At Madame Tussauds in Times Square NYC you can now visit the universe of the Ghostbusters for the low price of $49.95. The experience begins when you walk down a recreation of a NYC subway entrance — walls covered with authentic looking grime and a flickering sign identifying the station. The Ghostbusters theme comes on as you descend, and at the bottom a projector animates the spraypainting of the Ghostbusters logo onto the tiled wall. The projector has also been “grime-ified”, and doesn’t seem too out of place in the subway. Turn a corner, and get blasted with some pneumatic air: it’s loud and makes a person jump.
Around the corner, you’re in a hallway of an old mansion. Definitely ghosts around. A locked door rattles. A rocking chair rocks with nobody in it. A candle moves along the top of a book case. The hallway is lined with large portrait frames, in each is a screen that animates a ghost. One of these ghosts comes toward you and barfs and you are sprayed with water. Gross!
Then you find a payphone, which says “who you gonna call” on it. Pick up the phone, and it both starts ringing and playing audio of people calling the Ghostbusters, simultaneously. This installation did not seem to be working properly. I saw a few people try to use it, and furrow their brows. One pair of young women could not figure out how to hang up the phone again — they tried several times to lay it sideways across the top of the cradle. This must be the way payphones are hung up in France.*
Giving up on the payphone, you move into the Ghostbusters lab and HQ, where a wax figure of Jillian Holtzmann is working on a new version of the EctoBlaster. This is probably the best part of the entire “immersion”, where you can look at papers on the bulletin board, inspect difficult-looking math scribbled on crumpled paper near futuristic-looking machines, and peek into the vats where the ghosts are stored to see a few well-executed Pepper’s ghosts. This is also where a friendly person in the official staff “Ghostbusters” t-shirt told me that yes there are ghosts in New York and even right here at Madame Tussaud’s and they sure needed my help busting them. I wish they had given her a jumpsuit.
The interactive element of the walkthrough comes next — a very large Pepper’s ghost effect of fan-favorite ghost Slimer flying around by some elevators. Slimer is silly, and he makes some rude faces and flatulent jokes before the red light on the button on the pedestal on the side of the room comes on. “You can push the button now”, says the helpful attendant. A woman looks up from her phone, pushes the button, and Slimer gets sucked in to the ghost trap set beneath him. The dynamic animated transition is very well executed but the woman is already on her way past him looking down at her phone as he cries out at the misery of his lost freedom. Moments later, he is back to taunt the next passerby into trapping him all over again.
The next room is split. In an open area that also has snacks and memorabilia for sale, there’s a large green screen behind an EctoBike where you can sit and have your picture taken, to be dropped into a ghost-filled NYC streetscape. In a brick-walled alcove, you are invited to enter THE VOID’s Ghostbusters Dimension™ Hyper Reality™ Experience. Your ticket may have been for a specific (3pm) time slot, but you can just get in line after you sign the waiver. A cartoon demonstrates that you will be wearing a vest and a helmet, and some general rules for behavior when you are inside. You can watch this cartoon at your leisure, as you will have six or more opportunities to view the entire 5 minute production.
When it’s your turn, you and the guy in front of you and the father/8-year-old-son pair behind you are brought together as a Ghostbusting team. You all go in to a room behind the brick wall to suit up — strap on the futuristic vests that hold a big computer to your back, and let the technician place the goggles over your head. These goggles are surprisingly heavy, and require a full padded helmet to secure to the noggin. Headphones are fixed to your ears, so you are immediately connected to the rest of your team via audio link. This will be important over the next ten minutes, because one of your teammates will be saying “Dad I can’t see you” on a rapid loop, which will be perfectly audible to you, and the innocence and fidelity of the boy’s voice will warn you not to whisper frustrated expletives about the long and buggy startup procedure.
