1,612 “First VR Experiences” at IMAX VR

I’ve now been working at the IMAX VR Centre in Los Angeles for about six months. Besides troubleshooting the technical challenges inherent in a warehouse full of room-scale VR setups, much of my job consists of onboarding new customers who have never tried VR before, explaining how it works and giving them their first VR experience.

After a little back-of-the-napkin math, I have put a headset on 1,612 different first-time VR consumers. (And yes, we wipe the headsets down every time.) If anyone has introduced more people to VR, I would love to hear about it! It has been an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to demonstrate VR to so many new people and hopefully create lifelong fans of this new medium. Every smile I see on a customer’s face as I put a headset on their face is another reminder that I have chosen the right industry.

Throughout this adventure, I have learned a lot about what new users do and don’t want out of VR. Below, I have crystallized this knowledge into a few key points.

VR marketing has raised expectations too high.

No, you can’t touch a butterfly in VR.

And the IMAX VR website is certainly part of the problem, no offense to our web developers. VR marketing is tricky — there’s truly no way for someone to know what a virtual reality experience is like until they try it themselves. But our industry’s online presence has gone overboard on the immersion aspect, leading consumers to believe that first-generation VR environments look indistinguishable from reality. This is, of course, not the case — the most common note I get from first-time users is “it’s blurry, is that normal?” or “I can see the pixels” or “why is there this black box around my vision?” Let’s advertise VR how it actually is: the first generation of a rapidly evolving medium.

No VR experience is ready for consumers.

That’s right — not even the most polished experience like Google’s Tilt Brush or Owlchemy’s Job Simulator. There are simply too many software bugs and confusing design choices in this first wave of content. Take, for example, the way to set up a multiplayer match in Raw Data or Eagle Flight — a laborious, time-consuming process that requires two IMAX team members and at least three minutes. And if the user accidentally presses the Steam VR menu button? Oh man, all bets are off — that interface is a confusing mess. Developers need to simplify, simplify, simplify; develop an app as if your grandmother was going to use it.

New users want moments, not narratives — but that will change.

I love storytelling, and I am most interested in VR/AR as a new medium to tell immersive stories in new and creative ways. That being said, most consumers are so new to VR that they aren’t looking for deep narratives when they try their first experience. Most of what new users take away from VR are memorable moments — when they first receive a lightsaber in Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine, for example, or the first time a robot jumps up from behind them in Raw Data. Developers have to develop with these occurences in mind if they want their experience to be remembered. That being said, whenever a customer returns for a second visit, they want a more substantial story-based experience. There’s still room for full-sized, ambitious narratives in VR… in fact, that is how we build VR into an industry with lifelong repeat customers.

Game controllers are inherently incompatible with VR.

?!?!?!

HTC Vive controllers, Oculus Touch, Xbox gamepads — they all have too many buttons. No one wants to hold a controller in VR, and no one wants to ask an IMAX employee which button is the “shoot” button. Long live the Vive Tracker + real-world objects.

Kids are the future of VR.

I often get asked who our return customers are. We have people of every age group come into IMAX VR — I’ve held up a toddler so that they can reach a button on the Millenium Falcon, and handed a virtual AK-47 to a grandmother while her family watched on in amazement.

(NOTE: to protect my job I should mention that children under 7 years old cannot play IMAX VR!)

By far, our most avid customers are groups of children and young teenagers age 10–14. These kids were born using the internet, and so they know everything about technology. They’ve watched the Oculus Rift unboxing videos, they stream Superhot playthroughs on Twitch. They show up at the center with their friends and know more about VR than I do. Twenty years ago, this age group would go to gaming arcades for fun. Now, they’re coming to VR centers. In a time where many “industry insiders” are questioning the growth of virtual reality worldwide, I can confidently say that I have no doubt the VR industry will prosper — the kids have already figured it out.

P.S. As of the time I wrote this (June 2017) I’m working weekends at IMAX VR. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, come visit me! I would love to give you a tour.