I'm in a convenience store in Las Vegas, generic cans of brightly colored sodas everywhere. A masked employee guides me to a wall where a weird garden is growing. My hands are robot hands. I see the garden and step through, and there's a strange universe beyond. I'm pulled back. We head to a staircase along the edge of the convenience store, go upstairs, and then things get even stranger.
I'm not at Meow Wolf's Omega Mart, which just opened inside Las Vegas' immersive art space, Area 15. Instead I'm watching all of this on a monitor at home. I'm seeing a live-streamed (at least I think it's live) walk through the space, recorded on camera, and presented to me as if I was embodying a robot worker in this Omega Mart space. In essence, I'm tele-presencing in. And I love it.
Of course, Omega Mart isn't enabling this type of virtual visit. The experience is designed to be enjoyed in person, exploring this immersive theatrical space and touching items, walking through doorways. It's actually open now for people to attend in person. But I'm not going to be doing that anytime soon.
I haven't been anyplace at all in a year, and while I've been on the extreme side of what a lot of people have lived through in the past 12 months, I'm not alone. I used to go to Las Vegas once a year for the CES show, and back in January 2020 I saw Area 15's still-incomplete building in person. I went on a hard hat tour. I was hoping Meow Wolf's Omega Mart would be open soon. I was hoping to come back and visit when it did.
Meow Wolf, an immersive art collective funded in part by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, started in Sante Fe, New Mexico, with a now cult-famous experience called The House of Eternal Return. Meow Wolf expanded to a theme park ride in Denver, and this Las Vegas experience is the group's next large-scale installation.
Like The House of Eternal Return, the Omega Mart space is filled with the works of immersive artists and musicians, with many rooms being walk-through art experiences. Meow Wolf worked with Brian Eno, Amon Tobin and Santigold for some of the music in the project.
It starts as a mundane convenience store, but mutates after that, as weird doorways seem to beckon into another overarching storyline. The experience issues people employee ID cards with RFID chips which can be scanned throughout the space. Meow Wolf intends for storylines and branching experiences to emerge through multiple visits, and eventually across Meow Wolf installations, using the RFID link.
"The RFID experience is a building block towards a technology platform that will exist both in-exhibition, but also long-term outside the exhibition, and will allow people to both create and co-create," Jim Ward, co-CEO of Meow Wolf, says to me over a Zoom call.
Of course, in my last year at home, I've grown used to virtual theater experiences: in VR headsets, over Zoom, on headphones, projected on my furniture and desks. The chance to embody something in a physical space, like Meow Wolf made seem possible in my virtual tour, seems tempting. But it's not part of the experience's plans right now.
"I think right now, what our bread and butter is is creating these mind-blowing immersive environments that are really truly hard to explain," Corvis Brinkerhoff, Executive Creative Director of Meow Wolf and one of its founding members, says. "You just have to see it for yourself."
The immersive space has had to make changes to its extremely hands-on, free-wandering installation for the COVID-19 era. Brinkerhoff says most of the exhibition didn't need to be changed, but "in some cases, we have small passageways that people pass through, climb through, crawl through, and those have been made one-way." Highly-touched surfaces are cleaned frequently. The staff, playing the parts of convenience store employees in Omega Mart, wear masks.
Meow Wolf does seem interested in a crossover between remote and in-person immersive, someday. "The idea of an integral co-reality with both our physical sites and a digital co-presence is not only an opportunity, but something we absolutely want to do," Ward says. "We're taking a first step with the RFID interactivity...Omega Mart is a first step towards that."
Meow Wolf is also planning to knit its physical spaces together. Dozens of phones in the Omega Mart space can be used to check messages in voicemail and reach out to other phones where other characters or people might be, and eventually even in other exhibitions in other cities.
"When we become more sophisticated around predictive modeling and behavioral tracking... all of a sudden a phone may ring right next to you, and you answer it, and it's that character," Ward says.
But I'd love something that could help me attend now, in some way, but not travel. I've wondered how traveling to Disney could happen virtually at home in VR, bridging a gap to an eventual real visit in the future. Meow Wolf could open doors like that for people at home, enticing them to an eventual real visit to the physical Omega Mart. I'd rent a robot body for a while, for sure (or, a person who would let me "see" their experience as a telepresence host).
Maybe that's not in the works now. But for Meow Wolf, and other immersive spaces, it would help bridge the gap between now and whenever I take my next vacation. Which, unfortunately, isn't anytime soon.