Tesla’s had a big week so far with the launch of its ultra fast supercar and its new electric semi truck. But what’s the biggest announcement for us here at Circuit Breaker? I’m glad you asked. The company, along with all its other news, also launched a portable Tesla-themed battery that can charge iPhones, iPads, or any other device that takes a microUSB.
The 3,350mAh battery pack is modeled after Tesla’s Supercharger monument at the Tesla Design Studio, which you’d probably recognize if you live and breathe the Tesla lifestyle. You would also probably the person interested in a Tesla-branded charging pack, so that works out. It costs $45 and, unfortunately, it’s already sold out.
The company also sells a desktop Supercharger that features a USB port for any charging cable. It costs $45 as well and is also sold out. With that said, you can always make your own charger. You just need a 3D printer and some motivation.
Something that often bothers me about sci-fi is the loner inventor trope. A guy in a garage builds a robot, or AI, or frequently both that are somehow decades beyond the technology of his day, and all the wild implications of his vast technological leap are the fuel for the next two and a half hours of popcorn entertainment.
But the latest video from Boston Dynamics is the closest equivalent I’ve ever witnessed IRL. Sure, it’s the achievement of an entire company, and they’re doing it on YouTube for everyone to see, not in a basement. But a backflip?
It’s hard to even appreciate how hard this is for robots to do, because it’s hard to appreciate how difficult walking still is for humanoids. I wrote a whole piece about the problem of building walking robots back in 2011 — it wasn’t pretty back then, and it’s still a challenge for most full-sized humanoids.
A backflip though?
It’s a barely-believable jump forward for the state of the art. It’s astonishing. It’s a moon landing, basically, except instead of all of the people of Earth gathering around tube televisions to witness it, it just popped up on our social feeds yesterday afternoon without warning.
Let’s get a bit of historical context. Eleven years ago we were laughing as Honda’s Asimo robot fell off a set of stairs.
In 2015, here’s how far we’d come:
Yeah, we were challenging humanoid robots with much more complicated, dynamic, and demanding tasks than a staged ascent of a perfectly level set of shallow steps. But if you asked me, “How long until these robots are doing backflips?” in 2015, after a weekend of watching DARPA pratfalls, I would’ve frowned and said something like, “Ugh.”
Would we have to develop some new form of organic mechanisms, more akin to the human body, to get the power / weight ratio just right? Would we have to rebuild software engineering from scratch to combine realtime responsiveness with machine learning complexity? Would we end up in some economic recession or war that would require the companies and institutions investing in humanoid robotics to stop wasting money and just ship something boring and useful?
I guess I could have said, “Maybe a decade. We have to figure out jumping first, and also running and walking.” But “a decade” in the technology world means, “I literally have no idea.”
And I guess I would’ve been right about one thing: I had no idea.
In 2016, not too long after the DARPA challenge, where many of the robots in the competition were based on Boston Dynamics’ best-in-class Atlas humanoid, Boston Dynamics hit us with a new YouTube video: “Atlas, The Next Generation.” The video showcased a much lighter and more agile version of the robot opening a door, walking through snow, picking up boxes, and getting hit with a hockey stick for no reason. It was a big improvement over the previous generation.
“When will it do backflips, Paul?”
“Um, a decade?”
Earlier this year, Boston Dynamics introduced an all-new robot called Handle with a four foot vertical jump. But it was a wheeled robot, and while impressive, wheels are vastly simpler than biped locomotion. What Handle proved is that Boston Dynamics could blast enough power through its hydraulics to generate the necessary force for lift-off. So all we needed was a few years of software improvements to get the balancing algorithm just right, and we could finally have jumping robots.
A humanoid strong enough to jump like that is capable of any “typical” human locomotion. Stairs, curbs, uneven ground, accidental jostling, sitting down, standing up, getting in and out of cars, subway lurches… all moves which are frequently performed by humans who can’t land a backflip, and who get mad if you shove them with a hockey stick.
