By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
As we've been watching the Virtual Reality market spin up over the past few years the spotlight has almost entirely been on hardware. When you consider that the first heavy-duty consumer hardware isn't on store shelves yet this makes a lot of sense.
Back in January we hit the point in the hype cycle where the content going into all these head mounted displays became important. In fact, as CES opened it was feeling downright sparse. Luckily the dam broke at Sundance a few weeks later as Oculus announced they had started their own story studio. Since then we've had even more announcements from all kinds of players.
What's clear is that the VR market is opening up all kinds of doors, bringing in talent not just from the usual suspects--game studios and media conglomerates--but from indie creators and even more unexpected corners.
Take an announcement that might have slipped by you today, amidst all the Apple Music talk and Epic Games unleashing a VR tech demo: a veteran themed entertainment company--the people who designed Jurassic Park: the Ride and Terminator 2 3D--have plans to leap into VR with both feet.
That company is Landmark Entertainment Group, who are using their ties with Chinese investors to develop the "L.I.V.E. Centre™ (Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience), a "mixed reality" entertainment destination."
That line's pulled right from the press release they put out today, and let's use a little more of that to set up where we're going next:
Fusing art, culture and retail with virtual reality, augmented reality and themed architecture and design, the L.I.V.E. Centre™ attractions will include an interactive museum, a virtual zoo and aquarium, a digital art gallery, a live entertainment stage, an immersive movie theatre and themed experience retail.
So what Landmark Entertainment is talking about is a kind of VR Arcade on steroids. You might shrug at this, but the company played a big role in designing the shops at Caesar's Palace and a personal favorite of mine, the Star Trek Experience, also in Vegas. There's also the little fact that China is the growth market for themed entertainment--Disney is spending vast sums of cash on its next park there--and the idea of a VR-powered mini-theme park doesn't sound so weird.
L.I.V.E. Center concept art by Syd Mead for Landmark Entertainment Group
When you add in how the HTC Vive and the latest version of the Oculus are emphasizing embodied experiences you start to wonder where you're going to have the room to move around and experience this stuff. It's less of a issue in the middle of America, but in big cities around the globe space is at premium, and few apartment dwellers anywhere have the room to run around in VR.
So a place to do all these wonderful "run around in an alternate universe" experiences would be nice, but what's really interesting here is who is running out into the market with this. The CEO and founder of the company is Tony Christopher, a CalArts trained designer-director who has been making films, theatre and theme park attractions for decades.
I got to talk with Christopher ahead of the announcement, and I asked him how designing for VR was different from the work he's been doing all this time.
"It's very freeing on one level, said Christopher. "When we develop a theme park attraction we have health and safety issues. Theme park operators always want the highest possible capacity for every ride. Then there's just issues that have to deal with how far you can go to entertain and excite an audience given all those sort of permitters, including steel and concrete and all the physical aspects that go into creating a theme park attraction. Now they completely disappear when you move them to a virtual theme park attraction."
L.I.V.E. Center concept art by Syd Mead for Landmark Entertainment Group
What themed entertainment designers like Christopher do better than anyone is find ways of telling stories with and within physical space. Think of trips to Disneyland, the really great queue designs at other theme parks, or even walks through Las Vegas' newer casinos. These are designed environments that are meant to work on the imaginations of the guests.
"Storytelling in movies is different from storytelling in a theme park setting, as is storytelling in a game," said Christopher. The implication being that storytelling in VR is it's own distinct thing, one that has more in common with themed entertainment. After having a few embodied VR experiences myself I'm inclined to agree with him.
The first planned L.I.V.E. Centre™ will be in China, but there are hopes for expansion, and a plan that would tie the destination experience in with an "at-home" version.
"Our goal is to have it in 50-60 locations around the world. The ultimate dream is to connect the out of home experience with the in home experience, so that the two things are connected.
"We think that there will be very interesting dynamics that happen when we have people in the facilities... and you have maybe 4-5 million people not in the facilities who can all interact and work together."
Those are big numbers. A scale that we're probably a half decade away from, assuming VR takes off the way tech industry observers hope it will. It's also a big bet that massively multiuser experiences will be popular, but that kind of mass connectivity isn't even really needed for the kind of hybrid business plan that Christopher is talking about to work.
The Virtual Reality marketplace is being born amidst the ashes of traditional entertainment distribution models. The idea that you can get "the same, but different" experiences from films that are released at home and in theaters on the same day was alien a few years ago. Now it is slowly becoming an accepted practice.
I know there are some out there who are wondering why anyone would ever go to a VR arcade when they could look stupid in the comfort of their own home. Just remember that there are plenty of people who still go to the movies even though almost anything is up on the torrents before it's run through a 4K projector at your local theater.
There will be advantages in going out of the house for VR and AR play: more space to work with and the latest displays and interface technology is one. Assuming that VR centers keep their gear on the cutting edge.
That technological arms race--the same one that movie theaters face these days--is the big "x" factor here if VR centers are going to become a "thing." It will be far too easy for people to jump onboard the embodied experience bandwagon and throw up the equivalent of the Laser Tag centers that popped up in the 80s and 90s in basement spaces across the country. That fad died out quickly, even if you can still find a few here and there.
Christopher's company has the design chops to avoid the bland trap that so many of those spaces fell into, but until the Rifts and Vives are out in the open market and we know how many people are willing to sink thousands of dollars into home gear we just don't really know how big this market is.
I know that enthusiasts like myself would peel off some of our always in demand entertainment budget, but will that be enough to keep such centers alive, or does the strength of this plan rest on the wallets of those families who don't have the kind of disposable income to plop down the cost of an Oculus. A family that might be looking for an alternative to the $100+ tickets to a Disney park?
That's what makes this space so exciting: so many possibilities. I've been waiting for the day that a company like Landmark Entertainment Group would jump into the fray. Little did I know it would be a week before this year's E3. Who knows what other surprises the summer has in store.
(Bonus fun: the concept art that is running with this article? It's by Syd Mead, the guy who designed Blade Runner. Provided by Landmark Entertainment Group)
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.