Before I describe why the VOID experience was a let-down, let me explain why it’s the coolest VR platform I’ve ever tried. Instead of tethering yourself to a stationary computer in the room, the VOID technology puts the computer on right on your back. So you’re carrying around a desktop computer and a battery big enough to power it — it’s pretty heavy. The upside is that you can now move around, and you’re able to walk right out of the “interactive fence” that defines most interactions with VR built for the Oculus and HTC Vive. The VOID takes full advantage of this ability — after you suit up and drop the goggles over your eyes you start to see the virtual world mapped over the physical space you were just in. In order to move through that virtual world, you just start walking.
This freedom offers some exciting opportunities. It allows the experience designers to modify the physical space to enhance the virtual world seen and heard through the headset. In the VOID Ghostbusters Experience, this was done three times (that I noticed): once, when you step into an elevator, the ground vibrates beneath you as you “ascend” through the building; another time, when you are out on the roof of a skyscraper and have to cross a rickety walkway, the real surface below your feet is really rickety feeling; finally, when you blow up the marshmallow man, the unmistakable scent of toasted marshmallow fills your nostrils. These touches go a long way to bring the participant into the new “reality” being presented to their eyes and ears. It’s really, really neat.
So if the technology is so cool, why was the experience awful? Simple answer: the cool technology was also broken. The worst symptom of its brokenness was a glitch in the video in my goggles where I would turn my head to the left or right and the video would begin tracking with my movement, but then jump back to the point where was looking before I had moved anywhere. It was an extremely disorienting effect; I could feel my brain panicking as the visual/somatic relationship disintegrated. Immediately I had a headache. I complained, but they couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so I was nudged along into the next room. Things worked okay for a few minutes, but then on the roof my EctoBlaster stopped responding to any of my movements, and I watched it floating out over the edge of the skyscraper, slowly spinning and firing off the occasional plasma beam. Losing the gun was bad because the gun is the only way a player can interact with the game. Then, more eye-tracking bad times. I re-entered the immersion for the final scene, and was able to participate in blowing up the marshmallow man, but that didn’t overpower the feelings of frustration and perceptual dissonance that had accumulated over the walkthrough.
It could have been worse. One surprising design decision saved me significant discomfort: the goggles left a gap below the screen that you could look down through and see the floor. When the experience became unpleasant for me, it was easy to lower my eyes to the ground and then slip my goggles off. This “stepped” process of immersing in and extracting from the VR world goes against the tendency toward complete sensory isolation. It also made me feel more willing to re-immerse after something went wrong: it gave me a line back to reality from a world I did not trust.
Once they unhooked me from my backpack computer I made a beeline to exit the building. I was all worked up with disappointment with the Ghostbusters Experience. I did not wait in line to take a green-screen photo on the EctoBike, or take more selfies with the wax likenesses of the rich and famous, or buy candy from one of the numerous dispensaries available on the long and circuitous path out to the street. I was in a generally foul mood that seemed to be echoed in the body language of a miserable Mickey Mouse performer who shuffled by in his sun-cracked mask as I came out onto the street.
But even if my Ghostbusters Ultimate Experience was lame, the promise of VR and augmented-world attractions is still rich. The VOID is doing some of the most exciting mixed-reality layering I’ve seen. This is their first public installation, and I’m not at all surprised that there are significant problems as they hand over their system to be run for hundreds of people per day by non-technical “ushers”. I will be in line to do their next experience. Until then, it’s just another signpost pointing to the future that reads “Fun Virtual Reality Ahead”.
* This is not the way payphones are hung up in France. In fact a small amount of research reveals that the “top of the receiver hangs from a cradle that closes the connection” is very much a global standard for payphone design. Perhaps this was the most mysterious thing about the entire time I spent in the Ghostbusters universe. What were these women trying to do? Did they wish to stop the flood of calls from reaching the Ghostbusters? Why would they want that? To usher in the Epoch of Phantasms? To destroy the entire city of New York? To start their own Ghostbusting business by leeching customers from the market leader? None of the scenarios speak too kindly for these strange people I had mistaken for merely hapless.