Visa Wellington on a Plate offers a virtual reality experience to lure Aucklanders to the capital — UPDATED

As part of a promotional activation for Visa Wellington on a Plate I was very lucky to head to Westfield Downtown Shopping Centre in Auckland this morning and don an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. And while it did make me look like a storm trooper part way through a costume change, it was a fun and enthralling experience. Here’s what it was like.

Upon arriving at the mall, myself, and another Tangible writer were ushered to a large glass box, dubbed the “space cube”, seated and passed the oversized goggles. We were told our experience in the cube would stimulate a few senses, namely sight, sound and smell.

We were then asked if we were prone to motion sickness to which we both replied “no”, a slight lie on my behalf. However, luckily the experience wasn’t long enough for any unwanted regurgitation.

After some fumbling around fitting the head set (my hair kept falling in my eyes and the goggles had steamed up a little) I placed some headphones over my ears and we were ready to go. Next thing I knew I was in space amongst the stars peering around, hoping a shooting star would bypass me but just as I became comfortable with my surroundings I was thrust into another environment. Buzzing bees swarmed alarmingly close to my eyes as a beekeeper collected their honey in a sunny glade.

One of the coolest parts of the experience was the fact that you could look in any direction and the image continued around you. And while I was acutely aware most of the time how utterly ridiculous I must have looked to those non-virtual reality headset-wearing plebs outside our luxurious “space cube”, I didn’t hesitate to look left and right, up and down, and attempt to turn my neck 360 degrees like a spooky owl.  

The next environment we found ourselves in was a damp-looking forest, when I looked down towards my feet I could see the intricate shrubbery which had sprouted from the earth and when I scanned the rest of my surroundings it seemed as if the sunlight peaking through the trees was falling on my face.

After exhaling and once again feeling a bit more settled I found myself standing in a grey and grim four-by-four prison cell where an uninviting toilet was fastened to the right side of the concrete wall in front of me.

Then suddenly I was at what looked like a restaurant kitchen being passed a plate of food. Naturally I reached out for it without thinking twice, before realising I couldn’t see my hands and sadly I wouldn’t be receiving this plate of food.

Then I was outside a shop window where a man leaned out holding an open jar of peanut butter for me to smell. I assumed this is where the olfactory aspect of the activation was set to kick in, so I willingly inhaled deeply through my nostrils, but sadly could only smell the weird plasticy scent of the recently erected space cube. Most of the people I spoke to didn’t smell anything either, but one woman said she caught a slight whiff of the peanut butter, perhaps my on-going sinus troubles are to blame.

The last thing I remember from the experience, though I can’t quite remember the sequence in which it occurred, I was standing on Mt Victoria looking out over Wellington harbour. When I looked left and right people walked up to admire the view, some with dogs. The strange thing is that it was a time-lapse sequence so it seemed like I was pushing fast-forward on the world around me. And of course, being a native Wellingtonian, this wee trip up Mt Vic did make me a little homesick.

While I said above that the experience was meant to stimulate a few senses, including sound, I was so enthralled in the visual experience that I have completely forgotten what the audio was like, bar some music right at the beginning of the experience.

And after being teased by unfounded virtual offerings of food, much to our merriment we were fed afterwards by celebrity chef Martin Bosley. The highlight of this experience was a spherical-shaped donut dipped in a sugary maple sauce before being dipped again into small bacon chunks. It was glorious. A small course of slithered venison also went down a treat. As did a surprisingly tasty course of toast with peanut butter, tomato and miniature leafy greens.

The purpose of this activation, which was created by Proximity and Colenso BBDO, was of course, to entice Aucklanders to head south and experience all that Wellington on a Plate has to offer. The festival runs from 14 – 30 August and showcases the culinary delights our lovable windy capital has to offer as well as a number of food and beverage-related events including: “…special restaurant menus, a battle for the city’s best burger, mouth-watering cocktail creations, a celebration of the region’s top producers and the ultimate event for craft beer drinkers,” according to a release.

Last year Positively Wellington created a miniature pop up Wellington ‘city’ within 5 silos at Auckland’s waterfront, according to Dish: “Inside awaited a herschel backpack of hipsters, sumptuous warm styling and beautifully lit rooms, all hosting Wellington’s best food and drink producers, cafes and restaurants.”

The activation featured a bunch of samples from Wellington food and beverage outlets such as Six Barrel Soda Co., Scopa, Duke Carvell’s, Flight Coffee, Wellington Chocolate Factory, Garage Project and others.

And back to the virtual reality note, the sector really is taking off with BI Intelligence forecasting that the virtual reality market will be worth US$2.8 billion (NZ $3.8 billion) by 2020.

And the potential uses for it are numerous. According to VRS the military uses it for training purposes, throwing its soldiers into virtual combat situations. The education sector also has use for it, as it serves as a platform for students to interact with objects in that environment to learn more about them. VRS also says astronomy students can learn about the solar system by moving planets and seeing around stars, tracking the progress of comets.

The healthcare sector is one of the biggest adopters of virtual reality, according to VRS which “…encompasses surgery simulation, phobia treatment, robotic surgery and skills training”.

And these are just a few of the uses, not to mention: gaming, sport, construction, film, scientific visualisation, engineering, the list goes on.

(UPDATED) According to a Positively Wellington Tourism spokesperson in the month of August last year, the month Visa Wellington on a Plate is held, there were over 22,000 more domestic commercial guest nights in Wellington, compared with the final August before the festival, in 2008. “This equates to a 23 percent growth rate in six years.” 

The number of electronic card transactions by Aucklanders in Wellington in August has grown by 50 percent since Visa Wellington on a Plate started, and last year around 8,000 people came to Wellington from out of town specifically for the festival, Visa Wellington on a Plate festival director Sarah Meikle says.

Each year since the festival’s inception, food and beverage spending by visitors in the Wellington region has increased in August, both in regards to total dollars spent and the number of transactions made, she says. “The regional spend in August in this sector has increased 23 percent since 2009, and the number of transactions by 46 percent. Overall in Wellington, 16.8 percent of spend by visitors in Wellington is on food and beverage and between 2009 and 2013 spend in this sector increased by 11.4 percent.”

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