#1116 – Immersive Facility Investment

While compiling the exclusive coverage during AEI’22 and Amusement360 (coming soon), information was also collected on the latest facility developments. This included a first look at those sites in Las Vegas, as well as news of other projects in development internationally. 

Visiting the AREA

One of the important ventures visited during the Las Vegas stay was AREA15 – the self-styled world’s first purpose-built immersive entertainment district, offering live events, distinctive attractions, interactive art installations, extraordinary design elements, and hospitality. It was revealed that the venue has seen some 2 million visitors in its first year of operation and has won several audience awards for its mixture of entertainment and art installation.

The space has been selected well outside of the main strip area of the casino and resort Mecca – the nondescript warehouse district has been transformed into an entertainment hub, which we will cover in more detail later. But upon arrival and drop-off at the site, the guests pass through an area of sculpture, check in, and then through the nondescript main door of the site, passing through an illuminated entrance, and then greeted by a giant projection mapped skull!  

Inside the Belly

Once inside, the warehouse space feels like a “mall of entertainment” – with live entertainment, hospitality, exhibitions, and even retail on offer. This is an area that has been heavily themed with blacklight artwork, and a unique decoration continuing the vibe of the whole AREA15 concept. Regarding the experience on offer to the paying guests, this is broken into three distinctive areas (hospitality, entertainment, and immersion).

Concerning immersive entertainment on display, this was divided between VR and AR applications. One of the oldest VR installations at AREA15 has been the ‘Birdly’ flying VR platform from Somniacs. Two units of the immersive flying system were installed in their own enclosures on the main hall – with a CleanBox hygiene system in accompaniment. The other VR experiences inside the space include the installation of the first ‘OZ Experience’ from Backlight Studios. The companies Free-Roam PC Backpack VR platform is housed in a unique venue. Another VR retail offering was ‘Virtualis VR’, offering more VR Free-Roam (from TrueVRsystems) and VR arcade experiences. 

At the time of visiting there was also a pop-up VR installation on the mezzanine deck, using Meta Quest2 VR headsets, offering a temporary artainment attraction (‘Van Gogh VR). Regarding AR, the venue had hoped to include several unique experiences, with some still in development for later rollout. Available during the visit to AREA15, there was the ’BrainStorm’ mind-reading installation. Along with the main augmented attraction, ‘Particle Quest’ – using AR viewers, the guests take part on a venue-wide Easter egg hunt for clues to ascertain the secret backstory of the venue. The unique AR viewers are hired at the main reception area.   

One of the biggest elements of the immersion of the site, developed in partnership with Meow Wolf, is the ‘MEGA MART’ – designed and developed by the former art collective and multi-media production company. A mixture of interactive experiences, art installations, and funhouse. Generating much interest, criticism and speculation since its opening, the experience has proven one of the hits of the site – with guests traversing through an imitation superstore with fake products and a hidden story of capitalism and excess at its core, betraying Meow Wolf’s art commune roots (and supported by an extensive merchandise store!)

This art installation is accompanied at AREA15 with several other gallery and installation style examples. These range from ‘Museum Fiasco’ – offering immersive light and sound installations; ‘Wink World: Portal into the Infinite’ – offering an exhibit crossing between a funhouse with mirror rooms and jump scares, (developed by one of the co-founder of the Blue Man Group). These are areas that will see a constant update in new installations, as will the sculpture park outside. All this is supported by a physical attraction, added to the inside ceiling of the venue, with the ‘Haley’s Comet’ duelling zip line.

Regarding the entertainment and hospitality component of the space, several retail entertainment venues have been added to the mix. Retro bar-arcade chain ‘Emporium’ was one of the first to open, with their mix of amusement and cocktails. Down the aisles and chain ‘Dueling Axes’ has taken residency. This is supported by the sports simulator chain ‘Five Iron Golf’. Meanwhile, a rum tasting installation, ‘Lost Spirits Distillery’, rounds off the populated units of AREA15. There is a main open space with its own bar area, and private hire space, but that fundamentally covers the eclectic population of the flagship site.

Some have labelled this the “spaghetti against the wall” approach (throwing a bowl of ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks), but the operators of AREA15 have a very clear business plan on what they need to generate from each unit to reach peak performance. A lot of the concept is still being defined since its opening, and to work out the kinks in the model. The operation recently activating an unlimited access ‘Experience Pass’ ticketing package, addressing some of the price gouging complaints of the individual elements of the site – while still avoiding on the door ticketing. 

Surrounding AREA

The district that includes the AREA15 warehouse has been developed as not just a facility location, but also to act as a “hub”, attracting other entertainment and hospitality offerings – both to increase the available dwell for the attracted audience, and to maximize the spend. This included a surprise installation of the Netflix-supported ‘Army of the Dead: Viva Vengeance’, virtual reality attraction. Housed in its own unit, this is a newcomer to the hub, having previously been a touring pop-up (the London pop-up previously reviewed in The Stinger Report).

The surrounding hub space of the AREA15 venue is also seeing a new attraction – ‘Speed of Dark’ has been revealed as an original live immersive experience, developed by Particle Ink. Situated in a space called the Lighthouse, the experience will comprise live actors and MR-based effects within the space, with audiences taken through a narrative they can explore. This latest addition to the art district will open soon but is not the only new addition to the area. This space outside also includes the ‘LIFTOFF’ panoramic cocktail experience.

