Girls on Wheels, Meet Your Avatars

Girls on Wheels transported to new worlds through virtual reality

Vicki Baker

Imagine a copy of yourself; an interactive digital clone with a life of its own—your avatar. Imagine a place where you’re not just watching a movie, you’re a part of the action. Imagine an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience where you step into a full sensory story unfolding around you. Well, drop your bag of popcorn and follow Girls on Wheels (Nancy Burns, Vicki Baker, Susan Hebert, Shirley Monge, and Cassie Richardson) as we suited up and entered Dreamscape, exploring cinematic worlds, characters, and creatures never before thought possible.

Most VR experiences limit you to sitting in a swivel chair watching a scene unfold, or standing in a confined space painting a virtual canvas with joysticks used for navigation. Now step into a new dimension—Dreamscape—where we actually walk around and interact within a virtual world.

Outfitted with a VR headset, lightweight backpack computer, and hand and foot sensors, staff ushered us into a 16-by-16-foot space equipped with a vibrating haptic floor, which quaked beneath our feet. Our headsets now activated, Girls on Wheels were replaced in the digital world by full-bodied avatars with our entire bodies moving in real time.

We were introduced to the “stage” surrounded by a metal railing seamlessly incorporated into the virtual environments, sometimes disappearing completely when we moved about the room. Railings served as locations to pick up or interact with objects in the virtual world stories, but also stopped us from walking into real-world walls.

After introductions, two virtual worlds awaited us as we were set free to navigate around the ever-changing environments. In the Alien Zoo, we toured interstellar habitats where we petted and played with near-extinct creatures. Upon encountering those more unpredictable and dangerous, our survival skills were put into play. In Curse of the Black Pearl, we leaped into a daring adventure to recover the lost pearl protected by an ancient curse in the Temple of the Snake God. Beautiful, majestic, and deadly, the temple was rigged with deadly traps and hidden pitfalls.

Completely immersed in the virtual landscapes, we traversed vast outdoor tropical spaces, escaped from cavernous rooms, raced through confusing mazes and tunnels and hurtled across vast, bottomless chasms. Looking over a virtual ledge, we felt acrophobic. Faced with a perceived broken bridge and crumbling floor, we bounded forward using larger than physically necessary steps. The dissonance challenged our sense of space while, in reality, we were just walking around in circles in a square box. It’s all a bit off-putting, but the fun mounted as we got the hang of things.

That was the magic of Dreamscape. The emotional power of Hollywood storytelling, the visceral excitement of great theme park rides, and the extraordinary new technology to create worlds, all pushed the limits of virtual reality. Girls on Wheels were no longer lone observers. We were active participants in a computer-generated world. We stepped outside the proverbial box, the physical room, and together shared a virtual experience in real time.