The Virtual Arena: VR’s Bonanza for Commercial Entertainment (Part 2)
Kevin Williams concludes his report on the latest developments shaping the digital out-of-home entertainment (DOE) sector.
Industry specialist Kevin Williams of KWP, concludes his report on the latest developments shaping the digital out-of-home entertainment (DOE) sector and all things to do with Commercial virtual reality (VR) deployment seen internationally. In this final part we see the drive for new investment and the realities and speculation on the market’s true worth.
With this final part of our coverage and we rush from Germany, to the Czech-Republic, and a major event in the country’s capital, underlined the influence that this new commercial entertainment utopia is having on the investment community. Held at the beginning of September, Future Port Prague was a two-day gathering of innovative technology trends and influential speakers on the subject. Along with dedicated conference events there was a showcase arena that comprised demonstrations of the latest tech-trends, ranging from Drone racing, electric-automobiles, smart home appliances and 3D printing to just name some of the exhibits. As part of this, local Czech developers were also promoting their influence on the scene, and VR made a big showing.
We have already mentioned in part one of this feature Beat Games; the Czech-based company had a version of the Beat Saber VR arcade setup demonstrating to attendees in the VR Zone of the event. It was interesting to see that unlike normal VR arcade deployments of the game, this enclosure used the latest technology from new industry start-up LIV. The green-screen enclosure and specially tracked virtual camera, placed the player in the centre of the action, superimposing them into the virtual environment – but not only creating a great audience element, the LIV system has been developed to offer a unique takeaway, with the player able to download a video of their ‘performance’, with appropriate social media hooks. The company looking to deploy this platform at several VR arcades.
Another local Czech-based developer is DIVR Labs – the company famous for a local Prague tourist attraction that is seeing phenomenal business. Golem VR (not to be confused with the other Golem), the attraction is one of the largest free-roaming virtual experiences operating. The basement of the local Prague Hamleys toy store transformed to accommodate a backpack-based VR experience using Oculus CV1’s. Groups of up to four guests traverse the virtual environment – in an experience that sees them transported through time to the 16th century, to discover the mythical Golem and its creator in an interpretation of the story. DIVR has partnered with Hamleys to develop this first free-roaming VR adventure that has no weapons or shooting (one of the first of its kind). The company in negotiations to open additional venues.
Returning to Future Port Prague, and another Czech-based developer, VRgineers took an exhibition space to offer the first public demonstrations of their XTAL head-mounted display (HMD). This system offers what the company calls an Enterprise-ready solution with a world’s first AutoEye system, offering automatically aligned lenses to the user’s eyes as well as an incredible wide field of view. The system has already been taken up by the local automotive industry, and the company is now in the process of receiving additional investment towards offering the platform too interested location-based VR developers. The company running at the event the ability to fly in a networked aerial combat using the visual fidelity achieved with the XTAL.
The next phase of high-end VR headsets has seen a shift in focus towards Enterprise opportunities (a sector prepared to pay for a technological lead). Most recently Kickstarter-funded Pimax demonstrated in Europe the production version of the Pimax 8K wide-field of view system, but also at the same time revealed a cost-reduced version. We saw at the Chinese Amusement trade conference in March one of the first Chinese attraction developers experimenting with the Pimax dev-kit on their robotic arm motion platform, and there are reports of at least one major VR park developer looking to deploy this at their site.
The consideration to a wholly focused Enterprise initiative was also seen from StarVR, the company’s Vice Chairman Jerry Kao reported as saying the company was shifting its operational focus to high-end enterprise applications, with the location-based entertainment market to aerospace and automotive. This was reported following the companies unveiling of the StarVR One HMD during SIGGRAPH in Canada. The new headset offering what the company calls a “100% human viewing angle” is clearly packaged to address a DOE centric business model; building on previous associations with IMAX, SEGA and the VRPark in Dubai, as well as through VR attraction projects with Starbreeze
This year’s SIGGRAPH saw a major push towards location-based VR application of the latest high-end graphics and computer power – many exhibitors showing a shift towards this new business dimension. Leading tracking specialists OptiTrack, introduced their new Active Puck Mini at the event, offering a cost effective and 40% reduced option. The company confirmed that along with conventional motion capture business the system had Location-Based entertainment offerings squarely in their sites. The company has been deployed in many of the leading free-roaming VR installations, and OptiTrak has partnered with Dreamscape Immersive, offering their tracking solution, as well as working in conjunction with several other developers.
