International Immersive Technology, Specialist, Kevin Williams of KWP, starts the first of a two-part feature including an overview of the emergence of “Pop-up” VR entertainment experiences into the retail and mall scene. Looking at the development of new Free-Roaming Entertainment platforms and the establishment of the Standalone Enclosures – and how these systems offer an entertainment dividend for operators looking for a strong revenue stream.
The move towards a “Entertainment Anchor” approach in the retail unit and shopping mall business is not a new idea. We have seen considerable investment in the addition of a cinema and hospitality dining component for most of the major retail venues. The embracing of a more dedicated entertainment mix has come however with what many have named the “retail-apocalypse”. For whatever the reasons, the retail sector has turned towards entertainment as an anchor to retain existing customers and drive a new generation back to the out-of-home scene, and virtual reality (VR) technology is proving instrumental in this move.
The cinema sector was the first to really invest in a “inclusion” style offering to their floor space. Several lobby promotion pieces in 2016 and beyond saw marketing experiences created for film promotion, and these VR experiences were placed in the lobbies as a “Pop-up” installation. Most recently we have seen the development of pop-up attraction that build on this model for retail placement. It has been difficult for the entertainment scene to come to grips with the unique needs of retail space deployments – building the best self-contained entertainment “enclosure”, “booth”, or “arena” to fill the floor-space of modern venues.
Developer of the unique VR motion cinema seat system Positron have worked in collaboration with Intel, HP, Dreamworks and Walmart to develop a VR experience based on the popular “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” movie property. Used in movie promotional VR pop-up installations, the VR experience has guests traversing a recreation of the film’s universe, that they soar over virtually on the back of a dragon. The installation created as a promotion for the new movie and in support of the new merchandising range offered by Walmart.
The fundamentally, moving beyond using this technology as just an passive marketing tool; the element of the pop-up installation is its autonomous operation – where other amusement pieces are seen as products that are installed as a component of an entertainment venue, these pop-up installations charted in this feature are mainly completely autonomous and standalone.
The development of Arena-Scale (free-roam) VR experiences – allowing the player to do more than just sit back but traverse the virtual landscape, has accelerated with the investment major studios and developers looking at this market as the new landscape in immersive entertainment. Many of the major movie studios and property holders have also turned to this market. One of those that has broken into this field is SPACES – working hard to develop their VR technology to deploy onto the market. The industry start-up raising initially some $10million from investors such as Comcast Ventures, The VR Fund and Boost VC – with partnerships with Chinese developers such as Songcheng.
In partnership with Cinemark, the first enclosure installation of Cinemark SPACES experience, ‘Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future’, based on “Terminator” movie property was installed in a San Jose Century 20, Westfield theater in 2019. This followed on from the operations first permanent retail unit location at Irvine Spectrum Center in Orange County, California. The company had a version of their immersive VR experience as an enclosure installation at CA SEGA JOYPOLIS in Tokyo. The company developing a four player VR backpack PC experience that also comprised a special loading and unloading feature and captured the players likeness represented on their avatar during the game experience.
Several developers of Arena-Scale VR experiences have started to move from a retail unit business model, and now looking to pivot towards creating a pop-up version of their installation. The VOID is one of the most well known of the Arena-Scale (free-roaming) VR experiences out in the market – partly due to their extensive investment from their partnership with Walt Disney and Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab development studio. The operation has rolled out 11 permanent installations, sitting in reconfigured retail units – but had also looked at pop-up installations, developing a special temporary installation for the London Westfield site in 2018. This knowledge along with the deployment in Canada of the ‘VOID Experience Center’ saw the company make serious changes at the end of 2018 in their business model.
In recent months the company has received a major injection of investment with heir to the news media empire, James Murdoch’s holding company Lupa Systems, invested some $20million into The VOID. This also came at the same time as major changes in the executive team, seeing a new CEO and CFO in the last few months. With this new direction and investment, the company has redefined its permanent facility roll out plans and look towards a new business approach. This development was instigated with an industry first partnership with Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, operator of 32 flagship shopping locations Internationally.
