#1181 – Compelling Immersion Showing! Part 2

Continuing our extensive coverage of the crowded and record-breaking International Association of Amusement Park and Attractions European Expo (IAAPA-EU’23). In this second part, we continue to report on the trend of VR and other immersive investment on display.

VR Attractions

The application of this immersive tech into experiences was represented through “VR Attractions” – taking the mid-scale and large-scale attractions into the VR realm. The use of VR in attractions was seen on the Moviemex3D booth, with the company operating a two-seat motion variant of their ‘Flying Theater’ – running custom content created by the company ‘7 Wonders’. Also on booth was a demonstration of their ‘VR Labyrinth’ enclosure experience – players moved through various virtual spaces, with effects like wind, heat, and floor vibration, to achieve a compelling and small footprint virtual adventure. Both systems were running on PICO Neo headsets.

Meanwhile, DOF Robotics had their four-rider ‘Hurricane VR’ inverted ride system wowing the audience, with the VR attraction also employing PICO headsets. The company was also promoting the installations of their new immersive flying theater systems, with the ‘Monster Jam’ VR simulator, and their immersive walking attraction. The company was one of several exhibitors with an ‘Angry Birds’ licensed project in the works. 

In the water park business, the success of VR application continued and Virtual Reality Slide & VR Snorkelling showed their immersive experience – both the speciality VR headsets, and a raft of content of snorkelling and water floom experiences. Exhibitor Aquarena had two of these snorkelling and floom ride VR headsets on display, for application in specialist attractions – also seen on the Sub Sea Systems booth with VR applications. 

One of the surprise VR mysteries at the show was the company from Latvia called 4WARD – they claimed on their booth to be ‘LaserWar’ and ‘Avatar Game’ in VR, but attempts to ask questions of their operation were sidestepped, and they seem not to currently have a working webpage – we will continue to enquire. 

Virtual Arenas

Moving to other trending elements and “VR Arena” experiences seemed to be the big area of investment and interest from operators and exhibitors during the Vienna show. Mack Rides, and part of the group VR Coaster, were promoting their work in Arena VR – the company was following on with their ‘YULBE Go’ platform, using HTC Focus 3 headsets and offering multi-player free-roaming VR experiences. The ‘YULBE Go’ system and ‘YULBE Pro’ (using Pimax headset and PC backpack) platforms have been installed across several sites, as well as the permanent EuropeaPark installation. VR Coaster is also working on other VR projects which use the latest headsets to achieve their immersion. 

The free roaming VR arena scene was front-and-center on the VEX Solution booth, with two versions of their system – the dedicated ‘VEX Adventure’ and ‘VEX Arena’ offering. The Arena system offering a more compact solution for operators, showing the new kid-friendly content ‘Party Playland’ and ‘Space Academy’. This compared to the full-on physical and virtual effects on offer from the Adventure system, which was showing the new ‘Kraken Island’ experience. The Adventure was using the HTC Focus 3, and the Arena was employing the PICO headset. Seen for the first time at the show was the ‘VEX App’, allowing players to track their stats in an ongoing eSports contest with prizes. With its leaderboard and supporting smartphones, this is a great marketing and promotional tool for operators. 

Moving halls and Cross Reality International also presented a full demonstration of their turnkey 10x10m free-roaming arena, offering seven different games, capable of supporting up-to-ten users at a time, and all using the PICO headset (even developing a new hot-swap battery system for the latest headset to ensure smooth deployment). The unique system can support both multiplayer and single player operation, available also as a popup/portable solution. The Cross Reality Entertainment System (CRES), was promoting its return on investment seen by operators, and incredible portability, able to be installed in an empty space within 15-minutes.

PICO, the developer of the VR headset that was employed on several booths, has worked hard to establish a presence in the market. The company is also listening to LBE feedback on their tracking and hardware development to best suit the unique needs of the sector for their current and new headset rollout. At the same time, the prevalent use of the HTC Focus 3 continued on other booths – these two manufacturers are benefiting from their enterprise business approach in the LBE market. As reported previously, many Chinese LBE developers favor DPVR hardware (some examples seen at IAAPA-EU) and, overall, LBE (enterprise) business seems to be an oasis of stability for VR, compared to the changing conditions in consumer sales/penetration. This situation is purported to be influencing other VR headset manufacturers to reconsider their previous stance on LBE deployment, which we hope to report on soon. 