Dreamscape Immersive, have been in the news for the tests of their own free-roaming Alien Zoo concept – and the company partnered with movie theatre chain AMC Entertainment late last year, the deal coming after closing some $20 million (USD) of their Series B funding. It is this drive by the movie theatre business to embrace the opportunities of LBE VR that has seen momentous developments in recent weeks. One of the biggest was the announcement that Canadian cinema giants Cineplex had signed a strategic partnership with VRstudios (famous for their VRcade platform and VR experiences). The deal saw Cineplex strategically invest in their VR business, with at least 40 multiplex and location-based entertainment centres planned in the Canada territory by 2021.
This undertaking is mirrored by other cinema chains taking the plunge. The VOID’s “hyper-reality” location-based entertainment (LBE) operation, announced the first “In-Theatre” VR installation in the States – following the signing of an exclusive expansion agreement with leading entertainment and media company Cinemark. This development also saw The VOID LBE VR venues opening across Canada. This news follows on from continuing developments in the movie-theatre sector to embrace the opportunity of VR attractions tailored for their unique audience mix. With the expansion of the operation The VOID was also linked to brand new game content building on influential Intellectual Properties (IPs) – a joint venture of ILMxLAB, a division of Lucasfilm, and The VOID, will see a “one-of-a-kind, original adventure” based in the Wreck-it Ralph films’ unique world (tentatively called Ralph Breaks VR). This is the first of several immersive virtual reality properties from the developer, based on film licenses, building on previous Ghostbusters and Star Wars experiences.
Investing into the cinema scene has gained momentum as the theatre business has seen in the US a 16% decline in ticket sales, attributed to a need for a more diverse offering for the “millennially-minded” audience hoping to be attracted to their locations. Following a spate of mergers and acquisitions in this sector the market has fixated on finding an entertainment-mix to incorporate as a “in-theatre” offering. As we reported in our coverage from the LBE VR summit, manufacturers such as D-BOX Technologies had invested in their own D-BOX Cinematic VR Experience which launched earlier in the year at an Ottawa theatre.
This also brings us to developer Nomadic, who have been developing their own location-based adventure-based, tactile VR experiences – the company has promoted heavily in the cinema industry (presenting at the 2017 CinemaCon, and reportedly raising some $6 million in seed funding). Focused initially on a in-theatre approach, the company recently announced they had partnered with Vertigo Games to deploy a turn-key, modular-based VR platform based on Arizona Sunshine LB Elite. The first installations schedule to open fall this year. How much this space will mirror the wireless VR experience seen at Gamescom, in Germany recently has yet to be revealed. But this nicely takes us full circle from where this coverage began.
In just a matter of months and we have seen a level of investment in immersive entertainment focusing on developing virtual reality – far surpassing the previously wild speculation of the consumer VR sector. We have seen colourful analysis on the worth of the Commercial Entertainment or LBE VR market – most notably the SuperData chart that looked at a $995 million valuation of Location-Based entertainment by 2021. And we have seen other charts rise the gambit as high as $12 Billion by 2023 (Greenlight Insights), hopeful speculation to be sure – but based on a growing hunger to maximise the aspirations of the audience, to the abilities of this sectors technology, where the consumer equivalent has failed to deliver (for whatever reasons).
It is important to understand that the VR arcades scene is still at a very early stage of development and has by no means established itself as a dependable business model. One such example of this is the IMAX pilot scheme to establish their concept of IMAX VR LBE operations. News recently broke that two of the seven opened sites had been closed (one in New York and one in Shanghai). The IMAX board had already revealed at the beginning of the year in an investor call that the sites were not all operating at the expected financial level, and there was no real surprise that the roll out was being reversed.
On a recent visit to the only European IMAX VR location in Manchester, the site was seen to be closed off for a private party – and while claimed to still be popular, it was revealed that the adjacent Odeon cinema had been giving away vouchers for free VR experiences, with the purchase of movie tickets; in a hope to drive some business. We have also heard reports of major reshufflings of executive teams and complete management replacements at some of the early LBE VR manufacturers and operators, The VOID saw the departure of their CTO and CEO, while other operations in pivoting towards a commercial entertainment business model have had to drastically restructure their executive team, unable to fathom the realities of the DOE business.
But we have not seen anything yet, and one of Europe’s largest amusement and attraction conventions is about to take place in a matter of weeks – already sources have revealed a record number of new VR attractions about to be launched. While the UK amusement trade will hold their Autumn Coin-Op Show (ACOS), taking place at Olympia London during October, and will include the first London Future of Immersive Leisure (FOIL) seminar run alongside ACOS, focusing on the business opportunities presented by immersive technology to the UK’s out-of-home entertainment industry (this event hosted by our consultancy KWP) – look out on VRFocus for the latest developments from these events in the days and weeks to come.