'Westworld' Gets VR Treatment At NYC Comic Con

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'Westworld' Gets VR Treatment At NYC Comic Con
October 9, 2016
I went to Westworld IRL. Ok, not actually. But for a brief 15 minutes on Friday afternoon, it definitely felt like I had. Comic Con is home to dozens of themed activations designed to promote various shows and movies. Many of these experiences now include some kind of virtual reality element. So it came as no surprise when HBO invited press — and New York Comic Con attendees — to experience its new show, Westworld in VR.

I was intrigued, of course, because the premise of the show itself is very eerie. The Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy drama (based on a Michael Crighton film), which launched two weeks ago, is about the dawn of artificial consciousness and what happens when humans explore a world in which every human appetite (even if it's sinful) can be indulged. 
 
So how does that translate into a VR experience? All I knew about the activation was the description HBO sent. Westworld: A Delos Destination was "built internally by HBO as part of an ongoing research and development initiative to explore storytelling in Virtual Reality." 
 
"The experience blends traditional CG content, 360 live action video, and real world object interaction into one ambitious piece," HBO said in its release. "It leverages Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) and is built to run natively on HTC’s Vive headset system using Valve’s SteamVR software layer.  The live-action 360 video portion was shot on the Westworld set using a custom 360 camera rig and gyro stabilization system made by Spherica, and the piece was directed by Michelle MacLaren."

Spots for the experience filled up quickly, but I was lucky enough to get squeezed in on Friday. The first thing I noticed was the giant W on the outside of the building, which was located about a block and a half away from the Javits Center, where New York Comic Con is held. I walked in to the space, which was bright, quiet and nearly devoid of furniture. 
 
There, "hosts" dressed in all white stood at the entrance and at a desk down the long hall. One host immediately asked me: "Hello, do you have an appointment card?" I panicked. "No...um, I have an email confirmation? Saba, with err...Mashable."
 
I wasn't quite sure if Mashable existed in Westworld. Actually I wasn't even sure if technically I was supposed to be in Westworld yet (aka if the activation had begun). Suddenly another host (by the way they were all beautiful) came and said "She's ok — welcome Saba. We will get you situated shortly. Please, have a seat."
 
Very polite, somewhat unsettling — but nonetheless I awaited my turn while sitting on one of two black leather couches in the space. I was alone at first. But soon another visitor approached the table and checked in.

Meanwhile, two flat-screen TVs projected images of Westworld straight from the series itself. At exactly 4:02 p.m., I was escorted down a dark hallway. The host then asked: "This experience has graphic violence, loud flashes and nudity. Are you ok with that?" 
 
"Sure?" I said. 
 
"Ok, enjoy your stay."
 
I then walked into a small makeshift room which had just a chair with equipment attached to it. Another host, this one a man dressed in black, asked me if I had ever done VR before. I said "Yes". He told me that if I ever felt uncomfortable during the activation to just raise my hand.
 
He helped me put on the headset, which took a while because I was trying to figure out if I could still fit my glasses under the set. I ultimately opted not to because it made everything more blurry. He put headphones on my ears, did a soundcheck and then asked if I was ready.
 
"Yep."
 
"Welcome to Westworld."
 
The VR experience kicked off with a man within the world asking me what gun and hat I'd like to choose. I opted for the black pistol (I was holding on to a connecting device that operated as my gun throughout) and a black cowboy hat to match.
 
"I thought you might pick that one," the man said. He then led me straight to the park, where things, obviously, started to get crazy. As you travel through the world, there are easter eggs (which I won't spoil in case you haven't seen the first two episodes yet) shown in the three different locations, including the lab where the journey began. 
 
The time I struggled most in using the VR was when someone in the world asked me to "sit down." I was confused because I totally forgot that there was, in fact, a chair in the room. It took me a minute to turn around and physically sit in a chair. Once I did so, I was virtually wheeled around Delos, where I watched humans interact with, and try to fix, the artificial intelligence they had created. 
 
After that, my experience finally came to an end. When I left, my face was sweaty. I couldn't tell if it was from wearing the headset for too long or if I just felt too immersed in Westworld.

As I left, one host said: "We hope you enjoyed your stay."

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