A backflip is a marvel of mechanical engineering and software control. It’s a statement of power and poise. It’s bonkers.
I’m certain there’s still much more to do on the software side. Performing powerful jumps in a controlled, measured environment is easier than doing dynamic, improvisational parkour. And then humanoids still have to be taught how to do something useful with their newfound physical capabilities. Also, other companies will have to catch up with Boston Dynamics — just because this is possible it doesn’t mean it’s easy. We’re still a ways away from having backflipping robots as next door neighbors.
But I think we’re in a new robotic age now. There was a time before Atlas could do backflips, back when robots were for factories, bomb disposal, vacuuming, and the occasional gimmick, and none of the useful ones were humanoids. Now we’re living in an era where humanoid robots are apparently as agile as we are. So what will they be used for? It’s time to get out the popcorn.
Update November 17th, 4:15PM ET : On Thursday, SpaceX stated that it had decided to stand down from the launch as it reviewed data of a fairing test the company did for another customer. SpaceX said it still had the opportunity to launch on Friday, but that the launch might not happen depending on how long it takes the company to review the test data. Now it looks like SpaceX won’t be launching in the next couple days, and the company will come up with a new launch date soon.
Sometime in the next few days, SpaceX is set to launch perhaps its most secretive payload yet: a classified government satellite built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The purpose of the mission, codenamed Zuma, is essentially unknown. It’s unclear what kind of spacecraft is going up, or which government agency the launch is for. All we really know is that Zuma is scheduled to go into lower Earth orbit on top of a Falcon 9 rocket out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The Zuma mission only became public in October, when NASASpaceflight.com reported on documents that SpaceX had filed with the Federal Communications Commission, requesting authorization for a mysterious “Mission 1390.” A few days later, several news outlets confirmed that the flight, also called Zuma, would launch a Northrop Grumman-made payload. The contractor had been assigned by the US government to find a rocket for the launch, and Northrop Grumman ultimately picked the Falcon 9.
“Northrop Grumman realizes that this is monumental responsibility and have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma,” Lon Rains, communications director for Northrop Grumman’s Space Systems Division, said in a statement to The Verge. Northrop Grumman has not released any further information on the spacecraft.
It’s not the first time that SpaceX has launched secretive payloads into orbit. After receiving certification in 2015 to launch military satellites, the company has already launched two classified payloads, and is slated to launch even more over the next couple of years. However, all of SpaceX’s missions for the military have known customers, such as the US Air Force or the National Reconnaissance Office. So far, no government office has claimed the Zuma mission. And the NRO, which usually announces the launches of its spy spacecraft, said that Zuma doesn’t belong to the agency.
Apart from its super unique payload, this SpaceX launch is otherwise routine. When the Falcon 9 flies, it will attempt to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, located at the Cape. If that touchdown is successful, it’ll mark the eighth ground recovery for the company, and the 20th landing SpaceX has pulled off to date. Zuma also marks SpaceX’s 17th mission in 2017, the most the company has ever done in a single year, and more than double the number of missions in 2016. It’s possible the company could make an even 20 launches, if the new Falcon Heavy — an upgraded, heavy-lift version of the Falcon 9 — flies before the new year.
When SpaceX okays the launch, the Zuma mission is slated to take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Initially, the launch was supposed to go up on Wednesday sometime inside a launch window from 8PM to 10PM ET. But SpaceX has repeatedly changed the day of the mission since then. The first delay was given without a reason. “Both Falcon 9 and the payload remain healthy,” SpaceX said in a statement on Wednesday. “Teams will use the extra day to conduct some additional mission assurance work in advance of launch.” On Thursday, the company announced another delay due to a review of the fairing data, and no official date has been confirmed for now.