An exhibitor who has applied an agnostic approach to VR headset utilization is SPREE Interactive – the company came to IAAPE-EU’23 with a new setup and content library to appeal to a wider market. The company is known originally for their non-violent and family-friendly focus on content to support young users. Launched at the show, the company revealed their move to a selection of more violent themed game experiences, with ‘VR CyberRealm’ for example – employing the SPREE arena, but using an HTC Focus 3 headset rather than PICO and offering a four-player shooting game experience. 

The company is hoping to offer the widest selection for operators to choose from. This will be supported with the launch, at IAAPA Orlando, of a brand-new business approach from SPREE, with a software-only game licensing model – allowing the operator to select the amount of hardware versus software they need to purchase. (This is a new approach we can expect to see define a new trend in VR installation.) SPREE had been instrumental in the rollout of VR in the karting scene, with the Eurogames booth including their battery ‘VR Bumper Car’, and the electric version show by I.E. Park, with the systems developed in collaboration with SPREE, using their bumper-cars and PICO headset.

The availability of turnkey VR facility installations was represented on several booths, including the appearance of The Park: Playground – showing demonstrations of their six-to-eight-player free-roam system, using HTC Focus 3 headsets and 3D custom made weapons. The company has been building on their franchise model but also revealed the launch of a brand-new turnkey solution, ‘The Park VR System’, aimed as a standalone installation for entertainment venues – throwing their hat into the crowded waters of the standalone VR installation. 

The popularity in fielding turnkey arena systems for operators of all sizes in the VR free-roaming sphere has grown in popularity, with several of the leading solutions on the Vienna show floor. Powerhouse Hero Zone VR has driven much of the interest in a smaller, cost-effective, arena solution in a turnkey package, and had their platform running attendees through their VR experiences during the show. The offering of a compact VR solution was also presented by VION VR (from Netronic), with an example of VR headsets (Meta Quest 2) and weapons with haptics, for their ‘VION VR’ system – able to accommodate ten players, in five game experiences, on ten various maps.

The need for a reliable selection of content to support VR hardware is driving much of the new investment seen. One of the VR game distribution platforms exhibiting at IAAPA-EU was Octopod VR, known for its ‘Octo:Gone’ modular VR arena playground, which supports 80m² for up-to-eight players (HTC Vive Focus 3 wireless streaming). WanadevStudio’s management and distribution platform has established over 80 partners internationally. Some observers during the European show commented on the lack of other VR content distributors exhibiting this year, although the proximity to IAAPA Orlando may play a role in marshalling marketing and exhibition budgets.

It was felt that, for many operators, the burden of operating and managing VR arenas will fall heavily on their shoulders as they get to grips with this phase of technology – strong content will be pivotal to this revenue generation, along with a reliable infrastructure. As such, developers like MetaverseXR came to the show to promote their VR expertise in content creation.

Another VR arena provider with a proven track regard, DIVR Labs, exhibited at IAAPA-EU with extracts from their multi-player arena-based platform. They have opened venues in Westfield malls in London and Stockholm, along with their original Prague placement. The company is adding a new adventure to the list of experiences, including their ‘Last Stand’ and ‘The Lost Lab’ adventure (recently reported on by The Stinger Report, who’s owners have previously worked with the operation). DIVR also revealed they are about to launch a brand-new concept onto the market, which we will report on soon.  

Although not exhibiting at IAAPA-Europe, VR manufacturer Immotion was seen at the previous week’s Association of Zoon and Aquariums (AZA) annual conference in Ohio (adding to the crowded month of events). As part of the some 150 exhibitors, Immotion presented their immersive education VR platform (enhanced 9D motion seats) – having opened their latest VR theater zoo experience at Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s Ellen DeGeneres Campus in Rwanda, with the ‘Gorilla Trek VR’ wildlife digital experience. Just for the record, several IAAPA members presented their immersive tech at AZA’23, with SimEx-Iwerks, Mindscape, and Pulseworks. Developer Pulseworks has rolled out their own ‘VR Transporter’ theater platform, including the release of ‘VR Safari’. 

