You Can’t See ‘Ready Player One’ Yet, But With VR You Can Dance in It
When it comes to multiuser virtual reality experiences, success isn’t always a matter of numbers. Take TheWaveVR. In the year since the virtual dance party released its free beta on Steam, it’s only been downloaded about 30,000 times. Its usage lags behind other more popular social VR platforms like Rec Room and VRChat, and for much of its existence its live DJ appearances were limited to one night a week. Also, and this might be me, but every time I see its name in print I want to pronounce it “wavever.”
Yet, after I hopped into the Ready Player One environment that the company brought to SXSW, my lasting thought was, “Why the hell isn’t everyone doing this on Wednesday nights?”
By the time Ready Player One comes out on March 29, headset owners will already be able to play eight RPO-themed VR games and experiences developed in partnership with HTC Vive. That’s little surprise. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, which Steven Spielberg’s movie adapts, includes a vision of an infinitely customizable metaverse, the OASIS, that inspired many a VR designer. However, TheWaveVR’s creation, which goes live on Thursday, is unlike any of the other RPO offerings: It’s a recreation of The Distracted Globe, a virtual nightclub in the OASIS that acts as the backdrop for a pivotal scene in the movie.
You may not get an avatar as involved as the ones in the movie—the platform limits all users to genderless bubble-like characters with eyes, smiles, and little else—but all the other elements look as though they were pulled straight out of the movie scene. Which is to say, it’s a little bit overwhelming: Music pounds; neon is everywhere. In a last-minute update the company cobbled together in two days, you can even use the Vive or Oculus Rift’s hand controllers to fly, soaring through the towering space and zipping up to floating platforms. (Give it a few minutes to get used to the mechanics, though; when cofounder Aaron Lemke met me in the experience to shepherd me through, I had a habit of rocketing away into the air while he was in mid-sentence. Sorry, Aaron.)
Meanwhile, the IP holdings of Ready Player One studio Warner Bros. are on full display. The Iron Giant towers over the dancefloor, light beams shooting from its eyes; if you fly around enough you’ll eventually spot Freddy Krueger cutting a rug, as well as DC icons Aquaman, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman. And while the environment will eventually host DJs playing their own selections, it will launch on Thursday with a suitably ’80s playlist featuring WB holdings like Depeche Mode and a-ha. TheWave’s other cofounder, CEO Adam Arrigo, says that the company had already been planning to create an ’80s-themed environment, and struck an agreement to keep the Distracted Globe experience up for a year, opening the door for future “Waves” to be held there.
Throughout its young existence, TheWaveVR has worked with artists to create environments and interstitial shareable psychedelic experiences called “Trips” (wiiiiiiiiiiiink). In The Distracted Globe, one of those artists used VR illustration tool Tiltbrush to design an array of enormous floating arcade cabinets for games that figure prominently in the original 2011 novel: Wizard of Wor, Robotron 2084, Joust. At various times, the glowing behemoths appear, hovering dozens of feet above the dancefloor. At other times, enormous orbs materialize, concealing giant keys like the ones being sought in the treasure hunt that forms the backbone of RPO.
The wonder of those moments are what turn just another ancillary marketing tool into a lasting memory. The book and movie are built on a substrate of easter eggs and pop-culture references, but while those are undeniably present in TheWaveVR’s experience, they’re not what stay with you. At least, they’re not what stayed with me.
I’ve spent a lot of time in VR—hell, I wrote a book about it (shameless plug!)—so I sometimes make the mistake of thinking I’ve seen just about everything there is to see in a headset, including most of the stuff that’s in The Distracted Globe. I’ve flown. I’ve been in zero-gravity environments. I’ve danced. I’ve experienced no shortage of what can only be called “trippy shit.” But flying with Lemke among those titanic creations, flying into them, then interacting with what we found within, is an all-too-rare distillation of VR’s greatest promise: Sharing something beautiful, and otherwise unattainable, with another person.
Given the way so many of today’s social VR platforms seek to replicate elements of the OASIS, I assumed that we’d be seeing experiences like this when the movie finally came out. What I didn’t anticipate is that I’d find in one of them a reason to bring friends back to TheWaveVR—or meet new ones in there. And that reason, hidden among the game references and dancing comic-book characters, was anything but “wavever.”