SpaceX’s live coverage of the launch usually starts 15 minutes prior to takeoff. Given the flight’s secrecy, chances are the live broadcast won’t follow the satellite’s deployment. Check back whenever this flight gets a date to watch as much of this mission as we can live.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a Punisher TV show. A little over a month after one of the worst mass murders in American history, in a country where mass shootings come at the rate of roughly one per day, the arrival of Marvel Comics’ favorite gun-wielding, spree-killing angry white man on Netflix is awkward, to say the least.
The Punisher has always been an antihero, a not-quite-good guy with a gun whose motivation for murder is initially sympathetic: bad guys killed his family, and justice has to be dispensed. When the Netflix series begins, however, he’s fresh from completing his quest for vengeance, and everyone on his original hit list is pushing daisies. If this were a movie, we’d be at the end, and it’d be time for Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) to put the guns down, get a lot of therapy, and move on with his life. But he can’t, because then Netflix and Marvel wouldn’t have a show, so he has to keep killing.
To their minor credit, showrunner Steve Lightfoot (a Hannibal writer-producer) and his team are smart enough to realize they have to say something about gun violence. Unfortunately, they never quite figure out what that should be.
Like numerous first-person shooter games that punch above their weight class, The Punisher tries to transcend its glorified violence by glazing the story with a thin sheen of social consciousness. It feints at addressing issues like PTSD, making America great again, and the experiences of veterans returning from war zones abroad. One of Castle’s friends, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) sets up Blackwater-esque military contracts; another, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), runs a support group for veterans. But the show never reckons with deeper issues so much as it mentions them between fight scenes. It’s like tossing a thinking-face emoji into a gun fight, and hoping it comes across as self-aware and wise. It doesn’t. No matter how many sad faces Frank Castle makes about his trauma, The Punisher can never escape the terrible gravity that its most basic purpose is inviting viewers to enjoy watching an angry man murder as many people as he can.
It’s impossible to divorce The Punisher from guns; they are his costume, his origin story, his superpower. Lightfoot and his directors know this: the opening credits start with a slow-motion shot of a bullet firing, smoke billowing out from the barrel as the camera caresses the contours of various guns with an almost-pornographic delight. For those who might be slow on the uptake, the credits conclude with an arsenal of weapons slowly coalescing into the Punisher’s infamous skull logo. The Punisher equals guns. Got it.
This time around, Frank’s targets are corrupt military officials who are covering up war crimes in Afghanistan, like the so-called Agent Orange (Paul Schulze). The shadowy conspiracy spirals out to envelop former NSA analyst David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Homeland Security agent Dina Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and everyone’s favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe journalist, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).
Bernthal and the rest of the cast acquit themselves well with the material they’re given, but they aren’t given much. While Castle has a personal stake in this new drama — he served in the unit responsible for the war crimes — this series also marks the moment when he crosses the line from avenging his family to thinking he should just kill people in general, if he thinks they’re bad enough.
Gruesome revenge dramas have a long and illustrious history, from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. At their best, they explore the primal human desire to hurt those who have hurt us, and how this ethos usually multiplies tragedies rather than bringing them to an end. A smarter show might use the Punisher’s penchant for violence and guns to explore the folly of treating them as simple solutions, or consider how Frank Castle’s lethal war on crime might be feeding the cycle of violence, rather than extinguishing it. Unfortunately, that’s not on offer.
Instead, The Punisher returns to the well of the more common and exploitative form of the revenge story, one that imagines horrible crimes and injustices in order to justify the violence fans want to see on screen, and to absolve their consciences for wanting to see it. Each cruelty and mustache-twist of the villain stokes is calculated to enrage and horrify, until knives or bullets sliding into bodies is finally experienced as pleasure and relief.
Gerry Conway, who created the Punisher in 1974, originally conceived of him as a throwaway character who would try to murder Spider-Man for a few issues. But the character’s brutal “ends justify the means” approach made him a fan favorite in his own right. Conway, who filed for conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War, finds the lionization of the character uncomfortable, particularly by the American soldiers fighting ISIS abroad who adopted the character’s symbol. “In my mind he’s not a good guy,” Conway told Time. He thinks that what makes the Punisher compelling to some people is precisely what makes him so disconcerting to others: his ability to shoot his way past the moral complexities of a situation and never look back. “Here’s a guy that never questions himself,” says Conway. “He never asks, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ I think there is something really attractive about that to people.”
