#1104 – Innovation Driving the Entertainment Market

The New Year started, but some of the old issues that plagued the previous period seem to still be haunting the industry. However, first we need to conclude the last physical event of the 2021 period, before giving a detailed rundown of the amazing developments across the immersive landscape.

Simulation Concludes Year

There was one last show event development from 2021 – with the all-important 54th I/ITSEC (Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation & Education Conference), for military and commercial simulation and training. The event took place only days after the IAAPA cornucopia at the same Orlando convention center; with several of the amusement trade exhibitors crossing the aisle and taken space at ITSEC’21 to represent their other business in simulation and training.

As with the entertainment sector, the simulation sector has seen its share of recent mergers and acquisitions, one such being with CAE who acquired their largest competitor, L3Harris Technologies, in a $1.05b deal. The merger creates the largest training and simulation operation in the industry. The new organization at ITSEC’21 shared a large booth and revealed a brand-new image generation graphics platform for simulation – called the ‘CAE Prodigy’. What was called an ultra-fidelity visual system, the hardware was created using games-based image generation technology from Epic Games’ Unreal Engine – with the technology driving the new generation of virtual environments for commercial deployment. This is an IG system able to achieve 8k resolution and 120Hz iteration rates that far surpasses previous performance with “ultra-real” visuals. The amazing performance was demonstrated in a dome flight simulator on the CAE booth during the show.

ITSEC’21 pointed to a new investment in simulation to immerse to a high level. The use of the latest connected (cloud-based) server systems, and the latest game engines, achieve powerful representations. But at the same time, new high-level VR headsets, far surpassing the conventional consumer iterations, were being revealed, regarding how they would driving future training (such examples are reported below). It is this new level of immersion that will find its way migrating into other areas of commercial visualization such as Out-of-Home Entertainment, (echoed later, on the CES’22 show floor).

2022 Shows Falter

Following the confused state of 2021, 2022 started with a feeling of déjà vu, as several exhibition organizers decided on the postponement of major gatherings. Engendered by the rapid escalation of the latest COVID variant, in the shape of Omicron, January 2022 show fixtures were rescheduled. First with the International Casino Exhibition (ICE) in London, which was postponed for a new April schedule. At the same time, the London ExCel exhibition center saw a postponement of the British Educational Training and Technology (BETT) show, to a March rescheduling. One show attempted to stay defiant was the EAG convention, which was resolutely keeping its January schedule – but then the hammer fell.

The Entertainment Attractions & Gaming (EAG) International expo announced, at the end of December, the inevitable in the face of the new escalation that saw European cities falling into lockdown once again. The leading European amusement and coin-op gaming show took the decision to postpone, rather than cancel, and moved to a March 2022 fixture. A surprise blow, but an inevitable one. The UK amusement trade would see a South London rally, with small distributor events being held to counter the loss of the important pre-Easter sales period for the UK trade, as a stop gap to the postponing of EAG (full coverage from these events coming soon).

Some other exhibitions have decided on caution in face of the sweeping COVID variant. Just as we went to the wire, it was revealed that Integrated Systems Europe (ISE), the leading AV and systems integration exhibition, had decided on postponing until May – another major event looking at three- or four-months’ separation from the current situation. Meanwhile, the videogame mega event that is E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) made the decision to continue this year with their digital (online) event format, abandoning plans to hold a physical show. The June event has now missed holding an in-person event for some 24-months. Many of the exhibitors will revert to special off-site media events under health restrictions, and questions are raised if the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) organized event can survive this latest impact.

The First Big Electronics Event

The major tech event that was the 54th CES (Consumer Electronics Show) (having missed the 2021 gathering) was inevitably going to be hit for a second time by the lingering impact of COVID. The latest Omicron variant leaving its mark across the international exhibition scene had first thought to have limited impact, but then greater lockdown measures by the international market were seen. CES organizer (the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)), was adamant that the trade was going to hold a physical experience, no matter how impacted by these conditions. 

Under extreme measures, and a greatly reduced international presence (with the organizers even offering free PCR testing to international attendees), the CES trade event welcomed some 2,200 exhibitors to the newly-reduced three-day event. (The show organizers, conceding the situation, moved to just three days of physical convention.) The show supported some of the latest innovations from electronics, automotive and consumer products. Furthermore, the event also allowed opportunities for commercial entertainment to show their wares, with representation from SPREE Interactive with their VR hardware, and Drone Interactive promoting their ‘ARCADRONE’ platform.

One of the exhibitors who has strong links to the amusement trade, who seems to be growing stronger, was Arcade1Up – developer of a range of at-home recreations of vintage video amusement pieces, with some 3m sales (in less than three years). The company announced, at CES’22, that they were adding a new range to their lineup. Called the ‘Pro Series’, these premium cabinets are near actual size recreations, as amusement cabinets built for the consumer market. The first licensed titles in this lineup include Midway’s ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘The Killer Instinct’ cabinets, with others to follow. These systems use 19’’ LCD, rather than the original CRT displays, and include Wi-Fi for connected gameplay with other cabinets and downloads. This represents the closest that Arcade1Up has achieved to fielding actual amusement pieces and, along with their recently announcement of developing and opening an amusement lounge, it is hard to distinguish from an actual amusement manufacturer (other than the huge sales and marketing budget).

