Hands-On With Alien: Descent — A New Take On VR Attractions

by Ian Hamilton • April 27th, 2018

A new kind of VR attraction opens today in Orange County, California, with Alien: Descent offering a trip to LV-426 overrun with dangerous Xenomorphs.

I’ve previously visited location-based VR attractions from companies like The VOID, Dreamscape Immersive, and VRStudios. This system, put together by Pure Imagination in partnership with Fox, brings together different VR technologies in a whole new way.

Technology

The Pure Imagination solution employs a Gear VR fitted with a cover that’s tracked by OptiTrack cameras overhead for full walk-around freedom. There’s a Striker gun, too, themed so it resembles the powerful rifles fans know from the Alien movies. You also strap accessories to your forearms and shins so your full body can be represented in VR.

The Alien: Descent location at The Outlets in Orange also includes railings and walls where you expect them to be, as well as impressive floor haptics and powerful wind and heat effects. For sound, I wore a pair of over-the-ear HyperX headphones.

Experience

As it stands now Alien: Descent lasts a little more than 10 minutes, with a few minutes more to get strapped into the headset and gear. The lobby is themed to resemble one of the hulking ships from the movies, with a short video briefing before embarking on the trip. The strap-in process adds to the immersion because it is presented like you’re getting prepared for a long cryogenic sleep.

I wasn’t sure they were using Gear VR until I saw it, and the moment I set my eyes on the headset I became concerned about the quality of the experience. This isn’t what a phone and Gear VR were meant to do. Headset on, I started testing the tracking quality by moving my head forward and back in quick, small, bursts. It didn’t feel great and a slight headache started to build.

Once I was let out of this short sleep, though, and I started to move my whole body, my other senses took over and I forgot most of the discomfort that had been building up. Striding down a high catwalk, the wind from being in a high-up place whooshing all around, I held the gun tightly to my shoulder and walked with confidence out into the xenomorph-infested facility. I felt empowered.

I was paired up with another person in the same physical space. So we moved through multiple floors of the facility together and, theoretically, watched each other’s back. Another pair of people went through the experience simultaneously but they loaded up in their own area and had a separate space to explore.

This was a very interesting design choice because it meant we could wave or shoot in the direction of the other people going through the experience with us. But we also couldn’t hear them nor did we have to worry about bumping into them. While The VOID can put you almost uncomfortably close to three other people in Ghostbusters or Star Wars, Alien: Descent effectively divides you up into two groups for better management of space and sound.

Conclusion

The sound and haptic effects I experienced inside Alien: Descent were some of the best ever. Without sharing too many spoilers, the creators of this experience did an incredible job giving you the sense of the position of these creatures all around you by providing specific thumps on the floor in the right spots. Combined with fantastic audio and other environmental effects, the creators have done a lot of work to try and do the most they can with a cell phone at the center of their experience.

How disconcerting you find the Gear VR and its limited graphics capabilities will change for each person. I’m pretty susceptible to simulator sickness, and I specifically looked to see the limitations of this setup as soon as I got inside. I found those limits pretty quickly, too, and yet the short length of the experience combined with the stimulation to my other senses was enough to make me comfortable overall.

Scare Note

Organizers say you need to be at least 48 inches tall and 10-years-old to experience Alien: Descent. That age seems like a reasonable cut off, though of course your mileage will vary depending whether your kid scares easily.

I will say that a Xenomorph’s tail ripping through my chest in Alien: Isolation using a Rift development kit a couple years ago remains the scarier experience in my mind, but there are certainly some moments in Alien: Descent that get your heart thumping.

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  • Gear VR!!!! F’ing LOL. No way I’m paying for this shit. Why on earth would they ruin something of this scale with budget VR tech?

    • SendsV8

      Because it doesn’t require a computer and heavy battery in a backpack.

      But I’m with you. I’ll wait till next gen or two before paying for any live experiences on crap equipment.

      • Kent Weber

        We will also have at least 3 options for higher res, standalone VR devices by the end of the year… So once those are in the wild, I assume a big budget experience like this would not leverage a mobile phone-based HMD.

  • HomosDeusVR

    Gear VR!! Are you farking kidding?! That’s an absolute joke. I hate that people who have no expereince of VR will play this and come away thinking how underwhelming and vomit-inducing VR is becausd they’re playing on a bit of kit that is totally not suitable for this type of experience. Can’t even begin to think how pap the graphics must be.

    UploadVR – you guys are doing a great job and I love this site but you uave to call thos out. It doea VR no favours at all.

  • Doctor Bambi

    Phew! Reeks of PCVR elitism in here.

    Let’s not forget GearVR has a higher resolution than either Rift or Vive, doesn’t suffer from god rays, and in this case is using Opitrack for higher quality, full body positional tracking, all without the need of a heavy computer strapped to your back.

    I’m guessing Ian’s concern for motion sickness stems from GearVR using a 60Hz display refresh rate, which is valid but the Oculus SDK is doing a lot of things under the hood to keep the experience smooth. This won’t be an issue for most people.

    The main limiting factor is the graphical processing, which shouldn’t be a problem if the experience is designed smartly. If Dreadhalls is anything to go by, you can absolutely make a terrifying and immersive experience on Gear.

    • David D. Taylor

      I agree with both you and the PCVR elitists. 🙂 I fall somewhere in the middle. Definitely not the end of the world because it’s on Gear. Not the best experience either. even at the highest possible graphical fidelity from the Gear, it wouldn’t come close to hitting what a PC would.

      I still want to do it, but a little less so due to it being GearVR.

    • Mike549

      The Gear does truly have some advantages over the Rift (like web browsing and netflix) but yeah, the 60-Hz is a real concern. I believe the Go improves on that?

      Also, and this is something nobody seems excited enough about… but the future of VR is very possibly going to be wireless standalone VR that incorporates real world environments and layers graphics over the world. Like this game, but yard scale or even world scale. Not right away obviously, but maybe by Oculus Santa Fe version 2 or 3.

      • Doctor Bambi

        Yeah, with the release of Go, Oculus will be enabling a new 72 Hz mode, but it’s a completely optional feature developers can use at their discretion if they have the performance headroom for it. It’ll also be great for video content running at 24fps since 72 is a multiple of that, resolving any potential screen tearing issues there.

        While they haven’t flat out said it, Oculus seem to be alluding that developers will be required to hit 72fps for Santa Cruz. I imagine over time, 72 Hz will be what most developers target for both Cruz and Go/Gear.

        I totally agree with you that using real world geometry within a virtual space will be an incredible feature of standalone that will probably dramatically impact the way we interact with the world on a day to day basis.

  • Ted Joseph

    What level phone what it using? The newest Google pixel?

  • Alec W

    This actually looks really sick. I’ve been plenty experiences like this advertised, and they’re almost always underwhelming. Between coop, actually being able to shoot and move, and having some real challenge, I’d be way more down for this than just kinda wearing a TV screen on my face to watch a movie.

  • The general public are simpletons.
    They equate phone SoCs with “shitty VR”.
    When, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
    Dopes ….