The Virtual Silver Screen: Immersive entertainment is making inroads in the cinema space

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Cinemas Features

Immersive out-of-home entertainment specialist consultant Kevin Williams charts the resurgence in interest in the latest Virtual Reality (VR) technologies and how they are being targeted towards incorporating movie properties and inhabiting movie theatre lobbies and screening rooms.

At a time of transition, there is a need to find technological solutions to address issues with the current business model of the movie theatre business—a need for an entertainment solution that can create a new revenue stream of its own and redefine the entertainment offering alongside the traditional movie business.

The end of 2017 revealed the worst North American theatre ticket sales since 1992—this in the face of the best year ever for international sales. It is obvious that the domestic theatre business needs to address what some have called the “Millennial problem”—a problem traced to an ongoing battle with consumer entertainment offerings that provide a higher level of engagement.

We have witnessed the investments that some theatres have made in projection, audio and seating, including 4D theatre seating as a complement to previous investments such as 3D projection technology. Now those investments are moving in a new direction way beyond just adding physical effects to cinema seating.

One of those investing heavily in this area is CJ 4DPLEX, developer of the 4DX motion-effects cinema seat system. The company signed agreements with Australia’s Village Cinemas to install eight 4DX-equipped theatres in the U.S., with plans for over 20 by the end of 2018. And where 4DX leads, 4DX VR is aiming to follow.

4DX VR is CJ 4DPLEX’s entry into the growing deployment of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in the theatre business and beyond. The technology uses special head-mounted displays (HMD) to immerse a guest within a 3D-rendered environment, with physical effects complementing the level of engagement. VR, of course, has been in the zeitgeist for the last few years in the consumer sector, fueled by lavish investment from the likes of Facebook, Microsoft and Google.

With the aim of employing VR in a theatre audience setting, CJ 4DPLEX has reinvested in their 4DX theatre seats, abetted by Samsung GearVR headsets enabling virtual ride experiences and more. The first systems are their 4DX VR Ride (a standalone ride experience) and their 4DX VR Disk two-seater motion-seat configuration with a unique 360-degree rotational element. The company is also exploring interactive experiences with 4DX VR Racing.

Another leading developer of 4D cinema seat systems branching into the virtual landscape is MediaMation, well known for their MX4D motion cinema seat. The company has launched their new Motion VR platform, a two-seat MX4D motion seat linked to HTC Vive VR headsets and controllers, able to be populated with a selection of modified consumer game content provided through a partnership with VivePort Arcade. The system can be deployed in cinema lobbies as well as purpose-built VR arcades.

Another prominent 4D seat developer, D-BOX, has partnered with amusement manufacturer LAI Games to create “Virtual Rabbids: The Big Ride”—a standalone virtual ride experience based on the well-known Rabbids brand from game publisher Ubisoft. D-BOX has been investing in their own cinema-centric concepts in this space, with the launch in partnership with Canadian chainCineplex of their first “D-BOX VR Cinematic Experience,” featuring 10 VR motion seats.

The ability to build off the experience of the 4D cinema seat approach to VR experiences has inspired many developers looking to incorporate VR into the mix. Another adaptation of VR is that of allowing the player to roam unencumbered, wearing a special PC backpack powering their HMD, part of a free-roaming (or arena-scale) environment. Attractions developer TRIOTECH has partnered with European developer Asterion VR to launch their own compact solution with their “Virtual Maze” allowing individuals to navigate a virtual world—the first experience again based on Ubisoft’s “Virtual Rabbids: The Big Maze.” The marriage of immersive tech to a well-known franchise has gathered momentum, and TRIOTECH and Ubisoft have revealed that their next plan for the “Virtual Maze” is to launch a game based on the popular videogame and movie property Assassin’s Creed.

Another champion of a compact VR enclosure is A.i. Solve, creators of “WePlayVR,” a small enclosure using the PC backpack VR approach. The company has developed their own popular experiences with “Mayan Adventure” and “Alien Invasion” and revealed a brand-new release, “Clock Tower.” The system is in over 15 locations in family entertainment centers and amusement sites, but is also seeing cinema placement.

Beyond the compact enclosures, there are developers of more expansive free-roaming platforms. Similar in practice to applying VR technology to the Lasertag business model, these multiple-player, simultaneous VR experiences offer a new level of engagement and have captured the attention of several developers and operators, along with movie industry interest.

Most notably, the deployment of The VOID “hyper-reality” VR experience has captured imaginations. The company has partnered their VR backpack experience with prominent movie properties—first through a partnership with Sony Pictures to create the “Ghostbusters Experience” at Madame Tussauds in New York, followed by Dubai and the Toronto Rec Room FEC operated by Cineplex.

