Nov 11, 2018
Forbes – Zara Stone
The Unreal Garden Is San Francisco’s Selfie Museum For The Burning Man Generation
I’m surrounded by flowers and animals, some virtual, some real, with a $5000 Microsoft Hololens strapped to my head. In front of me unfolds a phantasmagorical wonderland, with floating neon bushes and luminous rabbits and birds. “The environment reacts to you, touch something and it will change,” explained Leila Amirsadeghi cofounder of Onedome, who soft launched this surreal botanical scene — a.k.a. The Unreal Garden — in San Francisco, mid-October. “And here are the selfie stations.”
Yes, this world of magically augmented reality has selfie stations. After all, your cell phone can only capture what your eyes see unassisted — what’s really happening takes place in the Hololens. The selfie station merges virtual and physical reality to create a shareable picture, a psychedelic blurring of parallel worlds.
“The stations cater to consumer behavior,”Amirsadeghi said. “People want to have fun but also to share that, it’s about wanting to be out there and seen doing different things. We try and provide visually stimulating areas for those for those photographs.” Onedome’s set to open ten more venues across America over the next three years, and they have a ten year lease for their current building.
Sold out experiences like The Selfie museum and the Museum of Ice Cream have whetted people’s appetite for experiences that are also Instagram worthy — here the tech crowd gets a turn. The Burning Man crowd may be bashful about ‘mainstream’ selfie opportunities, but in tech-heaven, they can duckface with the best of them.
The Unreal Garden has regutted a former natural history museum on San Francisco’s Market Street, but kept many of the physical touches, including the bridge entryway and bubbling water. To enter the garden you pass a number of stations — Narnia like tree selfie spot, neon wall art and weirdly patterned floor tiles. Once you get to the garden, users pay their entrance fee and get a Hololens headset placed on their head. Then they’re free to wander, as white rabbits sparkle in the edges of your vision and colorful flowers unfurl as you look at them.
This glowing LSD landscape unfolds, superimposed on the real world, which is already pretty stunning to look at in this space. Amirsadeghi said they designed it with an emphasis on storytelling — it’s not super obvious but all those little decor tricks come together to create a “world placed on magical ley lines and nature took over what was formerly inhabited by humans.” She says they may make this more apparent in future iterations.
“We decided to start with a more passive experience though there is a level of interactivity with the curated items,” she told me. “The idea is that the Unreal garden is a place that comes to life around you. But for it to do that, you also have to bring your energy. When you touch things with your finger you’ll see sparkles as your finger becomes an energetic paintbrush.”
It’s super cool, but it’s not a ‘long experience’ — I’d say you’d be one and done in about half an hour. Which is quite short for a $33 ticket.
“It’s not quite there yet,” 31-year-old Norman Singh told me, after he spent thirty minutes wandering through the glowing trees. “I think it’s cool and all, but the technology creates these blank spots in your vision, which takes away from the experience.” His critique was more for the Hololens tech than the Unreal Garden, but as of now, they’re one and the same. He still tweeted it out, however.
But the concept has takers. Ondeome raised $3.33 million in their Series A this October, bringing their total funding to $5.5 million. They plan to use this money to expand. Later this year, the Unreal Garden will have an underground friend, with ‘LMNL’ a ‘10,000 square foot interactive gallery’ opening in the basement of the building, which should extend the experience.
“Our mission is to create artful immersive spaces inviting a shift from Me to We,” said Bertram Meyer, Onedome’s CEO. “We are specifically choosing interactive experiences that are built to be shared with friends or family, and that invites a moment of awe and beauty, collaboration and presence.”
Nuria Heras, project manager at architect firm, TEN Arquitectos NY, said that combining augmented reality with architecture is a growing trend. “AR is a really powerful way to demonstrate your point of view in every single room, ” she said. “For interior design, you can enhance plans and renderings because AR allows you to feel the scale of what is being put in a space. For furniture, fixtures, and finishes it is advantageous to test them out this way.” Heras said that one big benefit is in the educational and entertainment spheres. “Museums already use it to show either historical data in a more relatable way, and those educating the public today have an incredible tool with endless scope.”
AR experiences are having their time in the sun; in 2017 AR companies grew 50% according to The Venture Reality Fund, and this year China’s in the lead with $3.9 billion investment in AR and computer vision technologies over the last 12 months, according to Digi-Capital. And with Apple, Samsung, and Facebook all investing heavily in this space — and Apple’s ARKit creating an easy way for developers to get started, — this won’t be the last company to get experiential.
But it might just be the most charming.