Virtual Insanity In New York City

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Earlier this week the Jaybird team visited the brand new Virtual World virtual playground that opened up right next door to our office on 34th Street. As we wandered in and gawked at the dazzling, multi-story display of various virtual reality (VR) experiences, it was surreal to discover that VR arcades are a thing of the present rather than the future. I flew through some snow-covered mountains and witnessed other participants battle robots, play sports, transport to scenes from Rick and Morty, and more.

VR is undoubtedly a fast-growing phenomenon, changing the way Americans explore the world, play games, design architecture, or even enjoy live music. But it still has some major roadblocks to becoming ubiquitous – most notably that very few Americans actually have access to the headsets required to experience it.

It made us think of the earliest days of cinema, when New York City residents and visitors were invited to witness some of the first moving pictures at public viewings using Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes, which used rubber tubes to connect to the Phonograph so viewers could listen to recorded music while the film advanced. The viewings were done in Midtown Manhattan storefronts and cost the visitors money for each viewing – not unlike what’s being done today with VR.

Here’s an excerpt from the May 1895 New York World on the Kinetoscope parlors that were popping up around the city:

“Life size presentations they are and will be, and you won’t have to squint into a little hole to see them. You’ll sit comfortably and see fighters hammering each other, circuses, suicides, hangings, electrocutions, shipwrecks, scenes on the exchanges, street scenes, horse-races, football games, almost anything. You’ll see people and things as they are.”

Somehow, if you tweak a few words, this does not sound far off from a description of virtual reality – although ironically, with VR you are sort of squinting into a headset, and the attractions at Virtual World seemed to be slightly less macabre.

Along with the just-opened Virtual World, New York also recently saw the opening of Jump Into The Light, “America’s first Virtual Reality cinema and playlab,” located near the Bowery, with other VR-centric hangouts following suit in the months to come.

It’s unclear whether VR will become a part of our everyday life as moving pictures have become, or come and go as a geeky fad, but for now, there are more and more opportunities to strap in and try it out for yourself.

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