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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