Posted on Thursday, February 16th, 2017 by Peter Sciretta
With movie theater ticket sales in decline and the piracy still on the rise for home video, Hollywood is looking towards virtual reality as another avenue for the entertainment dollar. And IMAX wants in on the ground floor, announcing last year that they would be opening six IMAX VR Centres in 2017. On Tuesday morning, I visited the first IMAX VR Centre located in Los Angeles, hoping to get a glimpse of the future of immersive entertainment.
The Beginning of a Category-Building New Entertainment Experience?
The IMAX VR Centre in Los Angeles is the first of six venues planned to open this year. Located across the street from one of Los Angeles’ busiest tourist attractions, The Grove shopping center, the IMAX VR Centre is the company’s first step into the world of immersive entertainment.
Constructed in an old hat factory, the facility has been designed to look sleek, functional and cutting edge by the same retail designers hired by Apple and Tesla. Stepping through the front doors, you are transported into a vision of the future, complete with shiny white walls with huge displays advertising the latest IMAX VR experiences, much in the same way a movie theater promotes upcoming films with one-sheets.
IMAX views their entry into the world of VR as an experiment, but hopes they will be helping to define a new category of entertainment experience. As such, there is a lot of education geared to customers who have never experienced virtual reality before, which helps to define the experience as a whole for newcomers.
The First IMAX VR Centre
The Los Angeles facility had its soft opening on January 6th, 2017, and over 5,000 customers have come through those doors so far. IMAX claims that of those guests, 90% were satisfied with the experience overall and that paid admissions increased 75% week over week. The company feels that they are approaching a level where the concept feels viable.
The VR Experience area is a big warehouse-like environment that is divided into fourteen small 12′ x 12′ cubicle rooms called VR Pods. The entire space looks like something out of Tron: Legacy, so don’t hear “cubicle” and think Office Space. Right now, most of the experiences use HTC Vibe headsets, which are connected to a computer in the black-painted catwalk system above you head via a moving pulley.
The carpet on the floor in each Pod has a rubber square inlay near the walls, ensuring that guests wearing VR headsets can feel by their step when they are approaching the edge of the space. Each Pod has an opening that allows friends and onlookers to watch you play, with a huge monitor displaying the gameplay on the wall.
A point-of-sale system sits in the center of the room which means that players in the VR experience don’t need to go back to the lobby to buy more experiences. IMAX eventually wants to network between other IMAX VR Centres for tournaments, complete with leaderboards showing the current standings.
The Cost of the VR Experience
The IMAX VR encounters currently being offered by the facility include games and interactive experiences which can range from sitting to standing to room-scale (meaning the user can make full use of their surrounding space). Feature experiences cost around $7 – $10 and are usually around 9-12 minutes in length. They also offer sample packs which consist of different VR experiences not offered in the “featured” pods. The sample packs are categorized by difficulty, lasting around 25 minutes in length and costing $25.
I’m shocked that IMAX is not offering a pass that includes multiple features. I know that if I was a kid going to the VR Centre, I would love the ability to buy a passport that allows me access to a bunch of different feature experiences for a combined discounted cost. I’m also surprised that they are not yet offering an annual pass/subscription service that allows you to come back time and time again, although IMAX reps said they are currently discussing the possibility.
I assume there is probably a limit to how many people can experience any one pod, and if they are already completely selling out certain features, it may prove difficult to accommodate the people who have paid for passports or subscriptions. It’s interesting that IMAX has adopted the ticket and showtime model for this venue instead of looking towards how Disney run their theme park attractions.
Right now, IMAX realizes that this is a huge experiment. They are testing out what content consumers want and will be constantly adjusting their vision of this experience.
How Can IMAX VR Replace Cinemas?
While the first IMAX VR Centre is built in its own facility, the company imagines that most of the IMAX VR venues will be built inside existing movie theaters. The five other pilot VR locations planned for 2017 will be inside cinemas, like the AMC Theatre in New York City, Regal Cinemas in New York City and downtown Los Angeles, an AMC theater in China, and a cinema in the UK. Some will completely take over space which was previously occupied by a movie theater screen, while others will take over a large section of the theater lobby. Later this year, they will evaluate the success of this venture and consider expanding worldwide, looking towards Japan, Europe and the Middle East for further locations.
Starbreeze, the company that produces the John Wick Chronicles VR game using their proprietary StarVR system, was gloating that tickets to their experience had been sold out for the previous couple days. The John Wick experience operates out of two of the fourteen pods, with guests being cycled through the ten-minute experience at twenty-minute intervals (due to explanation, set-up, and equipment sanitization & cleaning). At $10 a ticket and eight hours of experience time per day, that means the company has made nearly $1,000 in two days with those two pods alone.
At first, this concept seemed crazy to me. Can a movie theater actually believe they would make more money on single VR experiences as opposed to a cinema full of hundreds of seats? IMAX hopes to fit anywhere between nine to fourteen pods in any given center. If you do the math, a cinema could charge $10 per VR experience and potentially make $600-$1,000 in the same amount of time as movie theater screening and reset cleaning.
The problem with this current model is that a movie theater requires a couple ushers to clean the cinemas in between screenings, but the IMAX VR experience requires dedicated operators at each attraction for the length of the day.