#1123 – Digital to Physical Revolution Continues

The investment and acquisition spree continues with a brand-new Live Entertainment space revealed. All this and an explosion in interest in immersive entertainment underpinning facility opening, from active flying simulation and Free-Roaming VR experiences. With the technology being applied across attractions and Artainment. 

Facility News

Just some weeks after we confirmed that Two Bit Circus was working on their second “micro-amusement park” facility to open in Dallas, TX, it was announced that the company had been acquired, for $50m (in stock), by Alpine Acquisition Corporation – a Nasdaq listed special-purpose acquisition company. This is part of a move to acquire two conference hotels from Atrium Hospitality L.P. (located in Denver, CO and Stamford, CT) for $65m. The plan will see these 739-room hotels converted into experiential entertainment and gaming properties under the new ‘Reveler’s Resort’ brand.

The combined operations, named Two Bit Circus Entertainment, will continue with their LBE facility plans, and develop their new immersive, “drive-to” destination concept that will include gaming, circus-style attractions, and even STEAM workshops and unique activities. This hopes to define the company as a one-of-a-kind world-class family entertainment brand. The original ‘Two Bit Circus’ venue in Los Angeles was seeing some 233,000 guests during 2019.

The concept of an immersive “drive-to” destination builds on the speculation of a shift in guests’ interest in a social entertainment experience that is close to them, and does not need lengthy travel, building on the “Staycation” model. Also, the interest generated by the LARPing and “Live Experience” venues, with the hard to remember Walt Disney ‘Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser’ hotel, or Secret Cinema, Circus Cirque du Soleil, and Great Wolf Lodge venues offering a destination entertainment resort. The immersing of the guest in an on-property, full entertainment experience, also builds on the casino model.

Mergers and acquisitions continued apace, with news soon following that the Hollywood Bowl Group, based in the UK, reported the London listed company had generated a record £100m revenue over the last six-months across their chain of some 64-venues. With this news, the company announced they had acquired the Teaquinn Holdings group for some $13.3m. The group operates the Canadian ‘Splitsville’ chain of five family entertainment style bowling venues. The Teaquinn group also runs the Striker Bowling Solutions operation, that installs and maintains bowling equipment and venue services – and is the exclusive Canadian agent for Brunswick Bowling. This marks the international expansion of the Hollywood Bowl operation, looking to expand the number of sites by another ten in the next five years.

The Canadian entertainment sector one of the last to come out of hard lockdown conditions applied by the Government regarding the COVID situation, and the sector has been clawing its way back to profitability compared to other markets that exited the conditions sooner. Many of the entertainment facility operations in this territory are being eyed as possible targets for acquisition in this vulnerable state – with further developments expected to be revealed shortly. This latest development on the Canadian bowling sector comes only a matter of days before the major gathering of the trade in Las Vegas at the International Bowl Expo 2022.     

Speaking of the Canadian scene, the continuing pace of mergers and acquisitions was illustrated again with the news that Premier Parks, LLC owners’ theme and water parks, announced it had acquired the Canadian Valcartier-Calypso Group – an operation comprising indoor and outdoor water parks, hotel, spas, and winter playgrounds. Following the acquisition, the Premier Parks operation will expand to 15 properties. 

The creation of the content for the immersive entertainment experience was underpinned with the opening ceremony in Burbank, CA, of the ‘MSG Sphere Studios’ – operated by MSG Entertainment. The development resource, including mini-dome, filming, and audio services, will support the chain of dome display facilities that are scheduled to open across the globe. The $1b Las Vegas MSG Sphere is scheduled for a Q2 2023 opening, while plans for the London sphere are clearing the approval process.  Overall, a need to be able to create and curate the content for these first facilities, and the expected 30 other locations, will be done by the new Burbank studios, with content being displayed at levels of resolution that other creation houses would find impossible to support.

