HBO’s Watchmen bringing an AR experience to Comic-Con International? I was in. Virtual reality has been a mainstay at the convention for some time now, but AR hasn’t—and with new mixed-reality wearables coming to market since the last Comic-Con, I could think of a dozen ways that the anticipated show could leverage the technology. Maybe it would combine human actors with a Microsoft HoloLens, the way FX did to promote Legion a couple of years ago. Maybe I would put on a Magic Leap and interrogate Rorshach—or, more likely, vice versa. Since HBO wasn’t bringing a Watchmen panel to the con, the network must have splashed out on something memorable. It must have.
Then I walked into the tiny blue booth. I saw the Microsoft Kinect pointing at me. I realized something crucial. The good news is that VR and AR are officially big enough to be like any other medium at Comic-Con. The bad news? A lot of it just isn’t going to make much of an impression.
That’s not to slag HBO, or the experience. Calling it AR isn’t incorrect. You stand in front of the Kinect while its depth cameras establish your body’s position, then watch on a monitor as a nuclear accident transforms you into blue-skinned, superpowered Watchmen character Dr. Manhattan. The whole thing lasts a minute or two. You get a video of the process in your inbox afterward—all the better to post on social media, my dear. It’s fine. But fine isn’t what you want from VR and AR, especially when studios and networks are ponying up for splashy, line-attracting, word-of-mouth activations. Especially especially in 2019, when the phone in your pocket can damn near do the same thing.
Across various experiences at Comic-Con, that same shoulder-shrugging phenomenon played out again and again. Oh, you’ve got a VR game? Neat. Does it do anything new or different? Not really. Hey, your thing has AR functionality? Oh, you just mean that when I look through my phone, I see something that isn’t there. Does it … do anything? No? Thanks anyway.
Such is the crossroads where VR Street intersects with AR Boulevard. In 2019, virtual reality is established enough to be common, and good enough to be unsurprising. That’s a positive for the technology in general, but when a headset like the Oculus Quest is able to deliver compelling VR without a computer, it raises the bar considerably on what constitutes a “Whoa, you’ve gotta see this” experience at an event like Comic-Con. The same goes for phone-based AR. Augmented and mixed reality that uses wearables, on the other hand, has all the novelty and hype that VR did a few years ago. With its ability to meld virtual objects with your real-world surroundings, it arguably has the potential to be more transformative than VR—but it’s also finicky at times, which makes it tougher to deploy at big events like this. A higher ceiling doesn’t mean much if the floorboards aren’t nailed down.
On a positive note, though, some truly exceptional AR/VR experiences were still to be found at Comic-Con in 2019: one rare, the other unique. (The real kind of unique, the kind that doesn’t get adverbs because it legitimately hasn’t existed before.) The first came courtesy of Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders, a mixed-reality game from New Zealand special-effects powerhouse Weta. While it came out last year, its rarity stems from the fact that it’s available only on the Magic Leap One—a headset that costs $2,300 and currently has a user base made up almost exclusively of developers. (For everyone else, the game can be played in a handful of AT&T stores in the US.)
Peter Rubin writes about media, culture, and virtual reality for WIRED.
If it were a conventional videogame, Dr. Grordbort would be a wave shooter, albeit one with a personality straight out of Portal. (The voice cast includes Rhys Darby, Stephen Fry, and Lucy Lawless.) As it is, though, it’s something much different: a steampunk fantasia in which you use a cartoonish laser pistol to fend off the virtual robots and drones crawling through dimensional rifts in your very real walls and into your very real living room. Magic Leap’s headset may not deliver the flawless miracle that it promised throughout its secretive years, but its limitations—specifically a vertically challenged field of view that can make it seem like the action is happening in an invisible aquarium—fall away during the experience.
That experience, I should point out, happened in the middle of the show floor at the San Diego Convention Center. Not that anyone else around me could see the robots and drones—they just saw me, crouching and spinning and waving my controller around. And because mixed-reality headsets are transparent, I could see the bystanders as well. It’s a weird thing: for all the people-are-watching-me insecurities folks have about using VR, any self-consciousness you feel about prancing around in front of other people tends to fade as you become engrossed in the virtual experience. (One of VR’s great traits, in fact, is the way it pushes you to drop any pretense and embrace something that makes you look very uncool doing it.) In wearable AR, that self-consciousness never really goes away. How could it, when the other people don’t?
The other standout experience happened two miles from the show floor, well outside the usual radius of con activities. To celebrate Batman’s induction into the Comic-Con Hall of Fame, AT&T and DC turned what used to be the San Diego Hall of Champions into a three-story shrine to all things Batman. Downstairs was a playable archive of Batman videogames dating back to 1986’s Batman for the NES; on the main floor was a collection of costumes and props from the Caped Crusader’s many movies. Upstairs, though, was a staging room where I learned that I would be putting on a flight suit and a helmet—a helmet with a VR headset embedded inside—and getting inside a skydiving tunnel. Yes, really.
You know the thing I’m talking about: wire-mesh floors, with enormous turbines beneath that can physically lift you into the air. Some indoor skydiving facilities have thought to use VR, but none have done it with a Batman-themed CGI experience in which you fly through Gotham’s cityscape in search of Scarecrow. At all of 77 seconds, it’s not long; the actual experience made up about 2 percent of the time I spent there, with costuming and helmeting and dehelmeting and decostuming. But it’s also utterly unprecedented.
And that’s the whole point. VR has finally gotten to the stage where it’s affordable and powerful while still remaining convenient for home users. Wearable-based AR, while a long way from affordable, is powerful and usable enough to create compelling consumer experiences. That changes the calculus considerably for studios hoping to wow con crowds (and generate a little goodwill for their IP in the process). No longer does invoking those magical acronyms guarantee a line of fans—you have to give them something they want to watch, man.