Otherworld brings virtual reality to the digital generation
Under an archway in east London is a portal to another dimension. Or so the literature tells us. Having been heavily plugged through Instagram, Otherworld has tapped into the pool of digitally-minded millennials as if to prove that virtual reality is no longer nerdy or retro.
Now presented as a cutting-edge, experience-led form of entertainment, VR has been employed at Otherworld to provide immersive, social games and entirely communal open-world exploration on “the Island”.
Arriving at the archway, it becomes clear that it has been heavily stylised and is reminiscent of a spaceship, a bar from the future or perhaps a waiting room before you’re probed by aliens. Guests can order drinks via tablets in the tables or simply marvel at their serene surroundings.
With the staff padding around in their white gowns, it feels very much like you’ve walked onto the set of a Black Mirror episode. However, once you work out how to get to the home screen of the tablets and start taking selfies, it suddenly seems a lot less like you’re about to be probed or brainwashed.
No expense spared, the bathrooms come complete with motion-activated toilets and colour-changing lights. Even here, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re on some form of spacecraft. However, enough playing with toilets. It was time to play some games.
Far from being a large-scale space which is augmented through VR, each person enters a separate pod. Lined up along the edges of the room, they look like the vats in which dead bodies are cryogenically frozen. Hopefully, I would come out alive.
The first limitation I noticed is that your virtual arms always remain straight, even if your real arms are bent. Needless to say, you would need motion sensors on your body for the system to know this. Furthermore, there have apparently been a number of freakouts in the past so this makes for a welcome reminder that, as you are told as the door closes, “it’s all in your head”.
In terms of equipment, there are headphones and a headset (wired to the ceiling) and two controllers which are just complicated enough to be slightly confusing without being overwhelming. Spawning with your friends on the Island, there are four areas to visit, each characterised by a season. (Throwing penguins at each other in winter is a must.)
As you pump your arms to run around and speak to other players who aren’t in your team, this makes for the funniest and most chaotic part of the experience. But if you so choose, a support operator in a nearby booth can fast-track you to one of the games. This saves a bit of time bumping into each other and shields you from further exclamations of “you’re in my game!”
We first played a zombie game in which your controllers are augmented as guns and your team fights off the approaching undead. Blowing the legs off a zombie and watching it drag itself towards you in vain reminded me of the heartlessness with which one dispatches the enemy in video games.
For some reason, we weren’t able to speak to each other during this game and moving around also seemed needlessly tricky. However, I’m no gamer and, defending a desert encampment, there wasn’t really much need to move from one spot to another.
In the next game, we found that we had been transformed into female characters with something of an anime look. On a boat, we arrived at the shore and spent the next ten minutes or so trying to master a Spider-Man-like system of swinging between suspended objects. No good at this, I ended up in the sea probably about 10 times. Before long, we were told the session had finished and were cautiously led back to reality.
There are certain quirks of the pods - like the blue grid which appears to let you know you are close to the wall - which are very useful. However, it’s easy to get the overhead wires twisted and looking up in the second game meant my headphones kept slipping off. At one point I also had to call for help because my right hand had disappeared. Again, perhaps this is a nice reminder that it’s not real.
Having been told that there is a campaign mode in one of the zombie games which takes around six hours, there was a bit of confusion around how long we would actually be in the pod for. Overall, it felt short and there are a wealth of games (all are provided by Steam) that we didn’t play.
That said, the experience is unique and well crafted. Everything about it is, fittingly, otherworldly. The 360-degree aspect providing a truly immersive experience, it takes a few seconds to adjust. But we were soon back on Earth.
Otherworld is located in Haggerston. VR sessions cost around £20 ($25) per person based on a 40-minute session with a group of four