The operation signed an agreement to partner with The VOID, with a plan to roll out 25 installations of their new experience by 2022. This is based heavily on the knowledge that The VOID has gained in operating their system in the REC ROOM entertainment centers in Canada. These ‘VOID Experience Centers’ were developed in partnership with REC ROOM operators Cineplex – another example of the cinema sector looking to broaden their entertainment offering. There will only four “Pop-up” versions of the system to kick off the partnership (debuting at NY), the rest being permanent placements.
Returning to a cinema model of influence and several investors from this sector have been seen supporting LBE VR platforms. One of the other leading names in this sector is Dreamscape Immersion, having established prominent investment from Hollywood heavy-hitter corporations, such as AMC Entertainment, WarnerMedia, MGM Studios and IMAX to name a few – closing a series B investment fund with some $30million. With it revealed that Viacom had also come on board as an investor. The operations with its strong support – evaluated the market with a temporary pop-up location to test the market in 2018. Following this the operation went on to open their first permanent LBE VR facility.
Following this in taking a prominent space at the Westfield Century City Westfield mall, in Los Angeles, California. In the shadow of an AMC theater, and in a very up-market mall environment, the first Dreamscape site used as a flagship defining the “four-quadrant” approach and makes content for audiences 10 to 80 years old. The audience enter and become part of the three stories on offer, using backpack PC’s and VR headsets, supported by hand and feet tracking.
It was revealed this year that Dreamscape had licensed and were in development of a immersive adventure based on the movie property called ‘Men In Black: First Assignment’, with a schedule release for the end of the year – this in support of news of the second permanent location for the VR experience will be in Dallas, with three other cities ear-marked, (including Dubai). AMC will begin this rollout in mid-2019. Sources close to the operation suggesting that the permanent installations model will be supported by a broader mix.
It needs to be remembered that for cinema corporation IMAX, this is the second attempt to invest in a believable facility model for deployment of VR experiences. The company previously spending some $50million in a VR content fund, along with the creation of a pilot-center scheme called ‘IMAX VR’ – after opening several pilot sites it became clear that the operation had failed to grasp the fundamentals in creating an entertainment site, and made a number of obvious mistakes. A purge of management and a closure of all the venues followed, (share holders learning in a SEC filing with the news). One of the first major failures in the deployment of this current phase of LBE VR. IMAX is still keen on LBE VR, but for now reverting to investment in operations such as Dreamscape.
Another operation that promoted heavily at the beginning of their development to own & operate locations, as well as partner with venues to bring the experiences inside venues in FEC, cinemas and retail units – Nomadic, is another developer of backpack VR experiences for players willing to enter the virtual world. The operation following The VOID, and Dreamscape with their own unique take on the business. Following strong investment, including Horizon Ventures and Vulcan Capital to name two – the company opened their first permanent facility in a retail unit at Pointe Orlando, in Florida. Along with plans to release a VR game experience based on the popular ‘Mission Impossible’ movie property, plans for a second permanent facility were revealed in collaboration with site owner Fisher Brothers – at their ‘Area15’ entertainment location in Las Vegas. Along with main tenant Meow Wolf, a digital art collective, with innovative art installation development to their name. The facility will see multiple retain-tainment installations surrounding unique attractions and Nomadic has agreed to place their VR experience in one of the units. While at the same time the company was linked to research towards releasing a pop-up variant of their current platform.
In the European specialist in digital technologies for the film industry Ymagis, revealed in 2018 their concept of a virtual reality adventure park. The ILLUCITY operation revealed this year a brand-new variant of their concept during CinemaCon Europe, with ‘ILLUCITY Corner’ – a modular, and easily-assessible version of the company’s previous concept (ILLUCITY Park) comprising multiple VR systems such as the ‘VR Arena’. In partnership with CinemaNext VR experiences have been themed in their own pop-up enclosure focused on cinema lobby traffic with a turn-key (touch-panel operated) solution.
