Ralph Breaks the Internet is one of the more unusual breakout hits from Disney in a long time. The lead characters, Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz, both know they’re characters in video games, and they have some passing awareness of the world outside their games. While they don’t break the fourth wall themselves, the world in which they live is very much ours by extension.
That’s what makes Ralph Breaks VR so interesting – it takes the whole idea to the next level. Instead of Ralph and Vanellope coming out of their games into a cybernetic extension of our world, we get to visit them in theirs.
It’s a co-production between Walt Disney Animation Studios, a chain of location based VR entertainment facilities called The Void, and ILMxLAB, the virtual reality think tank at Lucasfilm Unlimited. By combining virtual reality with a physical environment you can feel, touch, and sometimes even smell, they create a kind of extended experience you can only have by visiting one of The Void’s special installations. So naturally, when we were invited to come have a look for ourselves, we were all over this like syrup on a pancake.
We went to The Void on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calfornia, Where we were met by a knowledgeable, polished and friendly event attendant named Ruth. (Say hi, Ruth.) She helped us choose our character cards, which would determine what we looked like to each other in-game.
From there, Ruth led us to a sort of briefing room where Vanellope and Ralph invited us to join them in a place called The Internet. (It was supposed to be a surprise, but Ralph apparently can’t keep a secret for more than fifteen seconds, much to Vanellope’s annoyance.)
From there, we were led off to a prep area where we donned the complex self-contained VR rigs, consisting of a vest and backpack arrangement with a computer system in it, and the head gear itself. It’s based on the Oculus Rift, but much sturdier and more sophisticated, with far better optics.
They call it “hyper-reality”, and it’s a new form of entertainment you can’t have in your home. It’s a blend of the real and the virtual, creating the most authentic “holo-deck” style experience you can have. If you see a bench, you can sit on it. If you see a wall, you can touch it. If there’s a control panel with switches or levers, you can push and pull them to make things happen. You can feel the thrum of the engines in your air car, and the *spak* as you’re hit with energy bolts or projectiles, rendered as tactile feedback in the powered vest you’re wearing. When you’re hit, you know it.
Before entering the simulation itself, Ruth took our cards and scanned the character cards, and then our gear. This linked our selected characters with our gear. We had become cartoonish Netizens to all outward appearances – it was the perfect disquise.
The adventure begins in the same way it does in the movie Ralph Breaks the Internet. Your party is inside a wifi router, trying to figure out a way to activate it and gain access to the Internet. You gain entry into a gamer space, and play a wild game of Space Invaders, standing in control pods on either side of a wall of colorful aliens. The controls are real, and you can lay your hands on them and touch them, and watch your virtual hands operate the controls.
After that, everything revolves around Ralph being detected as a kind of virus, and everything – milkshaking drinking kitties and pancake eating bunnies included – seems to be hell-bent on eradicating Ralph and the rest of his entourage, which happens to include you.
The entire experience lasts about 15-20 minutes, and never fails to put big smiles on faces.
Virtual reality is the new cinema. It qualifies as an entirely new form of media, and these don’t come along often. The last time was 1972 when Pong heralded the arrival of the computer game, and the last time before that was on March 25, 1925, when Scottish engineer Baird gave the first public demonstration of the first crude televised silhouette images in motion, those of a garishly painted ventroliquist’s dummy, at Selfridge’s Department Store in London.
Ralph Breaks VR does not feature the voices of Sarah Silverman as the diminuitive Vanellope von Schweetz, and John C. Riley as the freakishly ham-handed Ralph, but you’d never guess it. They got sound-alike actors to play the roles, and we didn’t spot it at first and had to be told after the fact.
If you have the opportunity, this is a media experience you should have at least once in your life. So far, there are locations in the following places:
- Anaheim, CA
- Glendale, CA
- Santa Monica, CA
- Las Vegas, NV
- Lindon, UT
- Orlando, FL
- Toronto, ON
- West Plano, TX
- Genting, MY
- Edmonton, AB
- Dubai, UAE
Visit TheVoid.com to buy advance tickets.