Standing at the edge of what appeared to be a bottomless chasm, I froze. My rational self told me that this was just make believe. But my gut said don’t move. It was my old fear of heights kicking in. This is crazy, I thought to myself. This isn’t real.
Across the abyss, standing on an equally precarious ledge, were two female avatars looking at us. My partner suggested that I take the torch I was holding and light the fuse of a cannon next to me. I did, and boom! The floor shook. The cannon ball hit the wall below the avatars, unleashing a cascade of rocks. One of the females, in turn, lit a cannon pointed towards us. Boom! There was more shaking as rocks in front of me fell away.
No, this wasn’t a dream, this was Dreamscape, a new “story-based full-roam virtual reality experience” now being offered at the AMC theater at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus.
Two weeks early I had been invited to check it out. The invitation made some bold claims. “Combining the emotional power of Hollywood storytelling with the visceral excitement of great theme-park rides, Dreamscape’s revolutionary, full-body tracking technology powers heart-pumping, dynamic adventures that offer a deep level of immersion,” it said.
To say I was reluctant to schlepp up to Bergen County would be an understatement.
Not only was I skeptical of the hype surrounding the “metaverse,” but the last time I’d seriously engaged with a computer game I was a teenager sitting in a smoke-filled bar sipping a rum and Coke and playing Pong. Yes, that’s a long time ago, when an 18 year-old could legally drink in New York.
But a friendly publicist named Cara egged me on, telling me it would be easy even for an old geezer like me. So, what the hell, I thought. This is one of only four Dreamscape locations in the the United States and it’s within a quick drive from Jersey City. Why not get out of my comfort zone and see if this is something our readers might be interested in?
I’m glad I did.
Aaron Grosky, President and COO of Dreamscape Immersive, met me in the waiting area, which felt like a cross between a museum and a private men’s club from the 1930s. Think Indiana Jones meets Chicago’s Field Museum.
Grosky explained that the technology behind Dreamscape was developed by Caecilia Charbonnier, a former Swiss tennis pro who went on to co-found a research center specializing in motion-capture technologies and high tech hardware to analyze body movements. That technology married to virtual reality headsets, room-scale stage sets, and immersive visuals became the infrastructure for Dreamscape, which is based in Los Angeles.
Enjoying a Dreamscape experience isn’t as easy finding your seat and hoping you don’t spill your Coke on the angry person in seat H13 glaring up at you. There’s equipment: a backpack, ankle and wrist sensors, and a headset. A “guide” helps you (and up to five other participants the room can hold at one time) put the equipment on. You then step through a door into the special “stage set” where the action will take place. The guide throws a switch and, voila, you and your buddies are now avatars immersed in whichever experience you’ve chosen (you get a choice of avatars at the start).
I sampled two experiences: “Curse of the Lost Pearl” and “Alien Zoo.” Each takes approximately 30 minutes from beginning to end. Tickets for each experience will set you back $19.99 during the week and $21.99 on weekends. Children must be ten or older.
Steven Spielberg is an investor in Dreamscape, and his influence is keenly felt. Indeed, according to Grosky, the dinosaur-like creatures that populate the Alien Zoo came from an unfinished Spielberg project. Likewise, Curse of the Lost Pearl could have been taken from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
These experiences are not to be confused with movies. There are no plots, no characters to develop. What there is, however, is the magic of being dropped inside a virtual movie set, a place where dinosaurs and cannons seem real, a place where if you’re not careful, you may just fall into the abyss.