Although lauded as a badass by fans who appreciate the moral simplicity and confidence of rampant, uncaring destruction, Frank Castle is better described as a tragic character, a deeply traumatized man unable to stop killing not just because of his own fictional compulsions, but because the popular mythology of the Punisher requires it. If he were allowed to heal from the wounds of his family’s deaths or his military service, he would be a different character entirely. So he’s doomed, like a blood-drenched Sisyphus cursed to push a murder-boulder up a hill forever.
In that regard, he shares a surprising amount of thematic overlap with Batman, a similarly vengeful crime-fighting vigilante who can’t ever end his protracted crusade against wrongdoers. Both characters had their families brutally gunned down, and they responded by creating alter egos who could dispense the justice they never received from the system. But they’re most interesting in the places where they diverge. Where Batman responded to his trauma by becoming fervently anti-gun, Frank Castle swung in the other direction, by arming himself to the teeth and firing bullets in the direction of anyone he deems worthy of death. There’s a simple reason for this, from a narrative perspective: guns are expressly designed to kill. If you don’t want your vigilante hero to be a murderer, don’t give him a gun. Conversely, if you do want to see him murder people, give him lots of guns.
And he certainly has murdered a lot of people. The Punisher isn’t the first member of the superhero set to wield guns or take lives, but as is often the case with gun violence, the issue is a matter of scale. Marvel Comics editor Steven Wacker estimated earlier in 2017 that Punisher has killed 48,502 people since his first appearance, a death toll that would likely make him the worst mass murderer in history. That’s more than 16,000 gravestones for every member of his family who was killed, a vast overreaction by even the most vengeful standard.
Much like Batman will brood forever in his underground man-cave, and Spider-Man will swing forever through the streets of New York City making quips, the Punisher will always kill, because that’s what he was made for. In that way, he is very much like the weapons he carries, constructed for a singular and terrible purpose: death. It’s no surprise that he delivers on the promise, or that viewers might find something exciting and even heroic about a working-class man wielding these tools of terror on behalf of underdogs and little guys. It’s hard to think of a Marvel character that better channels the mentality at the heart of the American gun epidemic; it’s too bad The Punisher has so little to say about it.
The Punisher debuts on Netflix on November 17th, 2017.
Republic Wireless, a popular MVNO that runs off of Sprint and T-Mobile, offers, among other things, some pretty comprehensive Wi-Fi calling features that caught the eye of Walt Mossberg last year.
So now the company is doing something a little differently for its first hardware product, a smart speakerphone called Anywhere HQ. According to Republic’s website, Anywhere HQ syncs with your regular phone number and allows you to make and receive calls.
There isn’t a ton of information on the device out yet, but it seems that the Anywhere HQ consists of a cordless phone that lives on a dock that can also function as a speakerphone using a speaker on the back. The page also says that the speaker will include some kind of smart assistant with voice controls, although Republic isn’t offering any details on that beyond the fact that you’ll be able to start calls through voice commands.
Anywhere HQ is designed to be an extension of the existing Republic Anywhere service, which allows users to text and call from iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows PC applications in addition to their phones.
It’s still pretty early days for the Anywhere HQ; Republic is opening the speaker up to its Republic Wireless Labs test program for users to help improve the device, and there’s no price or release date announced. But in a world where companies like Google and Amazon are struggling to figure out how to make cellphone integration work with Alexa and Assistant, Republic leveraging its existing cellular knowledge could be an interesting edge.
Also, Lauren Goode stops by the show to talk about season 2 of her video series Next Level, which takes a closer look at technology’s impact on the human experience. This week’s episode featured DJI’s Aeroscope technology that can track rogue drones.