Towards the new immersive technology developments on display, VRgineers used the CES 2022 show floor to release the latest version of their commercial (high-end) VR headset. The operation populated their show booth with sophisticated motion fighter jet simulator cockpits (supplied by CHS Tactical), linked up to their new commercial grade VR headset (‘XTAL-3’). The setup demonstrated its advanced features such as MR and using pass-through camera technology, so the physical cockpit instrumentation was able to be represented within the virtual world in real-time.

In an example of that which has become common in these conditions, CES saw ‘onsite’ and ‘offsite’ presentations of new trends and products. Away from the show floor, several major electronics corporations held media and trade presentational events that opened the door on their new phase of investment. The current conditions forcing on some companies a “hybrid-show” approach with physical presence, as well as conducting zoom and online conference presentations. 

Sony, some four years on from launching their latest foray into the virtual reality (VR) consumer landscape, revealed more details of their next generation of this approach. The company revealed, at their offsite press event, information on their plans for the ‘Playstation VR 2’. It is a platform created to fully utilize the recent Playstation 5 console release; the new headset will incorporate new tracking technology, and a far higher resolution per-eye, and a HDR (high-dynamic range) OLED display.  The Sony PSVR2 will also be supported by brand-new VR (‘Sense’) controllers that employ many advanced features along with haptic feedback that builds on what has been achieved with the PS5 gamepads. Returning to the headset, the system will incorporate features such as foveated rendering that will employ eye-tracking to maximize visual clarity within the user’s field of view. 

This reveal of basic specification set the internet aflame as, unlike Meta (having retired the Oculus brand), the Sony Playstation VR has achieved unsubstantiated 8m+ unit sales – although over a four-year period, supported by an extensive exclusive games library. So, with the established PS5 next-generation console rollout, the support of a new VR headset offered a strong opportunity. This hardware would fall into the camp of high-end SeriousVR, against the standalone CasualVR approach which was previously favored by the Meta Quest 2. Further fuel was added to the fire with a well-placed rumor regarding the planned rollout of other high-end VR headsets, such as the leaked Meta Cambria (a replacement for the abandoned Oculus Rift line). Along with rumors that Apple’s AR/VR system was in the wings. These leaks were coming from one source – the Chinese fabrication house Goertek, being the company that sold the Pico VR range to TikTok owners Bytedance (while still retaining manufacturing rights). Sources at the company revealed their involvement with the above new high-end VR headset manufacture, with all this and a new Pico high-end platform in the works.

As if the 2022 lineup of VR headsets could not get more crowded, the use of the latest lightweight MicroOLED displays was evident across the new VR headset announcements. For example, Panasonic has been fielding conceptual designs for entry into the consumer VR landscape. The company’s subsidiary, Shiftall, revealed their entry into headset manufacture with the launch of their ‘MeganeX’ – a lightweight, high-resolution MicroOLED headset that hopes to offer a unique platform for commercial and consumer application. Shiftall is known for the body-tracking suits called ‘HaritoraX’ – with the range expected to grow. 

Other tactility was on display in numerous flavours for immersive presence at CES’22. Leading developer bHaptics is famous for the ‘TactSuit’ that represents tactile sensations on the wearer, and the company also showed their new ‘TactGlove’ that allows the user to feel sensations through their fingertips, able to interact with virtual objects. Other developers, such as OWO, also showed their tactile suit systems with 30 different sensations – through electrode stimulation (even able to stimulate pain). The system is looking at the burgeoning consumer VR scene, as well as at console gamers for sales. The gamers’ seat was also getting the tactile sensation treatment with the announcement that D-BOX Technologies and Razer have combined their talents to launch the ‘Enki Pro HyperSense’ concept gaming chair.

From the established VR headset divisions, some new reveals were made. HTC had a showroom at a neighbouring convention hotel, presenting examples of the expanded range of headsets, including the VIVE Pro2 and VIVE Focus 3 – the latter saw the appearance of a brand new VIVE Wrist Tracker. This is a compact device, using rechargeable batteries, that is worn by the user and offers improved tracking from the fingertips to the elbow within the virtual environment – a major improvement on current LBE style wristband marker tracking, or the original VIVE units. Since the 2021 launch, the HTC VIVE Focus 3 was seeing interest from all attendees and has been looked at closely as a serious commercial and LBE hybrid. One such example of this was a fire safety demonstration from FLAIM Systems, using the new tracking, and VIVE Focus 3 for fire extinguisher training. Also revealed in private demonstration was the use of the headset in high-end streamed VR, with a 5G experience from Lumen Technologies.

