The Virtual Arena: From Silver Screen to Silicon Dreams! (Pt 2)

DOE industry specialist Kevin Williams continues his look at new commercial entertainment VR.

In the second part of his feature, (click here for part one) looking at the impact that the movie business and prominent Intellectual Properties (IP) have in steering new commercial entertainment VR business. Digital Out-of-Home entertainment (DOE) industry specialist Kevin Williams charts the major develops shaping this emerging new sector. One of the technologies gaining a strong interest from the deep pockets of this sector is the untethered backpack VR experience (Arena-Scale VR). The technology seen as the perfect medium to immersive the guest in the selected movie IP like-never-before, even some investors seeing this as a natural successor for the representation of the movie experience.

One of the most promoted developers of this approach has been The VOID, championing their ‘Hyper Reality’ concept. After many twists and turns the company opted to enter the race by presenting their technology within the Ghostbusters: Dimension attraction. Sony Pictures in partnership with operator Madame Tussauds investing in a walk-through waxwork attraction with a backpack virtual reality (VR) experience in support, commissioned from The VOID. The whole experience created as part of the marketing effort for the reboot of the famous Ghostbusters franchise, with the 2016 film.

The opening of the New York venue, though critically acclaimed and reported as seeing crowds, has yet to see the proposed roll-out at other Tussauds venues; but The VOID has opened a standalone Ghostbusters: Dimension attraction at JBR’s The Beach in Dubai. With a third installation charted for their new flagship entertainment facility at London, Utah already open to the public.

The growth in interest in movie properties having their own backpack VR experience was evident during CinemaCon 2017. New start-up Nomadic is an immersive entertainment company creating tactile VR adventures, and promoted at the conference their backpack VR experience (Arena-Scale), aiming to occupy a 20-foot-by-30-foot space. Not only seen as “Lobby Entertainment”, but targeting the existing screening rooms (auditorium), to be appropriated as standalone entertainment offerings with their own recurring revenue stream.

Major movie IP’s that have embraced Arena-Scale VR technology have started to reveal their plans thick-and-fast over the last few months – major movie studios such as 20th Century Fox, through their theme park arm (FoxNext Destinations) revealed that they are in the process of developing a 2,000 sq.,ft., multi-player VR experience based around the Alien movie franchise. FoxNext working to develop a ‘free-roaming’ VR experience undergoing secret testing. This new development building on the work creating a free cinema pop-up 360-degree VR journey called Alien: Covenant in Utero; the promotional lobby entertainment developed by FoxNext VR Studio in partnership with AMD Radeon and DELL.

Another major movie franchise receiving VR attraction investment was revealed to be in develop in partnership between Hasbro and DMG Entertainment, (through the recently established DMG VR division). The planned Transformers Experience Center is based on the popular Transformers IP that over the last 30-years has expanded to include comic books, animated series, films, video games and consumer products, the recent film properties generating $850 million internationally. The first interactive Transformers digital simulation experience center, scheduled to open in China this summer.

The application of arena-scale VR has been charted beyond the cinema landscape, with already Zero Latency establishing a growing number of locations for their multi-player backpack VR platform. The game system complimenting family entertainment centers and karting locations. A constant iterative process the operation launching their last multi-player backpack experience called Singularity with a play duration of 30-minutes in this space station exploration narrative. While at the same time announced that they were working on eight-player simultaneous experiences – while also planning to open the largest free-roaming virtual arena in America in the Boston-area later this year, and Philadelphia in 2018.

As previously reported the Asian amusement scene has jumped into out-of-home VR applications with both feet, in Japan investment in this approach has increased and Zero Latency, saw the first commercial installation of their system through a deal with SEGA at their JOYPOLIS site. Building on this, and a new location for Arena-Scale VR experiences opened within the brand new ‘SEGA VR Area’ location – taking over the top (6th) floor of the famous Club SEGA Akihabara amusement venue in Tokyo. The venerable Japanese amusement factory the latest to dip their toe into the waters of dedicated VR based out-of-home entertainment.

The first VR installation in this new space sees SEGA partner with Korean based Skonec Entertainment installing their new Mortal Blitz For Walking Attraction – a three player, backpack VR shooting experience, (using the Pimax 4K headset), opened to the public at the end of May. This destination facility approach following the work that the other amusement powerhouse BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment achieved with their first VR Zone: Project i Can temporary installation; BANDAI announcing that they will be opening a second version of their temporary VR Park in a matter of months in the Tokyo area. (Editor’s Note: For more about this check out two recent VRFocus stories about the experiences on offer including ones based on Mario Kart, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Gundum franchise and Dragon Ball Z.)

Underlining the interest in using VR as an audience experience akin to a movie theatre or planetarium approach, and Japan has seen the launch of the VirtuaLink. A pop-up paid entertainment experience that has multiple guests sharing a virtual space, with a specially created 360-degree 3D video. Several locations around the Tokyo area will be turned into viewing theaters accommodating some 26 special seats (Wonder Pods) – the VR experience presented on Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) Playstation VR head-mounted displays (HMDs). The concept the closest seen to being a ‘virtual-planetarium’ experience, constructed by Konica Minolta Planetarium Corporation.

From those commentators entrenched outside of the out-of-home entertainment business, we have seen some wild and contradictory statements regarding the perceived impact of this business on the application of their hopes for VR – statements ranging from if VR is confined to public spaces there is a risk of stunting the growth of the medium, too comments that state to love to see these types of themed [VR] centers popping up around the world. A level of ignorance of the DOE market revealed in superficial research of the scene.

This confused speculation, illustrates the disquiet by some as their promised consumer sector slows, in the shadow of the growth (and revenue generating) out-of-home adoption; best illustrated by the growing numbers of consumer platforms pivoting to destination application. Along with HTC, we see OSVR (The VOID, Zero Latency) and StarVR (IMAX VR) deployment in VR arcade settings; it was recently announced in Japan of the new Virtual Gate platform developed by Techno Blood; allowing VR content to be enjoyed at the countries host of Internet Cafes, the platform partnered with the once consumer facing FOVE eye-tracked HMD – already operational at 33 net cafes in the country.

The commercial entertainment industry has proven an uncomfortable enigma to many that had previously invested in a promised consumer approach to VR. To educate and promote, the Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment (DOE) sector has invested in a unique conference in September, partly supported by my consultancy (KWP) and a major exhibition organizer. Based in Las Vegas, the Future of Immersive Leisure convention will bring together operators of the latest immersive entertainment technology, as well as developers of the hardware, and investors shaping the latest developers.

This new event will be the launch-pad where several new projects will reveal their thinking behind entering the commercial entertainment against previous interest in consumer investment. It is the ability to have direct access to the revenue stream, and a believable business model that has drawn both established operations and new start-ups to the DOE business for VR. Expect reports on the build-up to this event and industry developments in following columns.

Update: Originally this article noted the third branch of THE VOID would be open in July, this has been corrected and the location updated.

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