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Dreamscape and AMC are teaming up once again to bring back location-based VR

VR installations are finally coming back.

Dreamscape VR
Russell Holly/CNET

There's been some debate over the future of location-based VR, those mall-based entertainment venues where you show up with friends and take part in a 20- to 30-minute experience together. Some of the more popular experiences have closed permanently in the face of the pandemic. And as the at-home room mapping in (increasingly cheaper) consumer headsets becomes more capable, how long will these locations make sense? While it is not the only company trying again, the most interesting company answering this question with actions instead of promises right now is Dreamscape, which today has unveiled a new location at the Westfield Garden State Plaza AMC in New Jersey.

I stopped by for an early look at the new location and it left me deeply excited by what's to come for location-based VR spaces.

Ready for departure

Dreamscape VR
Russell Holly/CNET

Location-based VR is more than what you can get out of a home VR headset, because the space you are playing in is purpose-built to deliver more than just the audiovisual medium. You feel a rumbling under your feet and a rush of air against your body as you take different actions in the games, and frequently when you reach out to touch a virtual thing there's a physical component there to make everything feel more real. 

Some platforms have experimented with scent and water as well, to varying effect, but the overall goal is to make these VR experiences feel that much closer to a holodeck

Dreamscape's newest location comes just four months after the unveiling of its partnership with the Wizarding World store in New York, where visitors can enjoy two different multiplayer VR experiences. This new location focuses on three unrelated experiences, which means instead of seeing a single unified theme for the space you instead get a more general but still highly visual space which Dreamscape calls the Departure Lounge. 

From here, you select which of the three experiences you want to enjoy and wait in the lounge until your group is called for their departure. You are, after all, leaving this world to temporarily experience another. For this particular venue, the options are:

  • Alien Zoo, a collaboration with the International Wildlife Fund
  • Curse of the Lost Pearl
  • Dreamworks Dragons: Flight Academy
Dreamscape VR
Russell Holly/CNET

Every part of this lounge is designed to excite you for what's to come. There are a pair of large glass cases in the middle of the room filled with artifacts for two of the experiences and, as my group stood there, our host used these to establish the lore for our chosen experience. 

There's no talk about the hardware in this space and no VR headsets are visible. This room is just story. It's clear Dreamscape is focusing on the narrative for these worlds, helping you feel like you're going somewhere else and then taking you there. It's unique, compared to the other location-based VR rooms I've been in so far and it's clear a lot of people are going to love this approach. 

Gearing up for your adventure

Dreamscape VR
Russell Holly/CNET

When it's time for your team to depart, you're walked into this staging room. Each experience has its own staging room with its own theming, but they all have numbered chairs with hardware ready to go. You can store your personal belongings here, which is good since photography isn't allowed in the room where it happens and then you're walked through putting on the hardware. For two of the experiences, there are tracking sensors for your hands and feet as well as a backpack to put on before the headset touches your head. 

These are the same Dreamscape sensors and same HP-made VR hardware you'll find at any other Dreamscape-powered experience. There's a backpack system you put on, but it's much lighter than what you'll find in other installations and has straps to help smaller bodies comfortably wear it. The collected hardware is comfortable to put on as long as you follow the instructions and don't pull the straps too tight, but one clear limitation of this technology is a lack of finger tracking. With the sensors on your hands you can get great arm-tracking, but in the actual VR experience if your hand touches a rail or you wrap your hand around something the software doesn't always reflect this visually. The VR headset itself is big enough to support some glasses, but obviously your comfort level plays a big part there.

The exception to this set up process is if you choose DreamWorks Dragons: Flight Academy. The VR headset for that experience is actually in the room you'll be going to already, because it's attached to the saddle you get on to ride your dragon. For that particular set up, all you need in the staging room are the hand trackers. The saddle leans to the left and the right to help simulate flying, but in my experience doesn't lean so far over that you'd risk falling down. 

What to expect in the headset

Dreamscape VR
Russell Holly/CNET

Want a no-spoiler overview of these experiences? I've got you. 

Alien Zoo: In orbit above our lovely blue sphere right now is a zoo, managed by a man who collects creatures from everywhere. He's going to give you a tour of his magnificent creatures and let you pet and play with as many as will have you. This is a great starter experience for those new to VR and a fantastic option for kids.

DreamWorks Dragons: Flight Academy: Straight out of the hit How to Train your Dragon movies, renowned viking warrior Astrid is teaching new recruits how to fly dragons. Follow her instructions and you might get to take part in an adventure with Toothless and his pal Hiccup as well. This is a solid VR experience for everyone, but it's a lot of motion, which might cause issues for those who are easily queasy in a headset.

Curse of the Lost Pearl: My favorite of the three experiences, grab a torch and explore an ancient temple in search of a lost treasure. This is best with a big group and is an adventure you're unlikely to forget anytime soon. 

Dreamscape does a great job delivering on a fun time no matter which you choose, and it's clear each of these are aimed to leave different audiences totally spellbound. Each of the three are a ton of fun, and the hardware on your body doesn't feel like a limitation in any of it. 

The big thing you get from all of these experiences is a real-world counterpart. When there's a handrail on your capsule in VR, you can reach out and grab that railing in real life. If a giant alien leans its head down to be petted, when you reach out you will feel a leathery head to pat and scratch. And yes, if your dragon flies through some water you will probably get a little wet. Being able to build a VR story with physical interactions is incredible and makes everything feel that much more lifelike. Dreamscape is not the first company to do this, but it is better at it than most right now.

Location-based VR is here to stay

Dreamscape VR
Russell Holly/CNET

There are several location-based VR companies across the US right now trying to offer exciting group experiences, but none of them are quite like what I saw here. Dreamscape is where you go to fall into a story, to feel like you're participating in a narrative instead of playing a character or seeing who can rack up the most kills. And having it attached to a movie theater so you can kill time before your movie starts is brilliant, it guarantees a steady flow of people already interested in being entertained. The $20-$24 per person price tag depending on when you go to this new location is extremely reasonable, and everyone there feels genuinely invested in making sure you're part of whichever story is being told. 

Ultimately, the humanity and narrative drive of what Dreamscape offers is the biggest reason I feel this experience isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, it may be possible soon for a story like this to be told through your home VR headset, but it won't be the same as showing up and being guided through something new.