The move from physical facility business into the opportunities of digital facilities, as championed by those supporting the Metaverse, took a possible step closer with the news that Europe’s leading Family Entertainment Center (FEC) operator, Veltmeijer Group, with nearly 50 facilities across the territory, had partnered with branding specialist Goodkarmer to create a virtual recreation of their entertainment sites. Able to be visited through web portal, the space will allow players to take part in a virtual arcade atmosphere and is planned to be linked to branding and competitions that will be cross-promoted with the physical operation. Founded in 1957 as Veltemijer Automaten, the corporation has been an established developer of entertainment venues, with their popular ‘Gamestate’, ‘Gamecity’ and ‘Gametown’ chain of locations, their Amsterdam location seeing, in 2020, some 250,000 visitors. 

The establishment of new active immersive simulations, offering a new level of immersion, was seen with Frontgrid, the developers of the ‘ParadropVR Pod’ platform. Building on the lessons from the original platform, the new hardware offers a compact operational envelope, new multiplayer VR paragliding experiences, and simplified operation. With the launch of the system, the company announced the first US installation, at the newly opened ‘Sprockets Fun Foundry’ entertainment venue near Mount Rushmore. This sees the platform operating alongside several other state-of-the-art VR attractions, as well as a strong amusement and F&B offering, building on a multi-sensory experience.

Continuing with the theme of VR forging a path for new facility rollouts, we move onto the grand opening of ‘JUMP’ by Limitless Flight. The first facility, located in Utah, marks the launch of the hyperreal wingsuit simulator. Developed by a group of executives, comprising ex-TheVOID leads, this latest VR location-based entertainment venue project offers a highly physical immersive experience that The Stinger Report has trailed before – the flight-suspension system and high-end VR content is priced highly as a VIP experience. With the grand opening, the operation looks to start ambitious plans for rolling out stores across several cities. Work on the launch of their second site in New York (American Dream Mall is already underway. 

Free-Roaming: Entertainment Increased Investment

Recently we have reported on the redevelopment of free-roaming VR experiences. Most recently the news that YULLBE would be moving to a new platform, HOLOGATE was releasing their ‘HOLOGATE-X’, and Creative Works was launching their ‘LimitlessVR’ platforms – all abandoning PC backpacks, but still offering high-end VR free-roaming experiences. The latest corporation to take this leap of faith is Zero Latency, a company known for being the first to pioneer the concept of free-roaming multi-player experiences. The company announced that they too would be ditching cumbersome backpacks, while looking to offer the latest 5K high-end VR PC experiences, through streamed VR over a local Wi-Fi 6E network system, streamed to HTC Focus 3 VR headsets, accommodating up-to-eight players. This is supported by the specially-developed weapons system that the players wield within the game. The new platform offers all eight currently available high-end PC VR experiences, now streamed to the players.

The move away from backpack PCs was not just a means to stay ahead of the technology, or the need to remove the cumbersome system from the operation of the popular free-roaming experience. This sector has been a victim of its own success – with manufactures MSI and HP both unable to support the demand for the hardware, and HP eventually discontinuing their backpack PC platform in favour of supporting more cost-effective technology. Zero Latency had previously partnered with HP to use not only their backpack PCs but use their Reverb headset for their previous gen system. Likewise, the expensive tracking systems needed have also encouraged the move to the inside out tracking solution of the HTC Focus 3 – supported by the 6E wireless system. 

The 57 Zero Latency venues have the option to upgrade their systems, starting to see those upgrades roll out globally, starting this summer with their Australian site  – the first to open. The deployment of the new next generation platform from Zero Latency was not slow to be adopted, with the announcement that Australian entertainment facility operator Funlab would be one of the first to operate the new free-roaming VR systems that have ditched the bulky backpack PC. The operation’s ‘Archie Brother’s: Cirque Electriq’ chain is rolling out, at their Melbourne venue, the upgraded platform – with plans for wider adoption.

The news of new openings comes thick and fast as the momentum returns to the entertainment operation business and we gather more details of the latest SandboxVR hyper-reality free-roam immersive experiences. The company is continuing its ambitious rollout plans, with the signing of a franchise venue finishing its fitout in London, for a July opening. The venue will comprise the latest version of the VR experience and will include an enhanced hospitality element, including a robotic bartender. This is not the only new free-roaming VR experience that will be opening in the UK capital in the coming months, and we hope to have full reports on these new sites in coming coverage. 

