132 West 18th St
CVRTAIN Employee: Have you ever had a VR experience before?
Me: Not really.
CVRTAIN Employee: It’s okay. This was my first, too.
As the above exchange illustrates, the people working at CVRTAIN are extremely nice. They welcome you in, explain what’s going to happen, and guide you around like you’re a star. And really, you are. CVRTAIN is a VR experience in which you put on a headset and stand center stage in a huge theater in front of an audience of thousands. The theater and audience are virtual, but your actions, aided by two sensors that act as hands, produce seemingly real responses. A curtsey for the audience – nothing. A rousing wave of the hand – thunderous applause. For the approximately five minutes that I stood before them, I got to explore what would elicit what. I also got to experience the stage fright I always feel if I have to do things in front of a large group of people. I knew my virtual audience wouldn’t really be judging me, but I also knew there were actual human beings who might, including the employee who had put my headset on and handed me my hands. So my gestures ended up being small. The employee still treated me like a star afterwards. He said he loved how gentle I was. It made me feel a little better.
Then it was my friend’s turn, and it was astounding to watch from the other side. We’re encouraged to walk around and watch the others going through the experience—there are three theater-like booths and so up to three people to watch at any time. In the simulation, a virtual curtain had parted to reveal my virtual audience. When I watched my friend, I was surprised to learn that an actual curtain parted to reveal her, too. She was presented like an actor, and she had a real audience in addition to her virtual one. My friend is a performer and was much less gentle in her movements than I knew to be, and I heard how well her audience reacted to her bolder presentation. And then I got to see how she reacted to their reactions—thinking she was alone with these unreal people, her reactions were so unedited and free. It was riveting to watch strangers, too, to see what a range of people would do when they were on an obvious fake stage and a less obvious real one. I was a voyeur without consequence, seeing people trying out a technology often new to them, all of us stepping into roles with which we were not familiar.