VR escape rooms from Pixar and Oculus alumni can help you escape, for a little while

We tried Adventure Labs' new VR experience, which comes with a ticketed price. It's one of many virtual escape rooms happening in (and out) of headsets.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read

Four animals in an escape room: Adventure Labs is like ticketed VR video game theater.

Adventure Labs

I was a hamster. My friend was a rabbit. We met in a lab. We waved our hands and squeaked and danced. This was a Wednesday afternoon, around 3 p.m., between grocery deliveries and following up emails.

An evil-but-fun doctor chased us. I was small, and could hide in tunnels. My rabbit friend (CNET Senior Reporter Joan E. Solsman) was bigger. We punched things in the air, stepped on triggers to open pathways to solve puzzles, and tried to open doorways with secret codes. 

This little VR diversion was an escape room, hosted by an actor who played the role of emcee, villain and general companion. They appeared to us as a cartoon dog, a robot villain with a TV-screen face and a disembodied voice. Adventure Labs looks and feels like a cartoon, or a casual video game. In VR, on an Oculus Quest, it feels more like a collaborative experience. And for a while, I forgot about my real world.

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With real world theater spaces closed, virtual ones are becoming a lot more compelling, and are on the rise with actors more available than ever to work from home. Figuring out how to make them ticketed experiences is the challenge. 

Adventure Labs is a new company created by veterans of Pixar and Oculus Story Studios, looking to make live escape room experiences in VR that are bought like ticketed events. President Kim Adams and CEO Maxwell Planck have worked for years in animation and in VR storytelling. 

The new app is looking to build self-contained VR-based escape room events, in a sense like real-world ticketed VR experience The Void, which tapped into Marvel and Star Wars and Disney films. The Void, and other physical entertainment spaces, have been off-limits during the coronavirus lockdown. Even when businesses open up further, it may take time for immersive attractions to figure out how to operate safely. That's where a home VR escape room makes instant sense, provided you have the gear.

The Adventure Labs idea uses live-actor hosts who lead the story, and have a script to improvise from, embodying different cartoon-like avatars that can talk to the players. The hosts share in the revenue, Kim Adams says. The first live actor host Adventure Labs used was an immersive theater actor, but others are starting with no VR experience.

Actors have been trained remotely during shelter-in-place by Jennine Willet, a founder of New York immersive theater company Third Rail Projects -- which developed some of the most memorable theater experiences I've tried in the last five years -- and writer of the first escape room experience we tried, Dr. Crumb's School for Disobedient Pets. If you want to see our highlight video (which came out a bit glitchy), see below.

Animal escapes

Four people at a time can join up for an Adventure Labs experience. There were only two of us -- it's hard to find friends who have VR -- but we found it totally fine for two.

We had 40 minutes or so, broken into roughly 10-minute challenges where we solved puzzles and helped each other out. Our host companion helped us if we needed it, or encouraged us, or kept us on our toes as the bad guy, or just kept us entertained.

Much like a theater or VR experience, we were greeted in a waiting room by the host, told the story of our upcoming challenge, and then led into training. Each of the four animals has special powers and can access the rooms differently. I was able to crawl into tiny spaces.

We tried Adventure Labs on an Oculus Quest, but it also runs on Windows PC VR headsets. It's on SteamVR and the Oculus Store. When you buy a visit, a code is sent that's entered into the app, sending you to a specific room for your players and a host.

Once we got used to our controls -- which sometimes felt like wearing mittens -- we learned how to put on flamethrowers, punching gloves and block-building tools. Joan and I were yelling across the room at each other to do things, and it started to feel pretty fun. But it wasn't as elaborate as other escape rooms I've tried in the real world, and it felt like it all ended a bit sooner than I wanted.


The experiences play out on individual VR headsets, and the host is acting from a remote space in VR, too.

Adventure Labs

This is really expensive, though

Did we have fun? Yeah, definitely. It's better than being in the real world, unpacking grocery deliveries, watching the kids, checking on story edits. It was cool while it lasted. But the cost of Adventure Labs is the harder part to accept. We tried a free demo, but normally the room bookings are $100 for four people: equivalent to some real-life escape rooms, but a lot more expensive than your average VR app. I can't imagine paying for it, especially when so many other VR experiences cost less. $20 for a individual experience, maybe... but Adventure Labs is currently making one person buy the whole four-person package, versus being matched up with others for solo tickets. (The company's offering a discount code, OG-LAB-RAT, for 50% off, but even then that's $50 for a whole booking.)

That's my biggest concern here. I can think of lots of VR spaces where collaborative fun can happen for a set cost, and can be done over and over again. There are escape room-like individual games, like The Room VR, which cost less, or multiplayer games galore (like the free beta for Echo VR). They may not be as personally curated as Adventure Labs, though, or be as well set up for four friends.

There are other ways to get an escape room fix, too. Lots of virtual escape rooms are emerging for platforms like Zoom: One I tried recently, by a veteran escape room company called Puzzle Break, let my family solve puzzles via a shared Google Drive and screen sharing, plus a host who stayed with us to help. Costs for those experiences are similar (Puzzle Break is also $100 for four people), but at least it's easier to get people to join without VR headsets -- you just need a laptop. With Adventure Labs, the hundreds of dollars for a VR headset becomes part of the entry fee.

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I'd love for experimental spaces to emerge where friends and collaborators could host their own spaces, be a dungeon master for virtual worlds and improvise adventures together. "Eventually we want to build all these building blocks so other adventure makers can come on," Maxwell Planck says. "As we get our feet under us, we do want to expand. We want to bring on adventure makers that we work with closely. We want it to be a little more curated, a little more structured," Planck says, as compared to open social worlds with capabilities for private rooms like Altspace VR or VRChat.

Adventure Labs isn't the wide-open doorway to experimental projects yet, but it's another step towards exploring how actors and performers could intersect in VR. Maybe, eventually, future projects will get a little weirder than cartoon bunnies in a puzzle lab.

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