Otherworld imagines a future where virtual reality tourism is equal parts creepy and colorful

The massive, interactive art experience opens in Columbus, Ohio in May

Photo: Anna Hider

The concept of virtual reality is intriguing to many of us—but we’re still waiting for the science behind it to catch up to our imagination of what could possible be done using VR in the future.

This is part of the inspiration behind Otherworld, an immersive art experience that opens in Ohio in May. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this visionary world while it was still being assembled.

A journey to Otherworld starts by going deep into suburbia. Specifically Reynoldsburg, about 15 minutes outside of Columbus, Ohio. The exhibit is located in a 32,000-square-foot warehouse, completely surrounded by abandoned big box stores. There’s something poetic about using art to replace the corporate chains that have gone out of business. 

Otherworld is surrounded by abandoned retail stores.
Otherworld is in a formerly abandoned retail space | Photo: Anna Hider

Otherworld’s lead textile artist, Hollie Hermes, shows me around the space. She explains the exhibits that are up and running, and describes the installations that have yet to be finished; some stuff have been crafted but not yet installed, and a good amount of the displays will be digital projections. 

Otherworld tells the story of a virtual reality company beta-testing its product.
Otherworld tells the story of a virtual reality company beta-testing its product.| Photo: Anna Hider
Some of Otherworld's installations are whimsical.
Some of Otherworld’s installations are whimsical.| Photo: Anna Hider
Otherworld is about 80% complete.
Otherworld is close to completion. | Photo: Anna Hider

There’s a loose storyline connecting things, but a lot is left open to interpretation. As Jordan Renda—the creative director and mastermind of Otherworld—describes the experience, visitors are beta testers for a strange and secretive futuristic virtual reality company, where things have started to get a little out of hand.

Some rooms depict the company’s offices, while others portray the virtual reality world that’s been manifested. There’s a subtle narrative connecting some of the virtual reality rooms, too. I’m wandering from a children’s room with adorable, furry creatures straight out of Monsters Inc., to a botanist’s lab, to a Little Shop of Horrorsesque alien conservatory, to a cave filled with ever-watching eyeballs, to a black-light room covered in neon spider webs, to a haunted house-inspired church populated by vintage-looking cartoon characters. It all feels a bit like a fever dream—but in a really entertaining way.

When I ask Hollie what the meaning is behind one rather sad cartoon vignette in the haunted house church, she simply says, “It’s art.” Fair enough. 

The interior of the haunted house will feature sepia-tone lighting.
The interior of the haunted house will feature sepia-tone lighting.| Photo: Anna Hider
The interior of the haunted house features cartoon vignettes.
The interior of the haunted house features cartoon vignettes.| Photo: Anna Hider

Hollie thinks it’ll take visitors about three hours to fully experience everything Otherworld has to offer, and I fully believe her. There are a total of 47 different rooms, and it seems possible to get lost here for days.

Hollie says that she once stumbled onto a room that she had no idea existed, even after having worked on the project for months. According to her, the whole team worked together to dream up and execute most of the concepts, with the help of local and national artists who contributed some of the murals and digital pieces.

This tower will be surrounded by inflatable clouds.
This tower will be surrounded by inflatable clouds.| Photo: Anna Hider
It lights up and changes color.
The tower in its full, lit-up glory. | Photo: Anna Hider

The most important thing for visitors to keep in mind while exploring Otherworld is that everything is interactive and meant to be touched, opened, or played with. There are secret tunnels and passageways hidden all throughout; look under or behind things to find these crawlspaces, some of which lead to secret rooms. I won’t give too much away, but there are some real Easter eggs (like a real-life Space Invaders game you can enter) hidden here that you don’t want to leave without seeing.

The installations were built to be as sturdy as possible, but wear-and-tear is natural and expected. Since Otherworld is a permanent exhibit, things might be swapped out from time to time to keep it fresh and exciting.

Otherworld has tons of hidden rooms and secret tunnels.
Otherworld has tons of hidden rooms and secret tunnels. | Photo: Anna Hider

Some of the pieces and installations that weren’t assembled or fully up-and-running during my tour include an escape room puzzle, a decontamination room, cryogenic chambers, a CEO’s office with a portal blasted into the wall, a control room with computers that visitors can use to interact with other rooms, and an ancient temple —along with loads of murals and interactive digital projections. And that tower covered in lights? Soon, it’ll be surrounded by clouds. 

Haunted houses helped inspire Otherworld.
Haunted houses helped inspire Otherworld.| Photo: Anna Hider
Otherworld's haunted house has Jack-o-lanterns and graves.
Otherworld’s haunted house has jack-o-lanterns and graves.| Photo: Anna Hider
The botanist's lab.
The botanist’s lab. | Photo: Anna Hider

The escape room and the haunted house are nods to two popular kinds of interactive exhibits that served as inspiration for Otherworld. It’s a bit strange and mysterious, and there’s no map that will tell you where anything is, but don’t expect to find yourself locked in a room with no escape or encountering monsters popping out from behind corners. It’s not pure Instagram-bait, either. It’s more cerebral—and, frankly, more compelling.

The control room will allow visitors to interact with other parts of the exhibit.
The control room will allow visitors to interact with other parts of the exhibit.
This temple is still being completed.
This temple is still being completed.| Photo: Anna Hider
An artifact from an ancient alien.
An artifact from an ancient alien.| Photo: Anna Hider

Otherworld’s creators have thought out just about every detail—from the the eyes in the cave that follow visitors’ movements, to the shelves of ancient alien-y artifacts that the fictional CEO has collected. The team has even decided to add a cafe to the lobby, since people might get hungry and thirsty after three hours of getting lost (again, probably quite literally) in the dreamscape. 

There's no map of Otherworld's exhibits.
There’s no map of Otherworld’s exhibits.| Photo: Anna Hider

I look forward to coming back when Otherworld officially opens, likely in mid-May, to see the finished product. There’s a lot I’m excited to experience when I return, but the most intriguing will be to see the ending to the story they’ve woven. Until then—I’ll probably be having nightmares about getting lost in the neon forest mirror room for eternity. 

If you go

Otherworld is tentatively slated to open on May 10. Pre-sale tickets are on sale now for $16. Regular admission will be $22.