There’s a lot more in between all of that — like Paul’s weekly segment “Robot dogs are people, too” — so listen to it all, and you’ll get it all.
Doubts that Elon Musk would be unable to put on a raucous reveal party were put to rest late Thursday night. Amid Tesla’s “production hell” this fall, the automaker delivered two beacons of hope for the California-based company’s future.
The Tesla Semi drew excitement from the crowd at the Hawthorne, California facility, as people eagerly waited for Musk to emerge from the big truck. But the surprise showing of the second-generation Tesla Roadster caused explosive cheers from the second its headlights switched on.
The excitement served as a distraction from the company’s financial and production problems for the moment. (Musk was also not nearly as energetic as he was back at the Model 3’s delivery event in July.) But his spirits were unquestionably lifted as hundreds of beaming Tesla fans projected their hope for the company’s ambitious future plans.
The Tesla Semi truck’s claimed range comfortably beat early expectations. At 500 miles, it’s roughly twice what Reuters claimed in August. It’s also more than double what Cummins and Daimler have promised so far in their planned electric trucks. That figure, and the promise of solar-powered “Megachargers” to give 400 miles of range in 30 minutes — supplementing the existing Supercharger network — should help put to rest concerns that an electric truck is impractical for hauling outside of cities.
In another attempt to put fleet managers at ease, Musk said the semi could go for 1 million miles without a breakdown, which will undoubtedly test the company’s reputation for quality. The botched launch of the Model X and its elaborate Falcon Doors, as well as reports of Model S and Model 3 cars having build-quality problems, could scare off customers in an industry that likely holds reliability and low ownership costs higher than car buyers. Yet, that hasn’t deterred a number of fleet operators —some of whom were in the audience Thursday night — from putting down preorders for a truck that isn’t even planned to start production until 2019.
While the Tesla Semi is equipped with Enhanced Autopilot, Tesla says it isn’t fully self-driving, and has moved away from claims of a self-driving truck. In fact, it spent a lot of time talking about how driver-centric it was with its center-mounted seat and space for people inside the cab. Part of that may be a backpedaling of Autopilot’s ambitions following a stern government ruling earlier this year. It may also be an appeal to the truck-driving industry in its protection of jobs.
As energized as Musk was about the semi, the whole audience was decisively more interested in the surprise at the end of the show.
The second-generation Roadster wasn’t completely unexpected, though: Musk has hinted at a revival of the sports car that established his company’s reputation for performance-oriented electric cars. That first effort, built with heavy assistance from Lotus Cars in Britain, however, has become somewhat of a distant memory since production ended in 2012. Now, Tesla wants it to be a homegrown halo car to follow up its mainstream lineup.
Well, at least what Tesla hopes its lineup will look like in 2020. You can reserve a Tesla Roadster now, with a $50,000 deposit on its estimated $200,000 base price, or pick up one of the 1,000 more powerful Founders Series cars by paying the full $250,000 now.
Let’s be honest: this is a fundraising drive for Tesla’s most loyal, trusting, and wealthiest customers. But it also has all the things that make people dream of supercars. After all the tire smoke had cleared, Musk boasted of the Roadster’s 0–60 mph time of 1.9 seconds and top speed of at least 250 mph. It’s well on its way to making it the fastest car in the world.
But there’s another big claim about the new Tesla Roadster: its 620-mile range. Musk claims that’s Los Angeles to San Francisco and back in one charge, a significant milestone for an electric car. Even most gasoline-fueled cars can’t travel that far without stopping at a pump. While the first Roadster proved electric cars could be quick and striking to look at (even with a relatively small range), the new Roadster aims to ask why the internal combustion engine needs to be around anymore.
Of course, unanswered questions loom ominously above both the Semi and the Roadster, like “how much is that truck going to be?” and “who’s going to wait three years for a Roadster?” Then there’s the whole issue of the Model 3 and when its problems will be ironed out, especially to those who were among the first in line for a car promised to be churning out of the factory at a rate of 5,000 per week at this point. There’s also the fact that Tesla is burning cash at a staggering rate right now.
