Virtual reality pops up at Denver museums, festivals and even VR escape rooms

Samantha Doerge was shutting down the Denver Film Festival’s virtual reality floor last fall when a woman shuffled in with her elderly mother, asking if Doerge would run the hour-long, three-part “Spheres” program one last time.

” ‘We’re sorry to be here so late,’ ” Doerge, a programming coordinator for the festival, remembers the woman telling her. ” ‘But my mother has wanted to be an astronaut all of her life and couldn’t because of an astigmatism. This is as close as she’ll ever get.’ Of course, I was more than happy to stay open for her.”

“Spheres,” which has captivated audiences and critics at the Telluride, Sundance and Venice film festivals, invites viewers to don the now-standard virtual reality goggles and take a celebrity-narrated trip through the cosmos. Created by Eliza McNitt and executive produced by Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), “Spheres” employs digital animation to render the big bang and other astronomical events in spectacular detail, bringing participants as close to space travel as they’ll likely ever get.

The effect of narrative experiences like “Spheres” is uniquely powerful, said Doerge, who has helped program the Denver Film Festival’s virtual reality offerings the last couple of years. She also assisted with the debut of “Spheres” as Telluride’s first-ever VR offering in 2018.

“When this woman, who had to have been 85 or 90 years old, came out of it, she was just crying,” Doerge said. “The word she used was ‘magical.’ “

Long in the wings, VR has increasingly inched into the spotlight at festivals, museums, theaters and bars as its complex technology — bulky headsets, servers and software — has grown rapidly cheaper and more compact. When it returns Oct. 30-Nov. 11, the Denver Film Festival will offer eight separate virtual reality experiences at its Festival Annex at the McNichols Building, with another four provided by its VR sponsor, Boulder-based Reality Garage, a lounge and makerspace that produces its own VR content.

In recent years, the entrance of Facebook, Microsoft, Sony and other global players into the industry has rapidly accelerated VR’s consumer-friendliness while spurring artists and programmers to dream up new interactive concepts. Investors are also licking their pixelated chops at forecasts that predict the global market will increase from about $8 billion in 2018 to $44.7 billion in 2024, according to a recent report.

And as Doerge knows, virtual reality isn’t just for gaming and entertainment. Her husband, a technology specialist for Children’s Hospital Colorado, uses VR to transport sick kids from the confines of their beds to Altspace, a social platform that offers simulated meet-ups and activities.

“It’s there so kids can do things like have dinner with their families,” Doerge said. “These are mundane things we take for granted, but sick kids can check into Altspace and no longer feel this alienation from their childhoods.”

Of course, that requires the other participants to don VR headsets, too. But as people get used to seeing VR at places such as Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum (which offers simulated plane rides), the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (in its new “Extreme Sports” installation), and the casino-like environs of Dave & Buster’s, the idea of bringing it into the living rooms gets less intimidating.

In other words: Much like table tennis or life-sized Jenga, it’s another trendy entertainment — albeit a pricey, fast-evolving one.
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“There’s no headset at home, but that’s been a request for Christmas,” said Mandi Hoffman, a Denver mother overseeing nine middle-schoolers last week at VR Social, a virtual reality arcade in Broomfield. “We don’t have a lot of space, so I’m a little worried about how it would work. But we love VR. We visited a VR art exhibit in Montreal, which was incredible, and we like to do the VR games at the Punch Bowl Social on South Broadway.”

Hoffman’s son, Henry, was there celebrating his 11th birthday with school buddies — all of them playing a sci-fi combat game and loosely tethered to the ceiling by cords on their headsets. The scene prompted Hoffman’s daughter Millie to acknowledge a common criticism of VR: Why should kids hook themselves up to machines for entertainment, even in poor weather, when indoor playgrounds, trampoline parks and “American Ninja Warrior”-style obstacle courses are so widely available these days?

“Clearly from the outside, when you don’t have the headset on, it looks completely different,” Millie, 14, said as she stood in the bare-bones, LED-lit arcade space. Next door, a quintet of near-motionless people sat in a darkened room playing a virtual escape-room game. “But once you get inside it’s a heightened reality — fantasy games, fighting off robots, things you don’t get to experience when you go to (a business like) Jump Street or Lava Island.”