The VOID has partnered with The Walt Disney Company and the ILMxLABto create “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” a 15-minute immersive VR experience placing players in the heart of a battle with the Empire for their survival. The concept uses all the tricks of immersive free-roaming VR, along with physical show set elements married to the virtual experience.

Currently, the experience has been created as a pop-up installation in London and at two permanent sites in Disneyland and Disney World, with future plans for L.A. and Las Vegas builds. But TheVOID is only one of the many developers working and installing arena-scale VR experiences.

Nomadic VR presented their concept at last year’s CinemaCon, a proposed VR experience aiming at a 20-foot-by-30-foot space, with multiple players and again using backpack PCs to create the immersive effect. The company received over $6 million in seed funding and plans to open its first L.A. facility in a matter of months, with future placements in shopping malls and cinemas.

Another location-based virtual-reality developer is Dreamscape Immersion. The start-up has just completed a popular series B investment phase and is about to launch its first platforms. Dreamscape has partnered with AMC to launch at least six locations using their backpack VR experience. The company is supported by investments from 21st Century Fox and Warner Bros. and sees a movie level of engagement as essential to draw an audience.

Other developers in this sphere include SPACES, who have also secured considerable investment (some $9.5 million to date) from the theme park and entertainment sector towards developing their own unique mixed-reality experience based on the latest VR technology. The company looks to utilize well-known movie properties and is eyeing shopping malls, cinemas and entertainment destinations. Meanwhile, FoxNext Destinations has invested in a 2,000-square-foot multi-player VR experience concept, based around the Alien movie franchise.

While these developers take a movie-franchise/movie-style experience approach, other developers in this field have already started to populate the landscape with interpretations of what can work best. Zero Latency is a developer of their own backpack VR experience, looking at a multiple players (up to eight) within a free-roaming environment. Creating their own content, they have brought their platform to over 20 sites, including a partnership with Main Event Entertainment to operate at their Orlando, Florida facility.

Another prominent trail-blazer in the free-roaming approach is VRstudios with the VRcade platform. Several major announcements of new openings using this hardware have been made, and the company is working on partnerships with technology providers such as TPCast to create the next level of immersive multiplayer experiences. Meanwhile in China, several developers have been working on their own approach to creating a memorable VR experience, including Skonec Entertainment and the recently opened SoReal immersive venue in Beijing.

For the theatre business, the need to present an immersive entertainment offering has galvanized several pilot schemes towards creating a branded component that can be incorporated into existing properties. In China, several cinema chains have deployed VR pop-up film promotions and ultimately built permanent VR arcades within their lobbies. Most noticeable have been the experimental Wanda VR installations at flagship cinemas in the territory.

The creation of a dedicated lobby-based offering has shaped IMAX’s thinking in the creation of their IMAX VR pilot scheme. Already, the corporation has opened VR entertainment sites in Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Toronto and the U.K., the majority of which have been housed as lobby companions to a cinema. On average, ten enclosures offer a selection of specially licensed VR game content for players to experience. The company works closely to license properties linked to major motion pictures, such as the recently launched “Justice League: An IMAX VR Exclusive” and the “John Wick Chronicles” VR experience.

This content was developed by Starbreeze, a game developer that has pivoted towards creating out-of-home VR entertainment experiences linked to movie properties. Most recently, the company released “The Mummy Prodigium Strike,” based around the Mummy movie universe. These experiences forgo conventional consumer VR headsets repurposed for commercial entertainment—instead, the company deploys the StarVR headset, offering 210-degree, 5K resolution performance, squarely aimed at B2B business.

VR has once again achieved a zeitgeist level of interest, and as in prior attempts to establish the technology, it hopes a major motion picture will be the clarion call towards further popularizing the concept—on this occasion, it is the Steven Spielberg feature Ready Player One, based on the sci-fi novel about a fierce virtual-reality competition.

How VR, or any kind of immersive entertainment experience, will drive new audiences to the theatres has yet to be fully defined. This is obviously the beginning of a dedicated move by the interactive entertainment sector to play a part in the moviegoing experience, with a drive towards a possible middle ground where the immersion of the movies can be experienced in the real world.

Kevin Williams has an extensive background in the development and sales of the latest amusement and attraction applications and technologies. The U.K.-born specialist in the pay-to-play scene runs the consultancy KWP and is known as a prolific writer and presenter (including his own news service, The Stinger Report) covering the emergence of the new entertainment market. Williams is co-author of a book covering the sector, The Out-of-Home Interactive Entertainment Frontier, published by Routledge. He is also the founding chairman of the DNA Association, focusing on the digital out-of-home interactive entertainment sector. He may be reached at kwp@thestingerreport.com.