But last night’s event at least gave visual clues about the company Musk wants Tesla to be at the start of the new decade. There’s a fun and functional side with both the Roadster and Semi, and further proof Tesla wants to be in every corner of the transportation world.
China-based gadget maker Xiaomi is bringing more of its products to the US this week. Two headphone models, a 10,000mAh Mi Power Bank Pro, a 360-degree camera, and a robot coding kit are all coming to Amazon. This continues the company’s slow march toward wider device releases in the US.
Xiaomi currently sells its Android TV set-top box, Mi TV, at Walmart locations around the US, and previously launched items in its Mi online store for the US, including a fitness tracker, battery packs, and headphones. Those devices sold out within 30 minutes.
The Amazon-listed battery pack and 360-degree camera are already temporarily unavailable, while both of the headphones don’t go on sale until November 24th. I’d assume these will sell out too, given that everyone needs headphones and apparently everyone also has a desire to buy from Xiaomi. The Mi Headphones fit over the ear and cost $129.99, while the Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro cost $25.99. I wish Xiaomi had instead decided to sell USB-C headphones or wireless ones in the US, but this is a start. Maybe its smartphones will eventually make their way stateside, too.
I’ve been using the iPhone X for about a week, and, like Nilay Patel said in his review: “The good news is that Face ID generally works great. The bad news is that sometimes it doesn’t.”
I’ve been trying to figure out what to do in those cases when it doesn’t. And, thanks to a complaint on Twitter (which, as I always say, is what Twitter is for), I have an answer.
But first, my overall take is that when Face ID works, it is magically better than Touch ID. Your phone just feels like it’s unlocked all the time, without requiring you to think about its security at all. However, the problem is that when it doesn’t work, it’s not super clear what you’re supposed to do about it.
When Touch ID fails, you just try it a second time. You reposition your thumb or you wipe your thumb or you say “screw it” and punch in the passcode. When Face ID fails, you reposition the entire phone or you just swipe up on the home bar thing. Usually, that gets it to catch.
But my particularly weird problem is that I really, really like the feature that hides notifications on the lock screen until Face ID recognizes you. But when it’s sitting on your desk (or better yet, your angled wireless charger), sometimes it won’t. At that point, I want to see my notifications, but Face ID isn’t catching. So, what next?
Looking away and back again doesn’t seem to work.
If I swipe up, I have to swipe down again to see my notifications. Annoying.
I don’t want to tap on the notification without seeing what it actually is. Annoying.
I don’t want to pick up the phone to reposition it; the darn thing is just sitting on my desk. Also annoying.
I don’t want to power the screen down with the sleep button and then power it up again. Again, also annoying!
I just want to see what my notifications are without picking up my phone or doing something awkward. What do I do? The iPhone doesn’t tell me.
Luckily, Alex Anderson on Twitter has told me. Give the home bar a little wiggle. Drag it up like about a quarter-inch and then push it down again. Don’t drag it up far enough to unlock the phone, just do a tiny wiggle. Face ID will then give it another shot and — by this point — you’re probably giving it the proper attention to make it work this time.
Grab the home indicator and slide up slightly then back down. Retries FaceID without unlocking
Is this a silly problem? Yes. But it’s also a thing I do hundreds of times a day, so I want it to work. Phones should be accommodating to their users, adjusting to them instead of vice versa. Sometimes it feels like the iPhone X doesn’t do that.
Apple has made the best-case scenario of unlocking your phone way better with Face ID, but good software design should guide the user toward what to do when things don’t go exactly as planned. I wish the iPhone X was as good at helping me figure out how to use it in those cases as my pal Alex on Twitter was.
Starting today, the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the Scotiabank Theatre in downtown Toronto — even before the giant Klingon Bird of Prey dangling above the escalators — is a state-of-the-art virtual reality arcade. You’ll probably even hear a few of the telltale shrieks that come from someone’s first VR experience. Today, IMAX is opening the latest of its IMAX VR centers with its first location in Canada. The launch follows VR installations in theaters in Shanghai and New York, as well as a flagship location in Los Angeles that debuted back in January.
