let my partner and me through to a small waiting room. “It’ll just be another minute while we get you suited up.” As we round a corner, we see a set of black vests and VR helmets hanging on the wall. Staffers suit us up: Clasps are buckled and pulled tight, goggles are checked for light holes — the whole megillah. Then, with the VR screen still black, the attendant shoves what feels like a plastic gun into my hand. “All right, you guys ready?” he asks.

“Let’s do it,” we say.

He counts down to zero, and with the flick of a switch, the display inside the VR goggles lights up. We’re suddenly in what seems like a decaying office building. The guns are no longer plastic — they’re grimy metal blasters. The vests are no longer hunks of fabric, but proton packs. My partner is no longer my partner; she — and I — are Ghostbusters.

Virtual reality has taken the long road to mainstream adoption. While the technology was originally invented in the 1950s with a device called the Sensorama, it had a few other big moments in the ’80s and ’90s, when the rise of personal computing made it seem poised for mainstream release. (Anyone remember Sega VR?) Virtual reality as we know it, however, really only gained popularity in the past five or six years, thanks to the Oculus Rift. Palmer Luckey’s company would eventually make history by being the first Kickstarter campaign to result in a $2 billion buyout from one of the largest media companies in the world: Facebook.

But the Rift itself, as impressive as the technology was on its own, likely owed some of its popularity to something a little more primitive, relatively speaking: YouTube.

Back in 2012, an entire subgenre of YouTube videos existed that’s best described as “people trying the Oculus Rift for the first time.” In it, users — unfamiliar with the sensations of stereoscopic 3D and real-time head tracking — couldn’t seem to reconcile what was happening in the virtual world with what was happening in physical space. As a result, even cartoony roller-coaster simulations resulted in shrieks of enthusiastic terror and deranged flailing. These videos were endlessly entertaining, first and foremost, because they were funny, but also because they transmitted the idea that this may, in fact, be the virtual reality we’ve been waiting for all these years.

VR itself has never really been shareable — what’s shareable is the act of watching someone try VR, which perhaps in part accounts for these videos’ success on blogs and platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Through them, these videos earned tens of millions of views — far more than they otherwise would have.

All that changed when virtual reality matured into a consumer item, which brought the technology beyond gaming conventions and beta devices and into the home. As the technology became more commonplace, the intrigue that originally fueled its shareability dissipated. Shipments of VR and AR headsets have fallen some 30.5 percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to data gathered by IDC, and that has led to more and more VR companies focusing not on bringing the technology into the house, but on making it an attraction outside the home.

The VOID, which makes Ghostbusters: Dimension, is one such virtual reality company. Instead of an in-house device, The VOID creates brick-and-mortar experiences all over the world, where virtual reality games are mapped to real-world objects and rooms, allowing players to physically interact with obstacles and walls that appear in-game. In New York City and Dubai, that’s Ghostbusters. In Las Vegas and Edmonton, Alberta, it’s Star Wars; in California, it’s a demon-slaying game called Nicodemus. You get the picture.

This shift from in-home device to out-of-home experience made virtual reality even more incompatible with the sharing economy because of how difficult it is to document: It’s impossible to selfie, because the entire experience exists in virtual space. And where some may see that as a problem, others may see it as a benefit.

Experiences are supposed to be an escape from our day-to-day lives. A trip to the museum, a Caribbean vacation, a nice dinner—all of these can offer a brief respite from ordinary stresses.

But in this era of social media escapism, even those aren’t enough. We take out our phones and escape further into the screen, placing greater importance on the documenting of an experience rather than the experience itself. Virtual reality stands out as one of the few new experiences that preclude that option of escape — and instead demand our presence. We may not be in the physical world, but we are completely immersed in a new one: no splitting our attention or pressure to prove we were there. It’s just you, whoever you’re with, and the game. And in this day and age, that in itself feels like a new idea.

A blast of air shoots down on us as we step “outside” to fight a cadre of stone gargoyles. In the distance, a ravaged New York City is splintered by a giant, building-wide beam shooting skyward and pulsating as ghosts swirl around it. I don’t even realize my mouth is agape in awe until a splash of water — a practical effect indicating a ghost flew through me — hits my lower lip. I swirl around and immediately shoot my proton blaster, catching anything in my sight. My partner’s laugh is piping through my headset, because, from her vantage point, my avatar is spinning around and jumping like a madman. I’m too embarrassed to say that it’s not a glitch and that I am, in fact, spinning around and jumping like a madman.

We head into the next room for the coup de grâce—the battle everyone who’s seen Ghostbusters wish they could reenact: the battle of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. For five whole minutes, we toast away bits and pieces of his marshmallow flesh, until our in-game narrator tells us what to do: “He’s too strong! You’re going to have to cross your beams!” My partner and I take a look at each other.

“See you on the other side, Ray,” I say, referencing the Ghostbusters character I’m embodying.

“I’m telling everyone you said that,” she says.

“Whatever,” I reply. “I’m just glad there’s no proof.”

Audience development @ Medium

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