Free-Roaming: Collective Immersive Experiences

Free-roaming VR technology is also appearing in other applications. The last few weeks have seen an influx in launches of what are being described as “collective immersive experiences” – these are not necessarily game experiences, but multi-guest VR experiences, seeing groups as large as ten and 20 ushered through an immersive environment. Some of these have a Artainment narrative, while others offer a more theatrical or experiential approach to storytelling – with art and culture playing a new part in the VR experience scene.

One of the largest of these collective immersive experiences is London’s Barbican Theatre – called ‘Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li’, it is a fusion of hyper-reality, free-roaming VR, and live performance. Co-produced by Backlight VR studios, it brings to reality the concept by the famous choreographer, dancer and actor Blanca Li – creating a VR dance experience. An audience of some ten guests are transported into a stylish world of love and romance, with live performances from motion-captured dancers that interact with the guests – offering a unique live performance element. The 60-minute experience has the guests wearing HTC VIVE Pro headsets, HP backpack PCs, and unique arm and lack motion trackers.

Transported into the magical world of a stylized Paris, replete with ballroom, garden mazes, nightclubs and dance halls, the guests are transported in this free-roaming experience through Backlight’s full body awareness platform. The LBE company’s experience in this field is applied in the special effects and Unreal Engine created virtual environments. The company was recently covered in our reporting on their ‘OZ Experience’, newly opened within AREA15. The London VR performance experience is a unique offering, even including partnership with CHANEL – providing the virtual costumes the guests can select to wear. This proved an amazing experience and has been sold out during its run in London – a full report from the opening – can be read here.

Another example is the opening in, Tacoma, Washington, of what is called ‘THE INFINITE’ and described as a “Out-of-this-World” VR experience. A vast 12,500-sq.-ft. space has been transformed into a giant free-roaming environment for groups from ten-to-29 users, wearing Meta Quest 2 headsets, and traversing a virtual recreation of the International Space Station and beyond during the 60-minute experience. The project a joint venture between PHI Studio and Felix & Paul Studios, started back in 2020 – the concept was defined as reimagining the standards of LBE, developed in association with TIME Studios. The VR experience is claimed to be one of the largest in the world (able to accommodate some 150 guests at one time) and, after being launched in Canada having received financial support from the Quebec Government, the traveling experience now embarks on a world tour of major cities.

Promoting the Artainment and Immersive Experience narrative, and growing momentum beyond just VR applications, we also move towards the large display format. The UK saw two major cities vying to grab the laurels of having the “first permanent immersive digital art gallery”. First was in Coventry with ‘The Reel Store’, opening at the end of May as part of the celebration of Coventry UK City of Culture. Meanwhile in London, it was announced the capital would see its own permanent digital art experience. ‘Frameless’ is a billed immersive art experience that will open in the summer within a 30,000-sq.ft. location. These venues depend on their latest 4K projection systems. Also, just down the main drag from the Frameless venue, London will see another major immersive projection environment with another first – the “world’s largest LED canvas” will be opened within the ‘Outernet London’ facility. In this case, the vast screen is the deployment of 8K LED panels – with the space being utilized as a promotion, exhibition, and entertainment space. 

Immersive performances have also received some promotion, with the launch of a test project – ‘ABBA Voyage’ is a concert experience that creates a virtual performance from recorded performances from the pop supergroup. Some forty-years since their last official live performance, the group reunited to be recorded in motion-capture suits by Industrial Light & Magic. Then, through VFX, a 95-minute virtual concert was created, rendering the popstars into unique digital avatars of their previous selves (called “ABBAtars”). This has been presented as an exclusive London performance, at a 3,000-capacity purpose-built temporary venue (built by Stufish), that has real musicians, as well as the holographic rendering of the performance. Based on the reaction to the concert, reported to have cost $175m to create, the organizers will consider touring worldwide. Immersive galleries, concerts and exhibition spaces are growing in audience popularity, another champion of the digital to physical revolution.

About the author

Kevin Williams

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The brainchild of two location-based experience enthusiasts, Christine Buhr and Brandon Willey, the LBX Collective aims to inform and educate, create opportunities to connect with industry peers, and to spur collaboration, discourse, and cross-pollination of ideas.

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