Augmented Reality Platforms 

The influx of “AR” (augmented reality) platforms into the LBE scene has grown compared to recent years, with an influx of innovation building on technology that superimposes digital entertainment into the real world. One of the leading developers is meleap, with their active AR sports experience ‘HADO’ – a competitive game system, with a strong eSports following, and international competition elements. The company had an active arena on the show floor for attendees to try for themselves, getting a feel for the PvP action and AR viewing and launching components. 

A simple application of AR on the show floor was nevertheless still effective. For example, French company Kylii Kids was offering an innovative digital design for younger users. The company showed their ‘Kylii Viewer’ and augmented viewer with superimposed images on the world viewed through the mounted binoculars. The system, seen over the last few years at IAAPA-EU shows, seemed an obvious addition to any outdoor entertainment space. As if to prove that Universal Studios’ influential ‘Super Nintendo World’ gate in Japan and the US includes the AR ‘Tower Viewers’, Kylii Kids also had their own wearable system on show, used in a unique treasure hunt system that can be installed in active play venues.

One of the MR technology developers presenting at IAAPA-EMEA’23 was Enklu – the augmented reality software and development team powering the ‘Verse Immersive: Holographic Theatre’ chain. Enklu self-operates a standalone ‘Verse’ location in Chicago (which we have reported on), licenses standalone locations in Orlando and Denver, and has now integrated with multiple Family Entertainment Centers (FEC). The first, which opened in late September at ‘810 Billiards & Bowling’ in Phoenix, saw sold out tickets in the opening weekend. In exclusive news, Enklu revealed their partnership with operator Main Event, which will first be integrating the ‘Verse’ experiences at their Grapevine, TX, location in late October, marking a new departure into venue attraction business for the nationwide chain.  The experience uses the Microsoft ‘Hololens 2’ headset, and representatives for Enklu stated that MS had confirmed it will still be supporting headset shipments, even after claims the system was to be discontinued following the partnership with Meta and Quest Pro.

Another holographic AR developer exhibiting at the show, also using MS systems, was WEIGL Control. With their experience in show control systems, they have developed a compelling holographic system to place virtual AR elements within a space. A demonstration on the booth had a holographic animated element (in this case Napoleon) anchored to a spot within the booth – in an example of a museum or gallery style placement, and using multiple Hololens 2 to view the virtual elements. This software and hardware solution offered a great demonstration, and one of the most reliable recently seen. Representatives from WEIGL also cited their MS representatives had confirmed continued support of the Hololens 2 hardware.

Using smart devices like tablets or smartphones to view AR elements is one approach, but exhibitor WindowGrin presented an interactive entertainment digital screen approach, with interactive displays placed to show the guests and digital elements (from dinosaurs to monsters) interacting together. These AR apps are often used for promotion, but can also be turned into entertainment elements for “Retailtainment” deployment. Meanwhile, exhibitor XD Production came to the show promoting their selection of ‘Escape Room’, ‘Multiplayer Party Room’, and ‘3D Mascot Interactive Show’ content and services. The company was using specialist screens and user tablets to view the “Simulated Reality” (SR), created by their systems.

Regarding the immersion of Mixed Reality (MR) technology, attendees who made the trip to the last hall of the convention were treated to a chance to see and play BattleKart. With locations opened in Europe (the company is promoting plans for 30 centers opened by the end of the year), this is the leading provider of “Projection Mapped” karting. In hall C of the Messe Wien Exhibition center, a full ‘BattleKart’ installation was hidden behind an innocuous exhibition booth. Some twelve e-karts were racing around the space on a projected racecourse, or playspace – achieved by some sixty projectors mounted in the halls ceiling. 

Many attendees who registered on the ‘BattleKart’ loading kiosks in the area had a chance to try both the Mario-esq racing game with missiles and traps, as well as a Snake-style game (one of six games available), all with the tracked e-karts. Several other “Projection Mapped” developers were represented on booths, such as the floor and sandpit systems from Interatcive365, or even the use of short throw projection to create interactive floor systems as seen from Chinese exhibitor Changyi Network Media.

