IMAX VR Centre - Rabbids VR Ride

They Need to Make the VR Experience More Social

My biggest skepticism towards VR arcades is that I’m not sure I would want to go with my friends to a place where we all split up and have our own separate solo experiences. Sure, the design of the pods allow you to watch your friends as they play an experience, but it’s still mostly an individual adventure. I think that we’ll see that groups going to these centers will gravitate to multiplayer experiences. Right now, they only have one experience, Eagle Flight, which can accommodate anywhere from one to six players via 3-vs-3 team games of capture the flag. They mentioned that Ubisoft’s Star Trek Bridge Crew VR will be coming to the facility soon, and I think that kind of cooperative game could do extremely well in this kind of environment.

IMAX has become an investor in Dreamscape along with Warner Bros., 21st Century Fox, MGM, IMAX, Westfield, and director Steven Spielberg. Dreamscape, much like the Void’s Ghostbusters VR experience in New York City, will create untethered VR headsets to allow consumers to move freely through a space and interact with real and virtual objects as well as with each other. Dreamscape is expected to open a VR multiplex at Westfield’s Century City Mall in LA this September and IMAX says they have begun talks with the company to partner in the centers for multiplayer room-based VR experiences.

The IMAX VR Experience Centre also has a room for catering for functions like birthday parties, because some things never change (the Centre has already hosted a few parties as of this article being published).

IMAX VR Centre - Star Wars Trials On Tatooine

The Long and Short

It’s also frustrating because the experiences sometimes feel short and incomplete. John Wick Chronicles is one level of a multilevel narrative game available for download elsewhere, and when it ends you feel like you only got to experience a small piece of content. On the other side of the coin, I confidently felt like I was done with The Walk VR in just a few short minutes and I’m not sure anyone would walk away satisfied having to spend $10 for such a short piece of content.

IMAX VR - John Wick Chonicles

Why Would People Pay to Play What Is Free at Home?

Why would people pay to come to an IMAX VR Experience Centre for content that they can play at home for free on VR rigs they can buy on their own? For starters, the IMAX executives believe that there is still a considerable cost of entry to get a good VR gaming rig. And even then, most home set-ups don’t have the proper space to allow for a stand-up experience and one VR rig can’t accommodate multiplayer play.

One of the selling points of the IMAX VR Centre is that some of the experiences come with accessories to enhance the activity. For instance, when I was walking on a tightrope across the two World Trade Center towers in The Walk VR experience, I was walking on a tactile rubber right rope inlaid on the ground in the middle of a pod with a vibrating backpack that sent base rumbles through my body, reacting to my movements. The Rabbids VR Ride features a moving DBox-like chair that enhances the experience.

John Wick Chronicles was the most impressive of all the experiences I tried, featuring a controller constructed out of a retrofitted gun. After nine minutes, I was feeling fatigued from ducking behind cover and wielding a gun that felt like it got heavier as the action got more intense. It was very cool. I can only imagine if the gun actually had pullback when I fired to make the experience feel even more real.

One of my big criticisms with the current VR tech is the pixelized screen-door effect you get from most of these goggles. This is obviously something that will improve as the technology advances, but right now it’s not ready for primetime. That said, I was extremely impressed with the StarVR employed in the John Wick Chronicles experience. The StarVR features a 210-degree field of view, the largest of any VR headset right now —  much larger than the traditional 110 degrees offered by the other headsets. The resolution is 5k, almost triple that of the competing VR headsets. The IMAX VR Centre is the only place in the world that you can experience this rig right now, which might be very appealing even to those who own a VR headset at home.

If the IMAX VR Centre can keep on the cutting edge of VR technology, and continue offering new games with interesting peripherals that enhance the experiences, there is definitely a place for these establishments in the marketplace. In their first five weeks of operation, IMAX says that 20% of visitors have been people who already own a VR headset and 90% of those guests have said they will return again in the future.

IMAX VR Centre - Pod Layout

The Challenge to Create Exclusive VR Content

At the end of the day, I think IMAX will ultimately need to have exclusive VR content that you can’t experience elsewhere. IMAX executives admit that they are in a similar position to when they were ramping up their theatrical business. Filmmakers and studios didn’t want to offer exclusive content until there were enough theaters to warrant the extra effort and cost, while movie theater chains didn’t want to build IMAX theaters until there was more exclusive content.

Right now, IMAX is making inroads to this future. The company helped establish a $50 million fund to help finance the creation of at least 25 new VR experiences in the next few years. They are utilizing their relationships with top filmmakers and film brands, teaming with Google to develop a next level VR cinema-grade camera that should be ready by mid-2018. Michael Bay has always revealed that he is teaming up with IMAX on a Transformers VR experience that will coincide with the release of Transformers: The Last Knight.

At the event I attended, IMAX announced they would be partnering with video game publisher Ubisoft and movie production company Skydance on five VR experiences over the next year or so. Skydance, who helped produce the Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Terminator movies, is developing a VR experience based on the upcoming movie Life, set for March, and an action mech shooter called Archangel, set for July. I was able to try out a very early copy of Archangel and it felt like a VR version of a fun on-rails arcade experience from yesteryear. Ubisoft will be bringing the Star Trek Bridge Crew game to IMAX centers shortly.

When I asked the IMAX executives about purely exclusive content, they admitted that much of it would be exclusive for a time period window (probably one month) similar to the way movies have a theatrical release window. This makes sense, as the IMAX team seems to realize that to be more than a tourist attraction, they will need to change out the content on a regular basis.

imax vr

Is IMAX VR the Future of Immersive Entertainment?

It’s hard to predict if IMAX will be successful in their VR experiment but after experiencing the IMAX VR Experience Centre for myself, I’m a lot more interested to see the evolution of this new entertainment complex.

Without exclusive content, IMAX will have to constantly chase new expensive high-end technology and impressive peripherals to compete with the home VR offerings. They will have to go after more socially minded virtual reality multiplayer games to appeal to groups. I think IMAX will need to evolve past the movie theater convent and eventually have to offer a more versatile entry into the experience in the form of multi-experience ticketing, timed all-you-can-play entry, and/or annual memberships.

With all of these concerns, I’m still very excited to see how this concept evolves. I’m particularly interested to see how movie releases will go hand in hand with new VR experiences produced by some of the biggest filmmakers of today. I want to explore VR experiences which reach far beyond what’s capable in the home, with inventive custom controllers and rigs — I want to feel immersed in a way that is not possible on my couch. I want to feel like I’m actually flying or falling or shooting or whatever.

Is IMAX VR the future of immersive entertainment? It’s promising, but ultimately we’ll have to wait to see how this experiment pans out.

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