The Virtual World’s Fair is where VR hype meets theme parks
Landmark Entertainment Group wants to put 'total theater' in your home
For decades, Landmark Entertainment Group has been synonymous with theme park attractions. It develops rides and theatrical experiences based on movies like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and the James Bond series. But to founder and CEO Tony Christopher, traditional theme parks are just the beginning.
Earlier this year, Landmark announced that it would begin building VR-based attractions called Live Centers, starting with one in China in the summer of 2017. The centers would include a “virtual zoo,” digital art gallery, and various cinematic offerings, all contained in a 200,000-square-foot complex. As the company announced earlier this month, though, it’s also planning to launch at least two home virtual reality services in the next two years. If everything goes right, its VR apps — the self-contained “Pavilion of Me” and much larger “Virtual World’s Fair” — will put Landmark in the company of gaming companies, VR film studios, and software designers. But that’s a huge qualifier — and a sign of how little we really know about the future of VR.
Based on which analyst prediction you happen to click in a Google search, the virtual reality industry will be worth $7 billion, $21.8 billion, or possibly $30 billion by 2020. Landmark predicts there will be 170 million active VR users by 2018. The ultra-simple Google Cardboard notwithstanding, most consumers today have yet to use the technology in any meaningful sense, but Christopher believes that the amount of high-profile support it’s gotten is a sure omen. "There’s too many very, very powerful organizations trying to launch this business for it not to happen," he says.
"There’s too many very, very powerful organizations trying to launch this business for it not to happen."
Landmark believes its role is to help solve the "chicken and egg" problem the industry faces: people won’t buy VR if there’s nothing to do in it, and no one will make experiences for VR if people don’t buy it. Christopher thinks the company is uniquely poised to succeed, compared to filmmakers or game developers — who are making a "whole different thing" compared to VR. "We’ve been doing what we call ‘total theater’ in the theme park space for three and a half decades," he says. "We’re way beyond experimenting with this."
Both the Virtual World’s Fair and the Pavilion of Me (POM for short) are described as portals; the former is a digital theme park, the latter a personal entertainment complex. POM is slated to arrive first in the fall of 2016, after the launch dates of Oculus, Sony, and Valve’s high-end headsets — Landmark hasn’t officially announced launch platforms, but Christopher says there’s interest from Sony and Oculus. Right now, Landmark is showing off only a video of an early build, a series of separate "rooms" for activities like watching movies, holding Skype calls, lounging with friends, and looking through virtual versions of your old-fashioned photographs.
In other words, Landmark is building a VR user interface — a notoriously hard thing to get right. Indie developers have experimented with everything from virtual art galleries to mirrored versions of the Windows desktop, but the only widely used custom interface right now is Oculus’ home screen for the Gear VR, which is arranged like a smartphone app that you stare at instead of tapping.
One of POM’s unique features is that users can decorate their spaces, adding a paid component to the free service. Another is the addition of smart digital companions. The demo reel features an Aibo-like VR dog, along with a British-accented silver robot who guides viewers through POM’s features. In the long term, Christopher imagines an assistant like Scarlett Johansson’s more-than-human AI in Her, albeit without the potential romantic attachments. In the short term, his examples are more akin to almost any smartphone or smart TV’s search tools — things like pulling up a travel itinerary or looking for a list of movies starring Tom Hanks.
The Pavilion of Me is effectively trying to recreate and unify individual features that dozens of software companies are already working on, like artificial personal assistants, immersive music and movie apps, and VR chat tools. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Landmark competing with teams that have made this their entire business, especially if we see the massive breakthrough that Christopher predicts, which would almost certainly mean giants like Google, Microsoft, and (obviously) Facebook getting into the business. But while so much is up in the air, who knows how one speculative product will stack up against another?
Landmark is on much more familiar ground with the Virtual World’s Fair. The experience, which won’t be open until 2017 at the earliest, is a series of worlds with names like "Passportal" and the "Tower of Humanity," designed for different age groups and interests. Unlike most Second Life-style virtual meeting places, it’s pitched more around attractions than social experiences, though it will include both.
Who knows how one speculative product will stack up against another?
It’s also unabashedly commercial. Intencity, one of the more clearly realized sections, is a futuristic cityscape that Landmark plans to populate with sponsored experiences — Christopher at one point refers to it as "Brand Land." Landmark hasn’t apparently locked down any brands, but enough companies have put work into VR promotions that it’s not hard to imagine collecting them all in one place and adding a shopping component: you could check out something like Nike’s Google Cardboard soccer match and then head straight into a virtual store. "In the theme park space, attractions are the attractors. They bring people to a theme park," says Christopher. "But if it is a well-run, professional theme park, a lot of the money is really in the food and beverage and retail."
Is there an equivalent of ubiquitous purchases like food and drink in VR, though? It’s the kind of question that the World’s Fair, with its many comparisons to real-world theme parks, immediately raises. Will people want to enjoy attractions as part of a centralized experience, instead of just opening the apps they want directly? Are people supposed to visit the Virtual World’s Fair with the regularity they would something like Second Life, or drop in a few times a year as they would a real theme park or World’s Fair? Christopher admits that it’s too early to answer even some basic questions, like how people will interact with the world — while several companies have announced VR controllers, they mostly have yet to be tested in the real world.
Landmark’s "total theater" experiences are immersive partly because they can move, shake, and spray visitors, engaging their bodies as well as their eyes. But for the next few years at least, home VR will be more like a video game or movie played on a souped-up screen. And by game or movie standards, the Virtual World’s Fair looks tame. It’s a project that feels like it would only work in the hyper-realistic simulators of science fiction, where all you need is something that would be impressive if it were literally indistinguishable from our world.
This is what lets Landmark pitch things like the Tower of Humanity, a floating silver spire where "the world’s biggest and most important issues are experienced, empathized with, debated and acted upon by global citizens." It’s hyper-ambitious but confusingly vague, a concept that only sounds good once you add the magic words "virtual reality." It’s not that the company couldn’t realize the concept in a way that’s fun and genuinely otherworldly, it’s just hard to see it from here.
It’ll be several months until high-end headsets hit the market, almost a year until the Pavilion of Me launches, and two years until the Virtual World’s Fair, which gives Landmark a little breathing room. But in the lead-up to 2016, before the first generation of virtual reality is finally tested, we’re still in a land of hype and screenshots.