One of the interesting trends that seems to sweep across all aspects of the attraction and entertainment scene, is the adaption of “Interactivity/Gamification” into platforms being developed. Gamification is playing its part in the deployment of immersive attractions and active entertainment venues. 

Several active parks are now including wristbands and active markers, so mini-games and scores can be collected during playing at the facilities. Exhibitors at IAAPA-EU included Ninja Lab, with their ‘TAG System’, and ‘C-Run’ challenge system from Antalya Park – offering placeable illuminated targets for players to hit in game various modes through their experience software. 

Immersive Enclosures

One of the far-reaching trends that we are keeping a close watch on is that of “Immersive Enclosures” – offering a strong alternative to the use of VR headsets, towards immersing players within digital experiences. Exhibiting at the show was Attraktion!, who had a crowded booth with several big new announcements regarding attractions. With the continued growth of their ‘Playneo’ platform, the Attraktion! immersive enclosure launched their partnership with Rovio (recently acquired by SEGA), towards launching a brand-new immersive ‘Angry Birds’ experience for the system – a fun four-player romp through the AB universe, with the players able to launch rocks at those annoying pigs. 

A four-player game experience, placing the players in the heart of the action, surrounded by the screen, proved a very compelling experience. Attraktion! was also celebrating Austria’s first immersive family museum and experience, ‘Immersium Wien’, this week as the industry gathers in Vienna – along with the work they had done for this project. The company was also demonstrating their compact flying theater system, with VR headsets and their motion seat on booth.

Another well-known immersive entertainment developer with a strong lineup, INOWIZE, presented their ‘QBIX’ immersive enclosure to the Vienna attendees. The system is already starting to be installed at venues internationally, as we have reported. Exhibitor NeoXperiences had their booth populated with their immersive ‘Neo-One’ ball throwing experiences – another operation that has developed an ‘Angry Birds’ property for their interactive experience, with a real-life slingshot. The company has also expanded their investment in the scene, looking at Competitive Socializing with a variation of their system configured to suit this market (we report on others that are following this path seen at the show), and presented new Disco and Birthday Party services for children. Another interactive ball throwing screen game was seen from LYMB.iO, with their ‘MultiBall’ platform – offering a sports fitness and entertainment package, with full size footballs and balls thrown at the single LED screen (offered in mini, club and pro sizes), with over 50 sports and game apps.  

X-Corp came again to IAAPA with their ‘X-Cube’ – the immersive game enclosure, with high resolution screens inside the 16m-square room, as players take on a detective adventure using the screens to interact with the clues, and learning more about the crime they must solve, in this digital escape game experience. Another type of box/room concept demonstrated was from SUNVIG – offering a karaoke business solution. The company, along with their turnkey karaoke kiosks, also presented their ‘Karaoke Blox’ – a popup, turnkey, karaoke room, fully functional to offer that KTV experience for FEC and social entertainment guests (and best of all, its soundproof!) 

One of those companies crossing the boundaries of immersive enclosure and active sport experiences was Sports Simulation – the company had their projection enclosure system running a selection of sports activities, demonstrating the ball tracking capabilities. The company is looking at the system as a perfect fit for “Retailtainment” placement and, obviously, looking at its social entertainment opportunities. 

Using MR to draw an audience can be best illustrated with the announcement from Merlin Entertainment, considering their intent to roll out ‘Immersive Gamebox’ installations in their German and Australia midway centers – ‘Immersive Gamebox’ is owned by Immersive Group, with already some 25 sites. The projection and tracked immersive enclosure system has been seen as a standalone, and as a LBE property. The deal will see the owners deploy the six-player system (in six and eight-unit configurations) at these sites, with plans for a wider rollout across other Merlin operations, depending on market response – with Merlin investing in the operation. The ‘Immersive Gamebox’ platform offers game licensed properties ranging from ‘Paw Patrol’ to ‘Squid Games’ and ‘Angry Birds’.

For clarification on those also exhibiting, we note Red Raion, the CGI studio with a slew of new 5D and large format films in the works, with an extensive library including ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Space Match’, who recently announced, after ‘Van Helsing – Rise from the Dark’, to renew and modernize another well-known IP.

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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