The chic, crisply designed booth instantly stands out from those around it. This is Disrupt after all — the TechCrunch convention designed to highlight startup tech companies — and the standard around here is small booths with just enough space for a product demo. Clearly, the good folks at HBO did not get that memo.
This booth — designed to promote the upcoming sci-fi series Westworld — is large, pristine, and 100 percent on message. It is staffed by a constantly smiling array of attendants, each of whom is completely clad in white and fully in character as representatives of the fictional company from the show.
“Welcome to Westworld,” the woman, smiling and in a white dress of course, greets us as my editor and I approach the registration area. “We have demo space at 2:00 or 2:30. I do need to warn you that this experience includes flashing lights, violence, blood, and nudity. Now, would you like a male or female attendant to guide you this afternoon?”
We’re both slightly dumbfounded by this deluge of information. We nod dumbly as we explain that either gender would be fine to lead us through the experience. The attendant continues to smile as she hands us both black, metallic appointment cards that will serve as our tickets to the show. She bids us good day and we proceed to whittle away the hours before our scheduled appointments.
At 2:30 p.m. I’m sitting on a surprisingly comfortable couch within the Westworld booth and the attendant comes over to escort me into its mysterious back rooms for the VR experience. She continues to act as if Westworld itself is a real organization and not a TV series.
She checks one more time that I’m ok with an experience that includes flashing lights, violence, blood, and nudity. She also tells me that if I feel overwhelmed at any time I need merely raise my right hand and I’ll be removed from the experience. I nod curiously and she smiles, wishes me luck and leads me into the demo.
The demo room itself is completely sparse save for an HTC Vive and a chair. The familiar visor is brought over my face, the headphones go on, and the world around me melts away.
Now I see what appears to be a very ritzy clothing store. The only difference between this and any other Rodeo Drive establishment is that the glass cases in front of me are filled with guns rather than expensive watches.
A woman walks into the store and introduces herself as Imogen. She, too, is completely clad in white and the rendering of her face is detailed enough that I can tell she is smiling and looking directly at me.
Imogen invites me to choose a gun and then a cowboy hat (I pick the black one), and then my world begins to change. When the dust settles I am now standing in the middle of a dusty street straight out of a Clint Eastwood film. A gaggle of onlookers chats in front of me and Imogen herself stands to my right — her sleek designer dress now replaced with a white gunslingers outfit.
She directs me to a box of bullets and I enjoy a few moments of target practice shooting at an array of bottles before the two of us are interrupted. The sheriff of this town begins speaking to Imogen, explaining that an outlaw is loose in the hills and that they need my help to track him down (typical video game stuff). However, things become very, very unfamiliar from here on out.
The sheriff begins to convulse and stutter, holding onto Imogen for support. She screams for help but no one comes to her aide. The sheriff’s mad mutters eventually turn from confused to angry and it becomes clear that he is preparing to strike out at Imogen. I try to fire my weapon at him but it’s no good. I’m out of bullets.
I’m forced to watch as the sheriff headbuts Imogen again and again, blood flying everywhere. As she collapses the sheriff continues to scream unrelated phrases louder and louder. Then he turns his sights upon me.
I scramble around for more bullets but it’s no good. The sheriff pulls out his own gun, slowly aims it at my head, and pulls the trigger.
The world goes white and I next find myself in a dark room with nothing but a chair to break up the blackness. I am invited by a calm voice to sit down and, to my surprise, the chair in the digital world corresponds to an actual place to sit in the real world. I do so and then reality shifts yet again.
The rest of the Westworld demo is a seated 360 video. I won’t go into too many details about what I saw in that latter portion as it may be spoiler territory for the show itself. Let’s just say all is not as it seems in this western-themed fantasy resort. Something is going wrong. Very, very wrong.
The Westworld demo was a very calculated and , most likely a very expensive, vote of confidence for the emerging immersive industry from one of the most significant entertainment brands around. Other major organizations are hopping aboard the VR train as well and this mass approval is a strong vote of confidence for the overall longevity of the tech.
For more information on HBO and everything VR from Disrupt keep it locked right here on UploadVR.