The Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles is a multilevel marvel, a mashup of resort and shopping mall aesthetics that combines a massive AMC movie theater, an Italian marketplace called Eataly, and dozens of high-end retail stores. But across the courtyard from the Amazon Books location — tucked in next to a Tesla Motors storefront, no less — there’s a pathway to another world.
The first thing you notice when you step inside the pop-up location are postcards and paintings of surreal, multicolored creatures: a giant bat called a wothe and a flying stingray-like beast known as an astafie. I check in for my appointment, step behind a curtain, and before I know it, I’m in a small spacecraft rocketing away from Earth’s atmosphere toward a massive, orbiting station teeming with intergalactic foliage and fantastical wildlife.
Welcome to Alien Zoo.
Alien Zoo is the debut virtual reality title from Dreamscape Immersive, the LA-based startup headed by former Disney Imagineering chief creative executive Bruce Vaughn and Hollywood producer (and former DreamWorks president) Walter Parkes. Much like Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire or other experiences from The Void, Dreamscape aims to move VR beyond the limited headset experiences that currently flood the consumer marketplace and toward a more holodeck-like experience — one that combines VR with physical sets, props, and sensations to bring its digital worlds to life.
“This was an idea that we were thinking about way back at DreamWorks, and it was always an interesting concept,” Parkes tells me about the origins of Alien Zoo. “But we never quite put our heads around how to do this as a movie. So, it felt to us all like this was just an amazing opportunity. Also, it let us consciously start with a piece of original material.”
The Westfield pop-up location launched earlier this year for a three-week run at $20 a ticket and has already been extended twice. (It’s currently sold out through March 14th.) After checking in, groups of up to six visitors are escorted into the back where they’re outfitted with a head-mounted display, backpack computer, and small trackers that slip over their hands and feet. From there, they enter the virtual world and walk to a small platform that becomes the launching pad for the 12-minute experience.
I was able to tussle back-and-forth with an alien horse like I would with a playful dog
The story of Alien Zoo is that guests are visiting exactly that: an orbiting zoo populated with creatures from around the galaxy, almost like an interstellar Jurassic Park. Standing on a levitating platform, the guests are swept throughout the grounds of the zoo, where they encounter all manner of wild creatures — and a few stressful moments of danger. The VR visuals are lovely, but it’s the real-world physical elements that really ground the experience. During Alien Zoo, wind blew against my face and the floor beneath me rumbled as the platform swept through the park. When a gentle, horse-like creature approached my group, I was able to reach out and physically touch it with my hand, even going so far as to gently tussle with the beast like you would with a playful dog. (A peek behind the curtain after the experience revealed that I had simply been interacting with an automated prop, but I wouldn’t have guessed that in the moment.) When entering a dark, cavernous section of the zoo, participants grab flashlights hanging from the platform railing, and use them to illuminate the walls around them to stave off something called a sicari, a giant, alien creature that looks like Predator had a baby with a panther.
While inside the experience, guests are represented by full-bodied avatars that they can select during the check-in process. It gives Alien Zoo a communal aspect that turns the visit into a shared group experience, one that can be slightly different every time, depending on where you look or how your friends respond. It’s a fun, family-friendly demonstration of what this kind of VR technology can provide to audiences. And while the approach to VR won’t feel new to someone who’s tried work from companies like The Void, it is highly differentiated in terms of content style. Where Secrets of the Empire and Ghostbusters: Dimension largely focus on gaming mechanics, Alien Zoo feels more like a Disneyland dark ride, similar to Pirates of the Caribbean or Pandora’s Na’vi River Journey, which gently takes visitors from one grand sight to the next on a tour of a fantastic world.
That said, there is a narrative and thematic throughline running through the piece, and Dreamscape sees Alien Zoo as a franchise in the making, with a premise that can support multiple excursions. “Think of it like the wild animal park, and right now 40 percent of it’s built, and they’re bringing people in,” Parkes says. “But soon there’s going to be the polar enclosure. The Zoo is going to be that: build out other sections so you could come back and take another route.”
Similar to an interactive VR dark ride, taking visitors from one grand sight to the next
Along with the additional chapters of Alien Zoo, the company is also working on a number of other original experiences in collaboration with Hollywood filmmakers like Gore Verbinski (The Ring). But the current Century City location is just a one-off pop-up, and seeing the experiences Dreamscape currently has in the works will require more location-based VR installations. The company hopes to open a permanent flagship immersive center in the Westfield center later this year that could run up to four titles at any given time, and thanks to the partnership with AMC Theatres it announced last year, Dreamscape also plans to bring installations to a handful of AMC movie theaters by the end of 2018. In addition to that, the company will also be going international, with plans to open a location at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.
This kind of platformed rollout — one anchoring flagship center, while additional locations build word of mouth by popping up in movie theaters or shopping centers — is becoming the go-to strategy for location-based VR; both The Void and IMAX are pursuing similar strategies. Where Dreamscape may have a leg up, however, is in size. IMAX VR consists of static pods, which can be limiting, given that they currently don’t offer much more than what’s available in home setups. The Void installations offer a much richer experience by dropping guests into a physical maze, but that does bring certain space and logistical requirements along with it. Something like Alien Zoo, on the other hand, offers a similar sense of physical and tactile exploration as something like Secrets of the Empire — albeit in a more limited sense — but its physical footprint is tiny. Parkes and Vaughn estimate that the entire active playground guests traverse in Alien Zoo takes up no more than 200 square feet, a fraction of the size of the stage in Ghostbusters: Dimension. When talking about bringing VR installations to existing locations like malls and movie theaters, that smaller footprint could offer Dreamscape greater flexibility in its upcoming rollout.
In the meantime, however, it’s about building broader awareness so audiences are primed for what to expect when those new locations do finally open. While the Century City pop-up may be closing on March 14th, the founders do say it will tour to different locations in California in the months to come, giving the company the chance to expose Alien Zoo to more guests and to get an even better idea of what does, and doesn’t, work in such a nascent medium.
“I think for a long time, we thought we would start with a dedicated installation, and this has proven to us that that was not the right idea,” Parkes says. “This [approach] does a number of things. It gets the work out to the public and to the press. It gets excitement in Westfield because they say, ‘Oh, people are excited,’ as malls sort of transform from retail centers and more into entertainment centers. But perhaps more than anything, it’s for our own learning curve.”