The Wave VR vs. 4DX

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The Wave VR

The Wave VR will be spoken of a hundred years from now as an early, formative masterpiece of its medium, like George Millies’s Le Voyage Dans le Lune or Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” I’d heard about The Wave as a VR music experience, and early video clips made it out to be some sort of toy for EDM kids. But after spending an hour or so with it on Saturday, I’m happy to report it’s much, much more than that.

The Wave is a social environment stocked with music, toys, and trips. There’s a candle-lit cave in which you discover a DJ booth, and a wide, subterranean plateau where various objects hover and glow. You are represented as an avatar and can choose a number of different heads including a panda bear and a wicked-looking helmet. You teleport using the thumb pad on the Vive, and when other visitors teleport, their movements resemble those of stones skipping over water.

The visuals are trippy and hint at just how weird virtual environments are going to become. With “money” that you earn by grabbing hovering orbs, you can buy “trips” and “toys.” Toys are things like guns that shoot musical projectiles. Trips are nested environments that you can share with other visitors. Some trips are more representational, like the one where you’re a fish with a head-mounted probe that triggers a balloon drop when you touch it to the probe of another fish. Others are more abstract, like one where you sort of become liquid. And then there’s the trip of the dancing television-headed people. Much of the fun of trips is that you share them with other visitors, and this social element is what makes The Wave so compelling.

When I sidled up to a dozen or so avatars hanging out by the trip and toy station, I felt as though I’d walked in on some sort of party in progress. I heard voices—a man’s British accent, someone speaking French, a Japanese speaker, a dude who sounded stoned (“Whooooooaaaa!”). Then I heard a child’s voice and turned to see an avatar that was shorter than the others.

“Hey!” the kid said, “How does this work? How do I get money? Someone help me!”

I went into Dad mode and approached the kid’s avatar and tried to coach him as well as I could, realizing that my avatar looked like a ring wraith from Lord of the Rings. I felt protective, especially as avatars around us were exclaiming things like “Holy fucking shit!” and  “This place is totally 420-perfect! Shiiiiiit!”

The English gentleman seemed to understand how the environment worked more than most, so I sidled up to the Brit’s avatar and became friends by offering him a friendship orb. He invited me to his home cave, where he played music on his DJ rig while I controlled the visuals, manipulating the pulsating geometric animations that surrounded us as if we were under a dome.

I realize that translating this VR experience into language makes it sound utterly insane. I’m having to use the kind of words I’d use to describe a dream. I’ve been blown away by VR environments before, whether in Tilt Brush, The Nest, or Google Earth. And I’ve tried social VR, sampling VREAL and Envelop VR’s platforms, for instance. The Wave takes so what’s compelling about VR and pulls it together into an explorable realm. I constantly found myself thinking oh, wow, so it can be like THIS.

When a Japanese speaker’s avatar held out an object to me and said “It make music,” I was awestruck by being connected to an abstract representation of another human being in an imaginary world despite our vast physical distances.

The Wave suggests a genre I’d like to call the realm, the closest thing yet to what Ernest Cline imagined in Ready Player One. This new format feels about on par, in terms of a media paradigm shift, with the invention of movies or websites.

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Sucked.

Speaking of movies, I saw Fate of the Furious over the weekend at Seattle’s Regal 16, a theater that in recent months has upgraded a number of its auditoriums with plush recliners. While I was apparently not paying attention, the theater added something called “4DX,” which means your seat physically moves and you occasionally get mist sprayed in your face. Imagine getting alternately fanned and spritized while sitting on a washing machine in spin cycle while a toddler kicks you in the back. During an earthquake.

About ten minutes into the movie I was prepared to leave and ask for a refund, but then I realized this experience would be great fodder for this blog, and so I chose to suffer for you, my dozen readers. You are very welcome.

Enduring the 4DX Fate of the Furious right after having my mind blown by The Wave exposed a yawning chasm between movies and VR. What pissed me off about 4DX was that I had no agency whatsoever. I was expected to passively accept the jolts and rumbles some engineer in Burbank or Pasadena or Studio City had determined that I should feel. I’m sitting there watching Jason Statham pummel his way through a maximum security prison while the world’s most incompetent robot masseuse is abusing my chakras. After two hours of this, I stumbled out of the theater having received the message loud and clear that I am too old for this shit, an attitude shared by another Gen-X dude behind me, who remarked, “Well, that sucked.”

The only element of 4DX that I found remotely nifty was how a slight ocean breeze wafted into my personal space when Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toreto shows up beachside in Cuba. Otherwise, the experience was exactly the opposite of immersive. The gluteal rumbles and spine-rattling lurches pushed my attention away from the movie, which, incidentally, was a pretty decent installment in the franchise. There was Charlize Theron as the baddie, a steely, dreadlocked Furiosa as if styled for Coachela, hellbent on taking a nuclear sub for a spin. There was Shakespeare-grade dialogue like “These assholes aren’t gonna kill themselves.” And there was the wonder that is Vin Diesel, who acts how a dildo would act if a dildo studied the Stanislavski method. Bonus: in 4DX, the dildo vibrates.

Needless to say, the movie left me bruised on a weekend when Father John Misty’s new album, full of deprecations of our brave new immersive age, ran in loops in my head and our reality star president rattled his own nuclear sabers against an autocrat just as unhinged as he.

Is it enough to let ourselves be entertained, to escape from our news feeds for a precious couple hours to surrender to a chiropractor’s worst nightmare? Is this what the arms race of sensation demands? Is our future one in which we’ll offer ourselves up to sit compliantly in our seats, our bodies shaken and souls unstirred, or one in which we’ll meet strangers from the other sides of the earth in alien landscapes, our identities abstracted into avatars that bear no trace of the races formed in the course of humanity’s dominion over the globe?

Fate of the Furious’s epic centerpiece sequence involves hundreds of self-driving cars that get hacked and driven like a tsunami of vehicular homicide through Manhattan. This is the second movie I’ve seen recently, the first being Logan, which features self-driving vehicles, which we all seem to accept are coming any day now. The act of driving, one of the things we assumed only humans could do, is about be forfeited to the machines, and therein lies a deep, Luddite anxiety that the movie adroitly exploits. How ironic, then, that a movie that taps our fear of no longer being control of the wheel has been paired with a next generation cinematic experience that emphatically communicates that the machines are in charge of your body, not the other way around.

We find ourselves at a fork in the proverbial road, to belabor a metaphor. One route offers us ever more sophisticated methods to surrender our free will. Another offers human connection in psychedelic playgrounds built in code.  Both offer a way to satiate an irrepressible human need for community. I think the real reason why audiences from Hong Kong to Seattle flock to the The Fast and the Furious movies, beyond the laughably improbable close calls and military industrial pyrotechnics, is their appeal for us to envision ourselves as belonging to a vast, transracial family spanning languages, continents, and preferences for modes of transportation. Just as we yearn to be thrilled, we ache for ways to bridge our differences. Virtual reality, not cinema, is where we’re going to build those bridges.

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