With headsets like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR finally shipping out to customers, 2016 was supposed to be the year virtual reality finally went mainstream. But things haven’t exactly worked out that way, and in 2017, all eyes are now on location-based VR. Whether in movie theaters or custom arcades, VR installations are seen as an opportunity to will a functioning VR ecosystem into existence. Customers can try experiences in paid, bite-sized doses without investing in expensive hardware, and content creators can take advantage of that larger reach to monetize titles and encourage further development. One of the entities moving most aggressively in that direction is IMAX.
The company best known for bringing larger-than-large cinematic imagery into movie theaters soft-opened the IMAX VR Experience Centre in Los Angeles on January 6th. It’s the first of six pilot locations the company plans to roll out, with IMAX targeting China, the UK, New York City, and a second location in California by the end of the year. But each of those new installations will be tied to cineplex chains, setting up either in a revamped movie theater or in a venue’s lobby. The flagship LA center is a standalone location made up of 14 VR “pods” equipped with a combination of HTC Vive and StarVR headsets, and a selection of titles ranging from Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine to John Wick Chronicles. It’s not a perfect setup by any means, but for audiences that have never had the opportunity to try room-scale VR, IMAX may have created the best introductory experience yet.
While IMAX hosted a day for press to see the facility earlier this week, I also explored the location as a paying customer to get a sense of what the real consumer experience is like. The Experience Centre is across the street from an outdoor shopping complex called The Grove — for those not familiar with LA geography, it’s a major shopping destination with a suite of restaurants and a movie theater, making it easier for IMAX to attract what a representative described as a “four-quadrant” audience. That’s a film-industry term describing something that appeals to men and women, and both younger and older audiences. It’s essentially the broadest possible audience you can hope for, and advertising has been popping up around Los Angeles for the last few weeks to draw that audience in.
Stepping inside the center, the location calls to mind a sweeping, vaguely futuristic movie theater lobby. Curved white walls set off video screen posters for various titles, and another large display near the ticket counter shows what time slots are available for different experiences. IMAX breaks tickets up into two categories. There are “featured” titles, like Trials on Tatooine, Raw Data, and Eagle Flight Multiplayer, with tickets ranging from $7 to $10, and a $25 “VR Sampler,” which gives players around 30 minutes to try out an assortment of Steam titles. The featured titles each run about 10–15 minutes in length, and after purchasing tickets, guests walk to a staging area where video screens give the uninitiated a brief overview of what to expect when trying VR hardware.
The pods themselves are 12-foot-by-12-foot cubicles, designed with the same austere, futuristic aesthetic as the lobby. There’s an emphasis on keeping the look clean throughout the facility — the computers are hidden above the pods on a catwalk, with headset cables wrangled overhead via a pulley system. IMAX equips the pods with Subpac rumble backpacks as part of the standard equipment, which I found distracting more often than not, but it’s definitely a way the company is trying to differentiate itself from home VR. A single monitor shows the point of view of the player in case friends want to watch, and the spaces are simple enough that they can be easily reconfigured for room-scale movement, sitting players, or experiences that use other props or setups.
As for the experience playing the games themselves… that’s just playing the games themselves. A staff member walks each player through the basics as they put on the gear, and when IMAX’s setup worked best, it just got out of the way and let me fall into the experience. The cabling system was a bit problematic from time to time — if I stretched the wrong way, I’d feel the tension of the cable on the headset — but it was largely unobtrusive. One of the pods I tried did seem to have a calibration problem, with the Vive warning me I was about to hit a wall only after I’d bumped into it, but that seemed to be a one-off aberration.
Twelve of the 14 pods were running HTC Vive headsets, but tucked in the rear of the gaming floor — where an IMAX representative said it will keep its more mature content — were two pods for John Wick Chronicles. The title puts the player in the role of John Wick, picking off bad guys from a rooftop before taking down a helicopter, and I found it to be a great bit of arcade-style fun when I tried it on the HTC Vive earlier this year. But IMAX was offering it with Starbreeze and Acer’s new high-end StarVR headset. Intended for theme parks and installations, the headset features a 210-degree field of view that fills your peripheral vision when compared to the 110-degree visuals of the Vive or Oculus Rift. (IMAX was also using a custom gun-prop controller for the game.) But while the expanded field of view was certainly a notable improvement, the StarVR otherwise offered a blurry image that had my stomach churning by the end.
IMAX chief business development officer Rob Lister acknowledges that the headset has some problems at the moment, calling it “very much a work in development still,” though the company sees potential in the wider field of view and increased resolution. “These are still prototypes, and it's going to be a while before that's productized, so that's going to take a bit of time.” That theme runs throughout many of the choices made at the center: it’s an opportunity for IMAX to see what works and what doesn’t, and tweak it all based on audience feedback. When it comes to programing content, IMAX seems to be moving quickly. Last week, as a paying customer, I tried an escape room experience that was perhaps one of the most disorienting VR titles I’ve ever tried. This week, it had been pulled from the featured lineup.
Assuming the headset improves, the StarVR could let IMAX differentiate its centers from what consumers can already get at home, but at the moment, it’s an odd misstep in a smooth experience.
THE QUESTION OF CONTENT
In the long run, IMAX knows the success of its centers will come down to the games and experiences players can have, and it’s already looking ahead on that side. Last year, Google announced it was working with the company on a “cinema-quality” VR camera for its Jump platform, and IMAX has started a $50 million fund for the production of VR experiences. “We're in conversations about slate deals with some of the studios where we would be doing three, four, even five pieces of content,” Lister says, “where each one of those pieces would be a companion to a big movie coming out. Where you have the $200 million [movie] marketing campaign that you could leverage off of.”
That film-plus-VR strategy isn’t new, but IMAX could place itself in a particularly unique position to capitalize. While the Los Angeles-based flagship location is a standalone entity, the rest of IMAX’s VR centers this year are based in movie theaters themselves, and the company’s longstanding relationships with theater chains provide an opportunity for it to rapidly expand its VR footprint, should customers respond. “Standalone locations, the benefit is you get to try out lots of different stuff, and the revenue is all yours. But there's a lot of operating expense involved,” Lister says. “I think it's much easier for us to roll out — this is hypothetical — a 150-location deal with one of our big exhibition partners, than it is to find two big retail locations."
The company will take its first swing at combining film and VR this March, with a companion piece for the science fiction thriller Life. Produced by Skydance Interactive, Life VR will be the first title in an ongoing collaboration between the two companies. Skydance’s first original gaming title, Archangel — which puts players in control of a giant mech as it battles hostile forces — will hit IMAX centers in July. Ubisoft is another featured partner, with Eagle Flight and Rabbids VR-Ride already in rotation in the Los Angeles location, and the multi-player Star Trek: Bridge Crew coming later this year.
That latter game is the exact kind of title that could really show off the potential of IMAX’s VR Experience Centre. A truly co-op VR game has a different kind of energy that might justify a special trip to a VR arcade. But even here at the beginning, IMAX is clearly doing something right: crafting an entertainment experience that any novice can walk right into and enjoy, by removing as much of the mess and hassle of modern-day VR as possible.