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Commentary Wearable Tech

Titanic VR ride at NYC Samsung store is as weird as it sounds

Immersive theater meets virtual reality meets history meets corporate branding. And not in a good way.

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A VR Titanic experience with a real boat. Goggles, seatbelts.

Scott Stein/CNET

I looked at my colleague as we took a breather at the bathroom sink, moments after we had sat together in a boat. With VR helmets on. No, we weren't exactly sure what just happened, either.

We were right off the Highline -- the elevated park and major tourist attraction --at Samsung's flagship 837 showroom in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Here, a limited-run virtual reality experience called "Trip Factory" has been set up. And unlike the VR rollercoaster we've experienced here (and elsewhere) in the past, this was more of an immersive theater installation. Starting next Monday, it will cost visitors $15 to experience it. 

It's...not great. 

The premise is that a mysterious scientist is recreating dreams to experience them first-hand. This one, called Surviving The Titanic, involves dropping from the Titanic in a lifeboat as the doomed ocean liner sinks.

Unlike The Void's Ghostbusters experience at Madame Tussauds last year, or more elaborate pop-up escape room events, Trip Factory's current experience is basically an extended teaser for a larger immersive mini theme-park opening early 2018 in Manhattan's nearby Chelsea Market, as well as in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It's pretty hard to judge what future Trip Factory experiences will be like from this brief event, but a first-timer is bound to be pretty confused.

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A wall of dreams (and familiar Samsung phones).

Scott Stein/CNET

Immersion meets branding

It's a strange theme for an experience at a Samsung event space in the Meatpacking District, and it's even stranger because it's not handled as a museum-style "you are there" historical recreation. Instead, odd operatives of the Trip Factory organization guided us (a group of up to 8 people) down an elevator to where our sealed-off room was located. On the way, we passed by the noisy auditorium in Samsung's public space, filled with pop tracks. It wasn't part of the show. But a wall of other "experiences" playing on Samsung phones was. Lined up like recorded dreams, they suggested something larger than what my colleague Mark Licea and I were about to experience.

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The box office in Samsung 837's lobby, where tickets are bought from men wearing mirrorshades (not seen here).

Scott Stein/CNET

Not surprisingly, that Samsung branding is conspicuous, and ubiquitous. We're told about our Samsung phone-equipped VR goggles, and the Samsung phone screens all around us. I didn't get to check out the Apple "AR experience" at the visitor center of its new Apple Park campus when I was there earlier this month, but maybe these sort of AR/VR "brand extensions" are the wave of future. 

Maybe we'll see something like it at the Disney Store soon. Will it be awkward, or actually enhance the fun? I was getting a gratis preview, but actual visitors will need to buy a ticket to try the experience. Considering the cinema ticket-level pricing, I'd be far more forgiving if it was free.

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The build-up to the experience was better than the actual experience.

Scott Stein/CNET

Real boat, virtual drama

In a dark glass-walled room, we were introduced to "Dr. Philip Geyser," the mysterious Rod Serling-like scientist (who looked like he was in his twenties) on a Samsung wall display. From there, we entered a room with a recreated Titanic lifeboat and stools, with seatbelts and Samsung Gear VR headsets. After a theme park-like announcement to buckle up and put our goggles on, we were taken on a brief VR video watching the sinking, as audio, rocking boat motions and wind surrounded us and mist sprayed on us.

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The boat, a recreation of a Titanic lifeboat, is realistic. The room is studded with speakers and fans. But that's about it.

Scott Stein/CNET

Trip Factory is designed to be something larger, of which the tendrils can supposedly only be seen in this Titanic experience. According to Tony Berger, founder and CEO of Trip Factory, the final 6,000 square foot space opening early next year in New York will have multiple experiences, three of which will be sampled in one evening: Titanic, some "bullying" experience, and a third experience to be specified later. That larger space will have rooms incorporating VR, AR, and maybe even more theater-like experiences. Berger promises that multiple storylines and a deeper structure will reveal a lot more than what's hinted at here (the website suggests simulation of dreams and maybe even user suggestions).

That sounds like a good idea, because this VR ride on the Titanic felt like a pale shadow of what next-level VR should be. A Samsung phone in a Gear VR headset on a mechanized boat just isn't enough, and the weird characters who greeted me as I entered and left -- mirror-shade sunglassed operatives of this "Trip Factory" -- made no sense. The most interesting part, to me, were the hints of immersive theater that lingered before and after the experience: a brief interaction in an elevator, and the few moments seeing Dr. Geyser.

As we were suddenly ushered out, a table of what will eventually hold Samsung tablets greeted me as I left. The ride records video of you during the experience to share with friends afterwards. I pretty much guarantee you'll just look like a person in a boat with goggles on your head.