I got to be Jack Ryan at Comic-Con 2018, and it blew my mind

I never want to do "regular" VR again.

Caitlin Petrakovitz Director of audience
Caitlin Petrakovitz studies the Marvel Cinematic Universe like it's a course in school, with an emphasis on the Infinity Saga years. As an audience expert, she rarely writes but when she does it's most certainly about Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Westworld, San Diego Comic-Con and great streaming properties. Or soccer, that's a thing she loves, too.
Caitlin Petrakovitz
5 min read
Tania González/CNET

The best parts of San Diego Comic-Con 2018 so far have been around the convention center, not inside of it. And the technologically packed Jack Ryan experience was no exception. 

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Yes, you get to go inside that helicopter.

Tania González/CNET

Amazon's Prime Video brought out the big guns with a preview of the new show based on Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and starring John Krasinski as the titular hero. (Bonus points: Name the other four actors to have played the famous CIA agent.) From Oculus Rift to Alexa-integrated missions, the entire activation felt closer to Westworld's SXSW Sweetwater experience than a typical SDCC activation. 

The activation is touted as "the world's first experimental first episode," and it was definitely worth the wait. At 60,000 square feet, there are interactive mini-missions, a short and sweet escape room, and an imposing training field.

Now, I know Jack Ryan isn't *technically* a superhero. But as someone who grew up thinking Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan were all basically the same person, he kind of is to some of us. If you're unfamiliar with his backstory, Jack Ryan is the ultimate boy scout and he's had five movies to prove it.

Which made it even more amazing when I got to BE Jack Ryan for an hour or so.

The Jack Ryan training field

After some technical difficulties, I got to try out the training field, which is actually an immersive 4D experience using VR and reality-based challenges rigged on an OptiTrack system

First, naturally, you sign away your rights in case of injury. Next you watch a negging/pump-up video from Jack Ryan's boss, James Greer (played by Wendell Pierce), who tells you you're about to be dropped into Yemen to help gather intel.

You're then strapped into a harness and a VR backpack, which I've learned was the incredibly light HP Omen X VR backpack and is connected to your Oculus  headset, plus foot and hand sensors (for tracking your movements throughout), and carted down the strip to the "building" you'll rappel into/from. The building is about three stories tall, and the training "field" area is about three times as long.

Everything from here on serves double duty. The golf cart ride is your 10-second briefing on what you'll be doing -- "Get in there and get out quick operative!" -- and then you're ushered up three flights of stairs. And the sprint up the stairs gets your adrenaline flowing, so there's no time for fear when they strap you into a rappel cable and put your Oculus Rift on. 

At this point, you're *in* Yemen, thrust into the action (perhaps slightly unwillingly like Jack Ryan himself).

By using the OptiTrack system throughout, the run makes use of a wind machine as you jump out of the helicopter, then rumble packs in a teeny-tiny board to make it feel three stories high and unstable as you walk across it, then a prop gun with feedback once you enter the warehouse to gather intel. Another operative guides you along the course, but it's mostly unnecessary as every single thing you need to do and complete in VR is truly there irl. (And people can follow along from home on Prime Video's Twitch channel.)

According to Amazon, OptiTrack is what truly allows the system to come to life for users in these moments: "If they see a taser in the VR world, it will be mapped to a physical taser in the real world. If they see a person in the VR world, that person will be mapped as well."

Once you've "gathered the intel," it's time to leave the warehouse the fastest way possible: zip-lining down to the car you'll need to escape in. And it's a rush both in VR and real life, no wind machines needed here. 

As you climb into the Jeep to get away with the intel (yes, still in VR), you mash the gas pedal to escape the sleek BMWs chasing you. You're really driving here, so if you get carsick it's really your own fault.

Make it to the destination and you're greeted with a command to remove your helmet because you've made it to the safe house. Congrats, you survived death-defying stunts without seeing a thing!

Beyond Comic-Con: VR obstacle courses, escape rooms and more

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Snacks, water and missions await in the marketplace.

Tania González/CNET

The bazaar

Immediately upon entry you can grab some fruit, ice cream and water, and get some insight into what you're doing in Yemen. The actors stationed sometimes have mini-missions for you to complete, even though you're still just an analyst. 

In my short time there, I was asked to memorize a whole new bio in 30 seconds. I became Sarah Waverly, born April 7, 1982, living at 4335 Ashcroft, San Diego 92101, with my husband and 7-month-old son, Josh (I did not write that down and am now slightly concerned how I remembered all of it almost two days later). 

Another operative gave me and a team member a mission to collect a photo of an actor wandering around in a pineapple hat. We collected the selfie probably faster than he anticipated and were slightly let down when there was no "reward" (other than his appreciation!). 

While the bazaar was the most filled with actors and story, and it was the tastiest area of the experience, it was also the most quickly completed.

Dark Ops escape room

As the culmination of everything learned throughout the experience, this shortened escape room took my group barely any time (13 minutes, 27 seconds). Without giving too much away, the room was a great immersive pop-up experience on its own, but the escape room aspect really elevated it.

My group escaped, but not before operating a drone, making it through *five* rooms, and getting handcuffed to a chair (though to be fair, I guess I did volunteer for that one). Amazon even managed to integrate Alexa in interesting ways we'll talk more about next week so as not to spoil anything for those still headed to San Diego. It was so much fun I was sad I only got to do it once.

The entire training was one of the best, most immersive activations I've ever experienced. Having now seen the first episode of Jack Ryan, it really did feel like an experiential episode, just maybe with a bit more Alexa. 

The bar for activations and experiences has been set this year, between Jack Ryan and Taco Bell and don't relish any of next year's attendees -- but I will definitely be back to experience them!


We made it out alive!

Caitlin Petrakovitz/CNET

Taco Bell's Comic-Con pop-up was delicious: At Comic-Con 2018 I time-travelled just so I could eat at Taco Bell.

This piece was originally published July 21, and has been updated with new details of the activation.