The cinema sector in Asia has also been looking at deployment of pop-up installations that sit in the lobby of the cinema space towards attracting the passing traffic. The 3D CGi development studio of the consumer electronics manufacturer Vive Studios has deployed their ‘VR Future Cinema’ (VFC) platform. Special motion seats linked to VR content created by Habib Studio offers a unique experience that hopes to live up to its name. Released as a mobile standalone structure, originally opening in Lotte Cinema World Tower in Seoul, Korea, with a rollout across other select locations.
The creation of a dedicated enclosure that can act as a standalone pop-up location has seen many skill sets brought to the table. Developer Funovation, a creator of lasermaze attractions and FEC fitouts, partnered with Virtuix, developer of a unique omni-direction treadmill system to traverse the virtual landscape. Combing their experience into a dedicated pop-up platform. Called the ‘Omni Arena’ the system includes loading area, playing area, and an audience viewing space, so the players action can be watched on screens. This feature creates a draw to the attraction and encourage future players.
The system has also been developed with a strong eSports element in mind driving even more revenue to the platform. This also creates a strong secondary spend as player work to improve the placement in the leagues – Virtuix partnering with HTC and HP to sponsor the Omniverse eSports competition on this platform to the tune of $50,000 – a major incentive if any were needed. The system seen as an ideal pop-up installation for both FEC and retail deployment.
New developers are entering into the market of a standalone VR offering – with much interest turning to the pop-up installation. Canadian developer Phenomena, with a background in creating promotional VR installations – has now turned their skills to the development of ‘HOROS’. The system offers a player a chance to “free-roam” within a unique VR environment, with objects within their space mapped with virtual experience so that players can interact with them.
Using a tethered headset system (so negating the need for backpack PC’s), player can navigate the environment and go on a virtual journey. The platform has been specially constructed for simple setup in appropriate locations, as its own standalone enclosure – guests run through an experience that married an adventure with puzzles. Seen as a pop-up installation that can fit retail or entertainment requirements.
French developer Backlight has amassed a strong pedigree of immersive and compelling VR experiences, developing a range of VR escape-games as well as creating innovative free-roaming adventures (such as ‘Toyland’). Building on this experience the company has created the ‘OZ Immersive’ – a premium all-in-one entertainment enclosure offering a turnkey platform for four players. Driven by access to the best of the company’s experiences.
Backlight has developed the system to offer a unique platform, using the latest wireless multi-player immersive technology (negating the need of backpack PC’s), while incorporating haptic effects to increase the level of immersion. The system packaged in a standalone pop-up enclosure able to be placed in high foot traffic locations such as retail, entertainment centers and cinemas.
The ability to create a turnkey all in one entertainment package, that can be deployed where the audience congregates is at the heart of several the new designs and developments. Start-up MajorMega has proven to have their heart in the right place developing a complete immersive entertainment experience with their ‘HyperDeck’. Only seen in prototype, this year marks the completion and installation of the first system.
The system has four-players standing on a full motion platform, while holding special force-feedback interfaces, with heat, and wind being blown at them in synchronisation to the action taking place in the virtual world. The company developing a cooperative game that offers a strong team element. The platform has also been developed to incorporate audience participation, and is housed in an eye-catching enclosure, developed as a pop-up installation for both retail and conventional entertainment venues.
About the Author – Kevin Williams – a leading specialist in the digital Out-of-Home entertainment industry, through his consultancy KWP Limited, specializing in interactive entertainment. Coming from a long career in the theme park, amusement and entertainment software industries, being an ex-Walt Disney Imagineer. Well known for his news service, The Stinger Report that has become a-must-read for those working or investing in the international market. Along with this, he is also a prolific writer with regular columns for the main trade publications in this market, along with presenting numerous conference sessions on the sector and its global impact. He is also the co-author of the only book on this aspect of the market, “The Out-of-Home Immersive Entertainment Frontier” – currently working on the next edition, schedule for publication soon. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.