Exploring Virtual Reality in Dubai

How the ‘Golden City’ is embracing emerging tech and fast becoming a hub for VR.

It’s a truism among VR creators that the best use of the medium is to allow you to do things that are either impossible or extremely difficult to experience in real life. By that yardstick, Mission 828 certainly passes with flying colours, specially if – like me – you’re petrified of heights.

I was in Dubai last week for the Global Education and Skills Forum (which this year also had a big focus on immersive tech for learning), so I thought I’d use my free day to check out the new experience at the top of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa.

Mission 828 is an interactive HTC Vive experience delivered in specially designed pods, which also add multi-sensory elements like spatial audio and simulated wind. These pods sit at the highest level of the tower which is accessible to the public, but that’s not the actual top; that’s where the VR comes in.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent an impeding cyber attack by – you guessed it – climbing up the very tip of the needle-like structure using suction cups and one of those nifty hook-gun thingies Batman always had in his utility belt. During that climb, you’re artfully warned that it might be best not to look down. Being human, of course that’s precisely what you do, and I’m not ashamed to say that I squawked and froze for a good few seconds when I did. The sheer drop is horrendously realistic, specially given the fact you’ve been looking at the real thing out the windows before entering that virtual environment.

Once you do manage to get to the top, you’ll need to align a special device with the approaching satellite in order to disable it. Job done, but what goes up must also come down… Luckily, there’s a nifty parachute at hand, so all you need to do is step off the edge and base jump to the ground. The whole thing only takes a few minutes, but it felt like a very long time, and I was definitely in need of recovery by the time I “landed.”

Overall it’s a really well designed experience made by British company Inition, which was also behind the vertigo-inducing experience where you can virtually slide down the Shard in London launched last year.

The mission premise gives the whole thing a structure and sense of urgency. You’re given clear instructions every step of the way and are challenged to use a variety of movements and looks around to fulfill each task. With a lot of VR experiences, users often get frustrated when fumbling around with unfamiliar controls and instructions, but this all felt fairly intuitive, and watching a variety of people go through it, they were all managing to complete their missions too.

Inition’s CEO Adrian Leu says there were particular challenges given the Burj’s extreme height, where the team had to use flying drones to capture 3D 360-degree footage and then stitch that together with CGI to achieve the final effect of climbing the structure and finally base-jumping off the top.

Leu adds that this is part of a broader trend for top tourist attractions to tie in immersive experiences to expand and enhance the value of the physical ones, but in Dubai it also feels part of another trend you notice everywhere: a general enthusiasm towards emerging technologies. VR is a big part of that.

Just around the corner from the Burj Khalifa is a brand new 75,000 square foot VR & AR entertainment center which opened earlier this month.

I tried a range of different experiences at the park, ranging from APE-X (which puts you in a sort of King-Kong-like role where you battle bots as a massive weaponized cybernetic ape to Payday, a “full bank robber experience” to John Wick Chronicles where you play the legendary assassin. There are also indoor roller coasters and a carousel for the little ones, but it’s fair to say that most of the experiences at the moment revolve around some form of shooting.

And although I enjoy blowing up zombie heads as much as the next gal, I do hope that as the concept evolves we will see the park exploring some of the more creative uses of VR. The closest I came to that during my visit, funnily enough, was when I was blasting said zombies in the Walking Dead experience. You wake up in a hospital, wheelchair-bound after having your legs amputated. As your companions wheel you out, both your hands are occupied working the shotgun that’s keeping the walkers at bay, and the sense of helplessness really adds to the urgency and panic of the whole thing. More of that, I say.

This new VR Park is housed in the Dubai mall, which currently holds the record for being not only the largest, but also the most visited mall in the planet. Over 51 million people a year roaming its 1200 stores, which are spread over an area roughly the size of 50 football fields. It quickly becomes apparent that in Dubai, superlatives are the norm, and that if they set out to build something, chances are they’re aiming for it to be the first and/or biggest or its kind.

Currently in construction in the Emirate, for example, are the world’s longest indoor ski slope, and the Ain Dubai, the soon-to-be largest Ferris wheel anywhere. Not to mention they’re building a mountain (you heard that right) from all the construction rubble, which they also hope, will serve to increase rainfall in the region.

On my way to the mall, just after we passed said mountain, my taxi driver gestured towards the impressive skyline to our left and said that none of those skyscrapers had existed three years ago. The entire place is in a permanent state of construction boom, and there are no signs of slowdown. In 2017 alone, almost 11 billion dirham (US$2.99 billion) worth of construction contracts were awarded to the city, with around 120,000 apartments expected to come to market by 2020. Among these is the observation tower at Dubai Creek Harbour, which will overtake the Burj Khalifa’s as the world’s tallest structure at over 3,045 feet (just shy of a kilometre high). It is expected to come in at a cost of around $1billion

The vibe you get in Dubai is a general desire to rush toward the future in any way they can. The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) of Dubai (RTA) has set a target of having a quarter of all the journeys in its system be driverless by 2030, as part of its broader Smart City strategy.

Virgin just unveiled its Hyperloop pod prototype which proposes to carry passengers at speeds of up to 760mph between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in just 12 minutes (a journey that currently takes about 90 minutes by car). The Hyperloop is a system that uses an electromagnetic propulsion system to accelerate levitating pods through a vacuum tube. Each pod is designed to accommodate up to ten passengers and the service would be able to carry 10,000 passengers per hour in both directions and is set to open in around two years, at about the time the city will be hosting EXPO 2020, which is expected to attract around 25 million visitors to the city.

“Dubai makes perfect sense for Hyperloop because this is the 21st century’s global transport hub and its leaders understand that,” says His Excellency Mattar Al Tayer, director general of the RTA. This is an opportunity to help transform the UAE from a technology consumer to a technology creator, incubating expertise for a new global industry, in line with the UAE’s Vision 2021.”

Looking around at what they managed to build in the real world, it’s hard not to take them seriously. If they turn out to be as good at building in virtual worlds as they have in the physical one, we could soon be seeing the sort of Oasis envisaged in Ready Player One emerging from this surreal desert city. Pretty appropriate, really.

About the Scout

Alice Bonasio

Alice Bonasio runs the Tech Trends blog and contributes to Ars Technica, Quartz, Newsweek, The Next Web, and others. She is also writing VRgins, a book about sex and relationships in the virtual age. She lives in the UK.

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