Basic VR emulators such as Google’s Daydream Viewer, which mimics the look of VR by turning your phone into a display screen, retail for about $100. Gaming-friendly VR headsets, like the new Oculus Quest, range from $400 to $1,500 for crisp, stereoscopic imagery that offers the illusion of three-dimensional interactivity.
Provided by Wings Over the RockiesVisitors to the Blue Sky Gallery in Centennial experience a virtual plane ride as part of Wings Over the Rockies’ VR programming. (Provided by Wings Over the Rockies)
That’s a pricey buy-in compared to a board game or night at the movies, but nothing can match the experience, proponents say. Blotting out natural stimuli with eyepieces and headphones is one thing, but adding to the sensory immersion with physical elements, motion-tracking, controllers and other features can take something like a video-game escape room to new heights of interactivity — and meaning.

“As a technology, it’s extremely exciting for us,” said Lauren Cason, creative director of Interactive at Santa Fe-based art company Meow Wolf. “If you’ve ever been to a VR exhibit or seen a demo, you’re going to be sitting in a blank room with a thing on your face, and it might not have much to do with the space you’re in.”

Meow Wolf, however, has been busy researching and developing new XR (or “extended reality”) concepts that will allow guests to blur the lines between their physical and digital worlds at the company’s interactive art-playgrounds. That includes its forthcoming Denver location, a 90,000-square-foot, $60 million, four-story complex under construction at Interstate 25, Colfax Avenue and Auraria Parkway viaducts.

“There’s technology out there — like HoloLens, Magic Leap, Spark AR, Apple’s AR (augmented reality) kit, ARCore and others — that allows you to superimpose three-dimensional digital objects onto real-world objects, and then have an interplay between those real and fabricated worlds,” said Cason, a veteran of MIT and Apple. “We believe that’s the future of these immersive, experiential spaces.”

Or the present. Last week, the Washington, D.C., location of Madame Tussauds wax museum announced its new “Alive in AR” augmented-reality experience that uses smartglass technology to animate its celebrity and historical statues. That includes everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to Tyra Banks, who come to life with the aid of 360-degree video, holograms and custom soundscapes.

“While some attractions have experimented with AR on handheld smartphones, Madame Tussauds D.C. is embracing the more immersive and hands-free smartglass technology,” said ARtGlass founder and CEO Greg Werkheiser in a press statement.

So how long will it be before we see that in Denver? Possibly sooner than you think, Meow Wolf officials said, although they declined to reveal specific details about Denver-based XR offerings, or say how much the company is investing in those technologies.

“We’ve had several interesting tests and successes that are pointing toward something larger,” said Emily Montoya, a co-founder of Meow Wolf. “A couple of years ago, we took a VR experience called The Atrium to South by Southwest, which allowed people to experience our (Santa Fe-based) House of Eternal Return. And last year we took Navigator (a ‘mixed-reality sculpture’) to L.A.’s L.E.A.P. Con, which was sort of a giant-robot headset experience.”

Navigator, which invited participants to climb behind the controls of a car-sized, spider-like robot, combined VR, AR and physical features to create the experience of operating a giant robot in real time. This sort of “spatial computing” is a clear emphasis for the company moving forward, Montoya said.

“One of our biggest interests is incorporating theatrical storylines into the technology,” she said. “We already have the capacity to create such fantastic physical spaces and controls, so why not start there?”

The same criticisms that detractors have for VR — its largely sedentary nature, its contrived imagery and sound — could just as easily be leveled at all manner of film and gaming, defenders say. And VR’s unlimited adaptability in the virtual space means, for example, that deaf people can use sign language to communicate with one another, or that wheelchair-bound people can fulfill dreams of walking, running and even flying.

Recent advances have broadened VR’s applications to the point of mainstream appeal, from VR headsets going wireless to virtual learning, workplace training and even theater –  such as last month’s “Virtue of Reality” production from the University of Colorado’s Experience Design MFA students.

There’s limitless room for experimentation, backers promise. Just not, you know, in the literal sense.

“At my core, I am a cinephile and I love movies,” said Denver Film Fest’s Doerge. “But one thing that’s so exciting about VR is that your brain doesn’t make a distinction between what’s happening to you and what’s happening in the headset, so the emotional response you can get from a VR experience is very powerful. I have watched grown men burst into tears because it was so captivating.”

She hopes to further evangelize for the format at the Denver Film Festival’s VR-focused panels at Civic Center’s McNichols Building on Nov. 9. One is a general creator panel, while the other explores its uses in pediatric health care.

Both are fundamentally rooted in storytelling, she said.

“One of the most successful and basic VR experiences out there is called Job Simulator,” Doerge said. “It’s also the first one I ever tried about four years ago. In it, I was basically a 7-Eleven cashier, but what shocked me was how consuming it was, because I almost had to reintegrate into my own reality after taking off the goggles. It’s been an uphill battle with VR into the film world, but whether it’s storytelling or escape, it has this unique ability to transport you, even when you’re fully aware that you’re wearing the headset.”

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