Virtual-reality pop-up

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 31, 2019.

After checking in, six people at a time are led through the museum. Photos by Bloomberg

The group experience allows all six visitors to view the same images.

The museum is located in a SoHo loft.

There are more than a dozen experiences based on users’ answers to the questionnaire.

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If you find day-to-day reality terrifying, I have found a cure. The Museum of Future Experiences, which opened last week in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood and runs through the end of August, is the latest millennial “museum” to pop up, but it is not one for taking selfies in front of colourful backdrops and sharing them on social media. Visitors wear a virtual reality (VR)-inducing Oculus S headset and prepare to have their minds blown. The museum is the brainchild of Bridgewater hedge fund alum David Askaryan, 32, who came up with the idea after realising that VR had failed to take off, not due to the actual technology, but due to a business model that mistakenly assumed people were going to buy VR headsets for their personal use.

“Most VR companies relied on a consumer infrastructure that isn’t there,” he said. “Virtually, nobody has a VR headset at home.” Consumer VR software investment dropped off a cliff in 2018, down 59% to US$173 million, from US$420 million a year earlier, according to SuperData, a digital games and VR market research company owned by Nielsen Holdings plc.

Askaryan’s solution was to create a museum experience — which comes with the cute nickname MoFE — using VR in set locations for short periods of time. He described it as “a curated cerebral experience blending immersive theatre, psychology and VR for an intimate exploration of individual and collective consciousness”. It is funded by prestigious tech accelerator Y Combinator. Tickets, which are purchased ahead of time, are US$50 (RM206) for an hour. Kent Bye, a host of the Voices of VR Podcast, sees potential in a model that creates spaces where individuals can test-drive VR instead of buying their own US$400 headsets. “More and more people want to be immersed in their entertainment,” he said. “I think we’re going to start seeing more people putting their bodies into these experiences.”

Especially millennials. A study by Harris Group found 72% of people of this generation prefer to spend money on experiences than on material things. Jeremy Bailenson, a founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and an adviser to MoFE, said VR can be a tool “to help people think about themselves and how they relate to others”.

MoFE is not the first location-based VR experience. The Tribeca Film Festival has a virtual arcade and a 360-degree theatre, and at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia visitors can use VR headsets to dive into the ocean or soar through the solar system.

Entertainment destination VR World in New York allows customers to use Oculus or HTC Vive headsets for video games, flight simulations or movies, starting at US$44 for two hours. “I consider VR to be the most impactful medium known to man,” said VR World chief executive officer Leo Tsimmer. “We’re not looking at marking technology or marketing headsets. We’re in the business of entertaining and creating fun times for friends.”

Gabriela Baiter, a founder of experiential retail studio Whereabout, agreed. “I think it’s a result of people just craving human connection,” she said about the trend of location-based VR. I had never tried VR before and my video-game expertise is limited to dodging banana peels in Mario Kart. Askaryan said that is the point, adding: “It opens up VR to a whole new set of customers.” So on a blisteringly hot Friday afternoon, I arrived with five others to “explore our individual and collective consciousness” in SoHo, New York.

The experience breaks down into roughly four 15-minute intervals. Once inside the loft space, we are informed — three times — that it previously served as a workspace for Andy Warhol. After a receptionist enquires, rather ominously it sounds to me, if we are ready for our mind-altering experience, we are greeted by museum actors dressed in full white lab technician outfits worn under a clear plastic gown resembling a garment bag. It is mad scientist-meets-futuristic time traveller, a look enhanced by their slicked-back hair. They warn us to inform them if our emotions overwhelm us and we need to take a break. The actors lead our group to a downstairs room, where we are seated in a circle with our backs to each other and given a paper and a pencil. We are asked a series of 21 questions, to which we record our answers like an elementary school spelling test. The enquiries start off simple: How anxious are we on a scale of one to 10? (I was a four earlier in the day, a 10 now.) Then they rapidly progress into more uncertain territory: Did we regularly converse with any dead family members? Have we had an out-of-body experience? Were we worried about artificial intelligence destroying the world?

We submit these “prescriptions” and line up single files for our personalised VR immersion in the next room. Then we are seated in partitioned booths and strap on Zorro-style black sanitary masks before the technicians help us situate the clunky VR headsets on our heads.

The images are supposed to be tailored to you, based on answers to the previous questionnaire. I must have done something wrong because my screen shows a menacing female robotic figure who slowly emerges from a sewer system as she repeats the words: “Do you remember the feeling of being watched as a child?”

I have never done LSD, but I imagine this is its effect in the mind of someone extraordinarily uncreative. After 10 minutes, the technician comes in and tells us to take a moment to let any insights sink in. I rack my brain for any memories of strangers peering through the window of my childhood bedroom. I expect another immersive experience to soon follow, but the technicians then lead us to an adjacent room, leaving me to work out this newly introduced trauma with a qualified therapist. The passageway is lined with white gauze that drapes onto a small stage with six orange reclining chairs that look like something a dentist would use for the world’s worst dental canal.

This time, they strap a sensor to our chests that could vibrate in sync with our VR experience. For this session, all six of us experience the same VR, which is a walk through an unidentifiable cityscape with glowing orange flames in the distance. The blaze slowly grows larger until it swallows the sky in a tornado of fiery destruction.

The technicians tell us these images are an amalgamation of the group’s inner thoughts. I decide then and there to never see any of these people again. To decompress from the immersion, we go back upstairs into a sitting area with cushioned beanbags. In one corner of the room is a small table with a single drawer and a gold sculpture of a thumbs-up signal, encircled by clear plastic curtain panels and illuminated by ceiling lights. Each of us receives a “relic” in the table’s drawer, which is a postcard with an image to commemorate our journey. Mine features multiple colourful birds, looking much more peaceful than I felt. In a circle, our group discusses the immersion and compares the images we saw with a mixture of daze and confusion. Evidently, I was the only one to see a robotic figure informing me of previously unacknowledged childhood terror — everyone else relaxed in a meadow or flew through white puffy clouds.

The entire experience took about an hour, but our time with the VR headsets lasted only a combined 20 minutes. Although I had expected a bit more time with it, in the end maybe it was for the best. — Bloomberg