We’ve already heard experience producer Heather Gallagher’s review of Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart installation in Las Vegas – now, creative director Mark Slade stops by and is perhaps more im-merched than immersed…
One day I will travel the world as a coveted, red carpet-walking WXO reviewer, but for now I get my experience kicks as a paying punter. I was recently lucky enough to be in Las Vegas for a couple of days on business. I had a small window of spare time and wanted to spend it in a place that would inspire some divergent thinking, trigger ideas and give me an alternative lens through which to re-appreciate Vegas, at least for a couple of hours.
The hype around Meow Wolf’s new Omega Mart installation is huge.
Described as an “interactive, mind-bending art experience bursting into surreal worlds and unexpected landscapes”, visitors are invited to explore a supermarket that conceals hidden doors and passages into an unfolding story behind (no storyline spoilers, I promise).
The intriguing website, punchy marketing and most of the reviews I had read fuelled my initial excitement. When I dug a little deeper and learnt that Brian Eno was one of the contributors, my expectations went through the roof. I jumped in an Uber and headed for Area 15.
Omega Mart is housed at Area 15 (see what they did there?) which is a futuristic, immersive theme park with a huge projection-mapped skull (very cool for selfies), loads of VR-based rides and gaming pop-ups (loads to try if you’re feeling flush), a skyrail that zips you around the roof attached to a harness (kind of pointless but this is Vegas so it made sense), shops offering cyber punk and neon apparel, and black light-activated gadgets and toys (think Vegas does Blade Runner and be forgiving).
My account of the experience is based on a 90-minute visit. If, like me, you love the detail and suffer from FOMO, then give yourself at least three hours.
What’s good about the experience?
- The ticket-buying experience was fast, simple and flexible. I had to change my entry time a couple of times after I had purchased the ticket but this was stress-free and took literally seconds.
- The integration of the app with the live experience felt slick and tied the deeper level story narrative together with the physical installations.
- The attention to detail in the visual design was great. I could have spent all of my time reading the product labels and branding in the Omega Mart.
- The creative personality of the contributing artists really comes across and in places is very funny, too. From buyable, personalised bottles of bleach (almost purchased for my wife before realising it might get me arrested at the airport) to music-making consoles with oscillators and filters from which you could create anything from a sub bass space fart symphony to filthy banging techno with the hover of a hand through red laser beams, or touch of a button on a piece of dusty factory machinery (which incited visions of Bryan Eno manically laughing his head off behind a Wizard of Oz curtain).
- Offering the choice of being able to *skim around the experience or *dive into the joining narrative (*as our founding partner, Martin Coat, might put it) was great, especially for me with limited time to see it all. Whilst I was aware of the full story and the opportunity to have a potentially richer experience by engaging with it, the fact that I wasn’t able to dive fully in didn’t lessen the impact for me.
- The breadth of different installations kept me entertained and engaged throughout. One minute I was in front of a bank of live, fully interactive and controllable CCTV screens snooping on other visitors (again, I could have spent an hour playing just on that), the next I was crawling through a tiny hole in a wall and up through a secret passage into a completely new environment.
- The melting pot of interactive art intertwined with the story narrative and your role within it enhanced the immersion of the experience.
- I am a sucker for a gift shop. With entry and exit through two different shops, I loved that Meow Wolf is not afraid to take the piss and have fun doing it. Omega Mart itself offers a range of totally original and intentionally hilariously expensive items. They also have items that are not for sale – I was gutted but equally impressed that some of the T-shirts on display were not available to buy. I made up for it with several purchases in the ‘official’ gift shop which I now realise cost me almost twice as much as the ticket! But some of the merch is that enticing because you know it’s more than a logo.
What could be improved?
- Overall, the actors inside the experience were decent and tried hard, but due to the footfall and repetition I sensed that there was a lack of energy and enthusiasm with some. Whilst the actors roles were equally to act as front of house guides, I felt that the big thing lacking were some dedicated actor roles. Perhaps they were there and I missed them? Had I followed the deeper storyline through to conclusion, would I have met some of the star cast in story videos?
- I would love to have uncovered more about the art pieces and who created them. Because I was not engaging as deeply in the storyline, perhaps I missed their names being dropped in or perhaps they are intentionally not included so as not to drop the ball on the in-world narrative? If the latter, I think there could be a cool alternative way to introduce the artists either as alternate reality characters within the story subplot, or as a supporting behind the scenes installation of digital content pieces that you receive post-visit if you opt in. That link was missing for me, which would have added more artistic credibility, too.
- Whilst ‘immersive’ is (refreshingly) not over used by Meow Wolf in describing the Omega Mart experience, I would love to know what the factory smelt like, what those insane products in the store tasted like, and what the temperature drop felt like when I discovered the secret passageway through the fridge. These kinds of multi-sensory builds would elevate the experience and are already so well teed up physically and visually that it feels like an opportunity missed to really blow the audience away.
- Beyond the 20% discount to spend on more cool T-shirts I received for answering 3 simple feedback questions (thank you and I probably will!), I would love to receive something more creative, more exclusive feeling, more in-world-compelling from Meow Wolf, because that is how the experience felt. You have me, now keep me!?
Which elements did you like so much you’d like to use them in your work?
- There is an ‘accessibility’ about Meow Wolf that is impressive. If you are only into high brow immersive theatrical experiences then you might find Omega Mart too in-your-face, commercial, garish – even obvious, perhaps. Omega Mart is a puked up, pop-punk, fairground-funhouse-on-speed version of Punchdrunk, served with Tango instead of Prosecco. It takes a lot of the best bits from other experiences and smashes them together into a bonkers cocktail which, whilst not for everyone’s taste, has been expertly distilled for most people’s taste. I like this because there is much to borrow and remix from it – especially when designing for audiences that are new to interactive or immersive experiences.
- The flexibility of the story-immersion level helps make it accessible and more appealing to a wider audience, too. Offering people a quality experience whether they choose to skim across or dive in is something I am very focused on. To the point above, designing for a ‘new’ audience while keeping a more ‘established’ audience fully engaged and excited, too.
- The integration of in-world merchandise as part of the creative experience and not just as an exit phase transaction is really interesting. Creating transactional moments that heighten the experience itself by adding to the narrative, solving a problem, providing inspiration or a reward for progress etc – these techniques build trust and relationships with the audience which in turn create advocacy, recommendation and of course additional revenue opportunities.
In summary, I would describe Omega Mart as an unmissable few hours if you are in Vegas. Don’t expect it to be your greatest ever experience of one particular thing. Do expect the overall experience to thrill you, entertain you, put a smile on your face… and a hole in your wallet if you succumb to it’s excellent T-shirts.
If you’re in Las Vegas and would like to try Omega Mart for yourself, you can book tickets here.
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