According to Mark Welton, president of IMAX Theaters, the current locations have been successful at capturing audiences who are already going to the movies. But with its central location and prominence within the theater, the new Toronto arcade could represent something different: an experience where people go explicitly to check out the latest in virtual reality, as opposed to simply jumping in after they watch a movie. “I think this site is going to be different,” says Welton.
Design-wise, the Toronto arcade is similar to the existing IMAX VR locations. It features 10 pods, which look like vaguely futuristic cubicles that are empty aside from the necessary VR gear. The pods are designed to be modular; currently they’re small cubes, but walls can be removed to create larger spaces for more free-flowing VR installations. The current slate of VR experiences features a number of familiar faces, like the shooter John Wick Chronicles, sci-fi co-op game Raw Data, Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight, and the team-based Star Trek: Bridge Crew.
Most games use the HTC Vive, while a few utilize the fledgling StarVR headset, which features a greater 210-degree field of view. Currently, only John Wick supports StarVR, but there’s also an experience based on The Mummy in the works. Most of the experiences also utilize some form of force feedback — either through a chair or Subpac rumble backpacks — and IMAX says that it’s experimenting with potentially adding smell for a full “4D” experience.
Along with the new arcade, today also marks the launch of a new collection of Justice League experiences. The new Justice League VR game — which at launch is exclusive to IMAX — lets you play as each member of the superhero team in different scenarios, and I was able to try three of them. As the Flash, you run through a subway tunnel, dodging obstacles by stepping left and right. You can also drive the Batmobile, using the HTC Vive’s motion controllers to turn the steering wheel and fire machine guns at a seemingly never-ending onslaught of enemy vehicles. As Aquaman, meanwhile, you swim down a trench and stab a giant sea creature with a trident. Each is exciting while being simple enough you can understand in a single, short playthrough. They’re also mostly on rails so that it’s impossible to get lost.
The Justice League experience came about through IMAX’s VR fund, which will see the company co-finance an expected 25 VR experiences over the next three years. The idea is to partner with prominent names in the film space — so far the likes of Justin Lin and the Russo brothers have signed up — to create exclusive experiences that make sense in a theater environment. IMAX is also working with Google to develop what it describes as a “cinema-grade VR camera” for these filmmakers to utilize. It’s expected to launch in 2018.
Though it’s been close to a year since the first IMAX VR location debuted, the project is still very much a work in progress. Welton describes it as being in a “pilot phase.” Certain elements, like pricing and content, are still in flux and regularly change. At the Toronto location, for instance, you can buy tickets for each individual experience, which range for $8 to $15 and last an average 10 minutes each. Meanwhile, other locations include an option to buy a ticket that gets you an unlimited amount of play within a fixed period of time.
The team at IMAX is also still figuring out what, exactly, theatergoers want out of a VR experience. According to Welton, over the first 10 months of the project people have gravitated to more social experiences; not just ones that are fun to play together, but also ones that are entertaining to watch as a group. (The VR pods feature low walls on one side so it’s easy to see people flailing about while pretending to be The Flash.) IMAX has also introduced a new color-coded system that gives you a better idea of what kind of VR experience you’re in for when you buy a ticket. Each individual experience is given a handful of qualifiers — such as “casual,” “action,” “physically active,” or “age restrictive” — so you know what you’re spending $10 on.
Despite its prominent location, the new Toronto VR arcade doesn’t necessarily represent a future direction for these installations. Instead, Welton says, IMAX will be tailoring each arcade to its location’s specific needs. There are plans for six more VR setups in theaters across the globe; an upcoming Manchester location, for instance, will feature a VR arcade in a prominent shopping plaza across the street from a theater. The idea is to try different things, and see what works. “We’re changing constantly,” says Welton.