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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Westworld VR is not for everyone – and it doesn’t want to be

westworld
Westworld VR is not for everyone – and it doesn’t want to be

At this point in time, VR is a luxury item. A HTC Vive headset will run you about $799, and the Oculus Rift is not much cheaper—and that’s assuming you already have an expensive, beefy PC that meets the requirements. A handful of TV and film properties have implemented VR as a sort of marketing tool, like when USA’s Mr. Robot launched its own unique VR experience last month. Yet at least that’s viewable on most platforms, whether you have a VR-capable device or not. When media take the plunge with VR-centric experiences, they usually have to take a step back and include the rest of their audience, as to not alienate anyone. For HBO’s new show Westworld, an adaptation of Jurassic Park (1990) author Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, they took the opposite approach.

Westworld is for the elite

Westworld is a faux-Wild West reality that rich people can waltz into, gun in hand, and do whatever they please. That means eliciting sex from androids, firing a rifle into a crowd, or just playing it normal like any ol’ cowboy. Regardless, there are no consequences in the fake-land of Westworld. It is the Wild West after all. To no one’s surprise, everything doesn’t end up fine and dandy, as androids begin to rebel against and kill the human patrons. Which causes trouble.

Westworld’s VR experience was on full display at Techcrunch Disrupt in San Francisco last month. And from what a reporter from VentureBeat described, it was one of the highlights of the event. The Westworld exhibit wasn’t a super-obvious marketing ploy. Instead, it was set-up to look like the fictional company that created Westworld (the booth plastered the company’s logo “Westworld: A Delos Destination” onto it), complete with pristine models wearing all white to lead the way. It’s akin to what one might actually experience if they were to book a one-way trip to the actual land of Westworld.

A look inside of Westworld's VR experience.
There’s a snake in my boot!

“We built something that was highly immersive and interactive,” senior vice president of digital media and marketing for HBO Sabrina Caluori told Variety. “The fact that we didn’t get scale out of it from a consumer perspective matched with the overall strategy of both reaching that tech influencer but also continuing to drive home the exclusivity of Westworld as a park destination.” Westworld is for the elite, and the one-time availability of its VR experience hammers that exclusivity home.

Virtual reality was the first thing that came to mind when I initially saw Westworld’s trailer months ago. AI rebellion is not a new idea—obviously, as this is based on a 1973 novel—but if anything it feels more relevant now than ever before. Androids aren’t here, but virtual reality is. And marketing a show about wealthy people using their money for terrible things (much like the pay-to-torture inhabitants of 2005’s Hostel) while using actual modern world-altering technology; well, that’s just clever. 

Westworld premiered October 2nd on HBO.

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