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Immersive Entertainment’s December To Remember Reflects 2018’s Return To Optimism

If 2016 was a year of excess hype for virtual reality, and 2017 was mired in that rugged trough of disillusion, 2018 marked a return to optimism, growing consumer acceptance and even sustainable business models undergirded by an increasing embrace by enterprises.

For enterprises, VR, augmented reality, mixed reality and the other flavors of enhanced experience are providing powerful, cost-effective ways to provide job training, design, manufacturing support, documentation and much else. Importantly for many young companies in immersive media, skills (and paychecks) acquired in enterprise settings are spilling over to entertainment too.

In some ways, this process reprises what happened in the early years of the computer era. As happened with the PC, only hobbyists and other narrow audiences had the initial interest and will to buy into a nascent, little-understood technology. With PCs, mass success only arrived after Microsoft and IBM partnered to sell millions of DOS-based machines to business customers. People began using those computers at work, then found other purposes that would justify buying machines for their home.

Virtual reality will likely undergo some of the same cycle, as the enterprise gets people used to headsets and immersive experiences to quickly document, practice and maintain complicated processes. Those tools will keep many VR companies in business as the entertainment side gains scale, technology prices drop and more people buy in.  That scale will in turn enable significant ad-supported or brand-sponsored content. The Internet Advertising Bureau, companies such as Vertebrae.io and brands such as Lionsgate, NASCAR and the NBA (did you see that VR ad during the Lakers-Warriors game on Christmas Day?) have been working in this space for quite a while, focused more recently on the mobile AR side.

For now, on the VR side the biggest entertainment opportunities appear to be in location-based entertainment. The array of immersive experiences on offer in suburban locations across Southern California is already a bit boggling. Dave & Buster’s restaurants featured the four-person Jurassic World VR Expedition this year, and found so much success they’re expanding, including a new Dragonfrost VR offering.Disney-owned The Void in Anaheim and Glendale has a Star Wars-based attraction, Secrets of the Empire and another based on the recent animated film Ralph Breaks the Internet. Torrance-based Survios has created a string of “VRcade” experiences with titles such as first-person shooter Raw Data, Gorn and Elven Assassin from its Torrance flagship location. And Spaces has rolled out Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future in an Irvine mall. 

These operations provide high-end experiences at dedicated out-of-home installations in malls, theater complexes, casinos and similar busy areas. As speakers at a location-based entertainment conference this year put it, give ’em $20 and 20 minutes and they’ll transport you to another world.

The roster of Southern California L.B.E. venues added another notable player just a couple of weeks ago, with Dreamscape Immersive’s opening of its first permanent theater in the Westfield Century City Mall in Los Angeles. For $20, you and up to five others can spend about 15 minutes in an otherworldly zoo, deep underwater or in an ancient tomb.

It’s way too soon to tell whether Dreamscape’s approach will succeed, but it does check off a lot of boxes in the list of factors that can build success, including a high-traffic location, a range of unique experiences and site design that both provides a “pre-experience” and smartly manages throughput to maximize revenue. It also has a deal with AMC Theaters, backers such as Steven Spielberg and leadership from Dreamworks, Disney’s Imagineers and Live Nation. 

Given the fate of IMAX’s VR theater venture, which closed its last two of seven outposts this month, it’s clear that high-traffic areas such as Dreamscape’s can be vital to success. IMAX likely made a fatal mistake putting its Los Angeles flagship venue across busy Fairfax Boulevard from The Grove and Farmer’s Market, one of the city’s most popular shopping and tourism destinations. In what was almost certainly a case of So Close and Yet So Far, getting people to cross Fairfax to check out a rather anonymous-looking venue in a brand-new sector proved more than IMAX could overcome.

In the same week that Dreamscape opened, the Advanced Imaging Society held its annual On The Lot conference. The conference attracts a high-level group of executives and others in many corners of immersive media, from traditional post-production to VR and AR. Among the attendees, the palpable optimism for the coming year was a welcome change

One hot tech trend tied to VR and entertainment production is volumetric capture,  which uses banks of cameras in a brightly lit green-screen room to grab three-dimensional video images of performers in action. It’s a major step beyond motion capture, where performers wear a cat suit dotted with white balls to track movement and create the digital “skeleton” for use in visual effects. You’ve seen the results of mo-cap tools at the hands of gifted physical performers such as Andy Serkis and Doug Jones in films such as Lord of the Ringsand The Shape of Water. 

But volumetric dispenses with the cat suits, and the digital skin that must be overlaid on mo-cap’s resulting digital skeletons, to capture performers as they are, moving about a stage.

At On the Lot, Sony showed the technology’s potential. And the list of its partners – Dell, Intel and Deloitte – suggests that volumetric capture has uses far beyond faster, more naturalistic visual effects and film and TV production.  Being able to drop an actual person quickly and naturally into a digital set can be as useful for job training and industrial video as it is for a Hollywood film. 

Metastage, a volumetric-capture company built on Microsoft technology, also had a prominent spot at the conference, hosting  a reception and demos at its stages at Culver Studios near production facilities for Amazon, Apple and HBO.

8i volumetric capture hologram

A still from the volumetric capture video made of David Bloom by 8i.

And a few days later and a few miles away, I visited the offices of 8i, which is building and selling compact volumetric studios for about $150,000 each. The studios are used to create what the company calls “real human holograms” that can be overlaid into all kinds of settings. As CEO Hayes Mackaman put it, it’s hard to figure out a business model for such studios when they cost $1 million each, as early prototypes did. But at $150,000, companies can buy one and use it for a wide variety of compelling purposes, from training and documentation to marketing and shopping, in VR, AR and mixed reality settings.

At 8i, I even took part in a brief volumetric capture, lasting just a few seconds. That brief capture still generated enough three-dimensional video data that it took a number of hours to render a 23-second clip of me standing, waving and gesturing. But the potential for a wide variety of uses in enterprises, entertainment, video gaming, messaging and much else is already evident.

The weekend after On the Lot, I visited Wisdome.LA, “the world’s first fully immersive entertainment art park,” where an artist named Android Jones had programmed “Samskara After Dark,” a trippy, complex visual experience  that unspooled on the dome’s 40-foot-high ceiling in time with a wide range of music.  Samskara was followed by a similarly psychedelic performance by Think:Floyd EXP, a Pink Floyd tribute band.

Think:Floyd’s performance also featured overhead images from the dome’s 12 projectors. It’s a surprisingly immersive and consuming experience, even if the band should have placed itself in the center of the room, rather than off to one side, because the real attraction was looking skyward as the band played. 

For those interested, Samskara and Think:Floyd will be playing again this weekend at the Wisdome, providing a very different kind of immersive entertainment option for a very different crowd. What better way to ring in the new year than trying out some of the latest and greatest in these new frontiers of immersive entertainment, whether it’s the Wisdome, Dreamscape, The Void, or others?