Back in December of 2020, I decided to treat three of my closest friends to a COVID-friendly virtual holiday party of sorts. Separated by state lines and quarantine restrictions, we’d each don a Quest 2 headset from Oculus on an anonymous Saturday afternoon, assume one of four Looney Tunes-esque animal avatars, and enter into Dr. Crumb’s School for Disobedient Pets, a live-acted, hour-long escape room experience in virtual reality.
Shortly after our session ended, I received this text from one of those friends:
“Legit, my goggles were filled with tears.”
Yes, we had been laughing that much. Our host, comedian Max Maliga, who was playing the part of the titular mad scientist, had latched onto our group’s penchant for talkback and “rated R” interactions, and suitably served up improved volleys that had us cackling. This even culminated in him calling us a “bunch of assholes” — albeit endearingly. We were charmed, to say the least.
In the hours and days after the session, which costs $99 in total and can accommodate up to eight players, other similarly exuberant text messages followed. One friend actually went so far as to inquire about and then apply for a hosting gig with the company responsible for our VR shenanigans: Adventure Lab.
The name may not sound familiar now, but as VR begins its steady climb towards mass-market appeal on the backs of affordable, standalone headsets like the Facebook-owned Oculus Quest 2 (and a potential 2022 Apple headset), so, too, could its household name recognition.
The brainchild of co-founders Maxwell Planck and Kimberly Adams, who share a common professional past at both Pixar and the now-defunct Oculus Story Studio, Adventure Lab is picking up where their previous experiments in VR had left off and applying lessons learned. Whereas their initial efforts in the space attempted to “steal” from filmmaking and storytelling, as Planck puts it, the duo’s new company is pulling its inspiration from something a bit more intangible: the creation of shared memories.
“The number one thing they remember about the experience was an interaction they had with a live performer.”
“I don’t think VR is an evolution of film,” says Planck of those early, award-winning narrative experiences like Henry, Wolves in the Walls, and Dear Angelica. “… When it’s the most magical for me is when I’m doing it with others. And I think it needs to be more of a quest or an adventure — that it feels like I’m here with my friends; we all have established roles and there is something for us to do. And it’s clear. And we are the ones who push this adventure forward and make it happen. And when we all get to the end, it feels like we did it together. And that was a new memory formed instead of … we just heard a new story.”
As my anecdotal evidence can attest, Planck, Adams, and the rest of the small Adventure Lab crew seem close to striking VR gold with this new creative direction. Of the now roughly 1,000 people who’ve booked sessions for Dr. Crumb’s School for Disobedient Pets since its launch in May of 2020, Adams says that about “90 percent” have offered up similar survey feedback which gives weight to this collective social bent.
“The number one thing they remember about the experience was an interaction they had with a live performer. And then the second thing they remember is something that they achieved together,” she says.
Dr. Crumb is only the first of many co-op experiences Adams and Planck hope to host on the Adventure Lab platform, which is currently compatible with Oculus Quest/Rift, HTC Vive/Vive Cosmos, Valve Index, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
To be clear, neither one considers nor wants the company to be considered a studio. The aim, instead, is to establish Adventure Lab as a platform akin to something like Valve’s Steam for PC games: A content marketplace where studios can offer up independently produced, performance-focused experiences and their freelance hosts can amass followings.
“If a platform or a developer like Nintendo comes along, we want to say you can have a Nintendo-built experience,” Planck explains. “And what we’re building is that platform where people come to — just like a Netflix browsing experience or Steam store browsing experience — where it’s not only, ‘Here’s the adventures you can buy.’ [But also,] ‘Here’s the host’s event times on them.'”
“If they’re doing about 10 shows a week for the price we’re targeting, they can make about $30,000 a year.”
Though it may seem as if Adventure Lab is mostly about the potential wellspring of social content, Adams is keen to have it spur a new kind of VR “gig economy for performers.” The idea being that comedians and actors — both famous and unknown — can leverage their popularity, set their own schedules and rates, and work “from the comfort of their couch.”
Planck offers up the example of someone like Jack Black hosting an experience, which I immediately counter with my own personal wishlist: Nicole Kidman in a supernatural horror scenario like The Others. (This suggestion elicits wide eyes and some ooohs from both Adams and Planck — so maybe someday soon I’ll get my wish. If Kidman can do HBO, VR might not be that much of a stretch.)
“We think that this live host can be added to so many different types of genres,” says Planck. “And we want to work with, say, the Smithsonian to create a Smithsonian adventure where you can actually explore the Columbia shuttlecraft; where you can go to an Apollo 11 lunar landing site and the host is actually with you in the EVA suit going through the tour in space. … And this is what we do on Thanksgiving together instead of a board game.”
Slug it out with friends in an escape room-style VR experience.
Image: adventure lab
Currently, Adams says that Adventure Lab’s performers (a roster which includes four hosts at the time of this writing) are paid an undisclosed “set rate per show.” Eventually, however, the company’s revenue model will allow for these performers to garner a percentage of ticket sales, the price of which will vary according to their individual experience and audience demand.
Planck elaborates: “You know, rough, rough estimate… if they’re doing about 10 shows a week for the price we’re targeting, they can make about $30,000 a year on that because they’re making around, say, $40 to $50 per experience.”
Already the platform seems to be benefiting from strong word-of-mouth among performers. “We have not yet recruited widely, but have a list of 80 performers that have found us and reached out, hoping to audition,” says Adams. No prior VR experience is necessary, either. Two of the company’s current hosts joined without ever donning a headset and were trained up in about two weeks’ time.
Though the current Dr. Crumb experience is set at the perfect, family-friendly difficulty level, there are plans underway to eventually offer up a “hard mode” to challenge savvier players. “We do have some really hard puzzles built,” says Adams. “I mean, one of our advisors is Noah Falstein, who is the [former] chief game designer at Google. And we have this incredible puzzle master Brett Kuehner from New York.” What’s more, players can expect to someday also experience expanded in-game abilities and the option of an alternate “bad ending” — a design decision that resulted from player feedback.
For now, the duo are focused on the recently launched “cross-platform mode,” which allows players without VR headsets to join in via a camera-enabled tablet, desktop PC, or laptop, and get a glimpse of the manic VR-fun. The idea here being that once they get a taste, they may want to buy a headset and check out the experience as it’s primarily meant to be consumed.
I mention that the cross-platform move is reminiscent of Phasmophobia, a fairly recent PC gaming hit where a team of four ghost hunters — who can be either desktop or VR players — investigate haunted locations in an attempt to exorcise (or be killed by) spirits. To my surprise, it seems I may have stumbled onto what’s next.
“One thing. Just to lay a hint,” Planck says to me before we end our Zoom call. “You were talking about Phasmophobia. We are also excited about that. Because imagine if the ghost was a live actor.”
So I take it Kidman’s a lock, then?