Speaking of OLED’s ubiquity in the display scene, and a new application for this flat panel display technology was revealed by display manufacturer LG. The corporation presented, as a concept demonstration, their ‘Cinematic Sound OLED’ (CSO) technology – that turned a conventional cardio fitness bike (from Cicllotte) into a vertical 55-inch OLED immersive fitness experience. The system offers a vertical screen that adds the digital environment to the exercise experience, which the company has branded the ‘LG Virtual Ride’. Following the launch of the Quest2 VR hardware, virtual exercise and fitness has been under much scrutiny, so this immersive approach from LG – without the need for cumbersome headsets – was interesting. LG is also looking at other deployments of the CSO platform, such as in a gaming chair format.

Augmented Reality (AR) has been a constant at numerous CES gatherings but has still not fully established a presence beyond interesting concepts. This year was no different, with several example systems on the show floor. The reality is that many industry observers await the full entry of Apple and Meta into launching their foray into this sphere, (speculated for 2023). While the industry awaits the big play, news was also released that technology leader Qualcomm would be partnering with Microsoft on the development of a new chipset to power the next generation of AR headsets and glasses. These developments will crossover into XR technology – which will drive the future implementation.  

Speaking of AR and Mixed Reality (MR), at the same time as CES, Walt Disney was awarded a patent for what was described as a ‘Virtual World Simulator’. Disney was awarded, by the U.S. Patent Office, a unique patent to create a virtual-world simulator in a real-world venue. This is one of the 300 patents awarded to the corporation over the years and, from this unique declaration, the images describing the technology showed real-world elements being superimposed by a ‘Virtual-World Simulator’, supported by tracking systems. The description, though vague, seemed to represent projection mapping technology (MR) linked to real-world tracking. Technology similar to the description has already been seen, such as that trailed in the ‘Goofy’s Paint ‘n’ Play House’ attraction first seen at Tokyo Disney Resorts back in 2012. A more up-to-date example of this is expected to be deployed with the patent award, as part of Disney’s defence against interest generated by Universal in their new ‘Super Nintendo World’ that will start an arms-race in innovation, between the California and Florida parks.

Blockchain in the Picture

Returning to the CES’22 show floor and Blockchain made its latest foray into the amusement landscape, with the Play-to-be-Paid concept from Haste Arcade which was launched at the time of the show. In what the company calls a “Pay-to-Earn” platform, the app will instantly pay out Blockchain currency for positions on a Leaderboard run by the arcade service. The game portal (arcade) has been developed in partnership with ILP Games and offers an SDK for other publishers to place their content on the service. Claimed to be a world’s first for instant Leaderboard pay-out, the concept is obviously one that can be applied to other gaming experiences. 

Following on from Blockchain payouts, with one of the far-reaching trends of the current generation having been Blockchain, and this carries on with non-fungible tokens (NFT). Every corporation seems to be talking about their interpretation of the latest zeitgeist for NFTs, and the videogame industry is no exception. Along with the major publishers who have adopted this transactable token for players to collect, there has been the entry of new operations to the crossover between NFT and Blockchain currency. Amusement and videogame publisher, KONAMI Digital Entertainment (KDE), announced that to mark the 35th anniversary of the classic game title ‘Castlevania’, they would release a range of NFT memorabilia. This said, both SEGA, Square ENIX, and Ubisoft have seen backlash from customers towards their own plans to sell game-based NFTs, which have become a contentious aspect of the new zeitgeist.

It would be revealed that SEGA had bowed to what they called “negative reaction” – it is still unclear what the Japanese amusement and videogame publisher and developer intended. But, in an earlier statement back in April 2021, SEGA had confirmed they were about to experiment with NFTs based on their popular library of properties, in partnership with double jump, and would utilize Blockchain technology. The endeavour was to double down on the new company motto “Constantly Creating, Forever Captivating” – reflecting the rebranding and focusing of the corporation after significant restructuring. It seems that the corporation has evaluated the audience reaction to this development, and the negativity has forced them to suspend the experiment, for the time being anyway. Away from game houses, others jumping on the NFT bandwagon included GameStop, who reported to the Wall Street Journal on their intention to double down on Blockchain which had seen their survival and mighty rise in popularity. The game retailer is now looking to be a physical repository for games and merchandising based on NFT market space. 

In conclusion – The CES event coverage: the organizers would report some 40,000 attendees, quick to congratulate on a successful gathering supported by US Travel Association for their COVID protocol. This must be placed into comparison with the 2019 event attendance of some 182,000 international attendees. The show plans to return to its four-day format for next year (taking place on January 5-8, 2023). That the 2022 show was able to take place at all was a demonstration of doggedness by the organizers and major exhibitors, dependant on the 2022 showroom to get the season started – in a season that is expected to break records. The 55-year-old event (started first in 1967) only missed being held this one time, and is hoping to not have to repeat this in the future.

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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