The AREA15 location, itself, also saw the opening of the second Illuminarium venue. Housed in a purpose-built venue, this will be a flagship location for the immersive experience venue, offering a projection environment incorporating beamform audio, vibrating floors, and olfactory elements, as the guests traverse the 45-minute experiences. Illuminarium’s new Las Vegas site will house three new immersive film productions, revealed by Blooloop as being ‘Wild: A Safari Experience’, ‘Space: A Journey to the Moon & Beyond’, and ‘O’Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers’.

Fisher Brothers, the owners of the AREA15 venue, have revealed their plans to open a second version of what they describe as an immersive art and entertainment district. Orlando, Florida was revealed to be the location of a second version of the site, with a 300,000-sq.ft. venue, comprising 20 attractions that will include retail space, all scheduled to open in 2024.

During the visit to the unique Las Vegas flagship, it was clear that the operators of AREA15 were attempting as much innovation as possible, and this was reflected in an announcement a few weeks later following the visit. The facility announced that they would be launching their own NFT collectable playing cards – which will be minted on the Polygon blockchain. Under the ‘On The Decks’ brand, these one-of-a-kind digital NTF collectables include branding artwork that reflects the venue and location, and hope to be a successful entry into crypto-collectables linked to the facility business. 

Immersive Future of Vegas and Beyond

The Las Vegas area is about to play host to another major immersive experience center – as the shadow of the giant Madisen Square Garden (MSG) Sphere grows, as construction reaches an important stage. The structure offers an impressive glimpse of the planned dome that it will retain, and the space is going to be a prominent landmark in the Las Vegas casino strip area (expected to open in 2023). And the corporation behind the project have also started to actively move on their other venues. MSG Sphere plans to roll out what they describe as a new music, eSports, and entertainment venue, seeing the planned Stratford, London design getting support from the Mayor of London, recommended for planning approval by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which was given soon after. The London MSG Sphere proposes a 90-ft. domed structure, and a 21,500 audience capacity, all operated by Madisen Square Garden Entertainment.

As we touch upon the ‘Mega Mart’ artainment installation at AREA15, “Experiential” entertainment installations are in the news. April sees the opening of the Department of Wonder, taking a 10,000-sq.ft., location in Sugar Lands, Texas. This claimed “mixed reality fantasy’ experience has guests moving through a highly-themed environment, with only a magical lantern, activating MR elements as they progress through the fantasy setting – unravelling the story behind the adventure through puzzle solving. The interactive experience is supported by live actor interaction, offering a unique environment for ages from four-years and older. This is the latest example of a MR-based themed site, although it is unique in being aimed at a permanent installation – with London’s ‘Tomb Raider Experience’, and the previous ‘MagiQuest’ installations, all sitting in the same category.   

Speaking of mixed-use leisure entertainment (MULE) venues, and it was announced that innovative operators of Two Bit Circus have agreed to open a second version of their “micro-amusement park”. The first venue opened in Los Angeles back in September 2018. Now the company has signed for their second site to open in 2023 in Dallas, Texas, in a 35,000-sq.ft., facility. The new venue will employ many of the lessons learned from the first site, and will include new attraction and entertainment elements, including what are called “extended reality” experiences. This, and a mix of hospitality, hopes to be the latest phase of rolling out the brand to a wider audience.  

Continuing with Las Vegas, and news was revealed that the Formula 1 circus will be coming to the city in November 2023. Las Vegas will be added to the World Tour as the latest street circuit race on the calendar, with a planned night race. And for the first time since 1985, the F1 race will be held on a Saturday. F1 and Liberty Media will be joint promoters of what they feel will become one of the most iconic racetracks in the world – the course of the circuit will pass many Las Vegas landmarks, including the new MSG Sphere. At the same time, the investment in eSports surrounding F1 has mushroomed in recent years, as we reported previously regarding examples like the Formula 1 motor sports team Williams Racing increasing their investment into dedicated eSports events. 

One of the iconic FEC brands of the Las Vegas area had been the chain GameWorks. The popular LV Gameworks site had been one of the victims of the collapse of the chain, but it was revealed that negotiations had started for the operation to reopen under a new management team in the coming months. One GameWorks location that has started a soft reopening in April was that in Newport, Kentucky. Now under the Velocity Esports name, the previous GW location has undergone a major rebranding, while still retaining many of its original amusement pieces. The new company owning the operation, founded in November 2021, hopes to roll out several locations – starting with their first venue that comprises an increased eSports, simulation, and hospitality component to the original brand, under the new tagline “Next Level Gaming, Next Level Fun”. Velocity Esports, along with their eSports and entertainment venue plans, also operates an online eSports competition platform serving live tournaments sessions.   

The eSports sector is in serious transition at present, with increased investment there has also come major restructuring from major players in the scene as the sector matures. It was revealed that one of the largest eSports investors, Tencent, had decided to close their game streaming operation Penguin Esport. It had been originally stated that the Chinese entertainment combine had proposed folding Penguin Esports into a single company, with Huya and DouYu, but these plans were blocked through Governmental concerns over antitrust. This development has so forced what Tencent called a change in the business development strategy and will result in other consolidations of interests based on the country’s regulations.  

While Chinese regulatory bodies limit the reach of eSports and streaming services, major developments in the US saw the latest appearance of eSports betting endorsement at State level. The operation Esports Entertainment Group was reported as having left the “soft play” phase of their business and commenced full scale eSports betting through their ‘VIE.gg’ platform – as supported by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. This marks the first operation to be granted full eSports betting rights in the State, as well as being the first licensed eSports-focused betting site in North America, with wagering offered through the website across all the major eSports games. The operation has also launched Live events that were the first to include skill-based wagering, which saw Esports Entertainment Group and LANDuel sponsor an eSports event at the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City, attracting some 300 on-site spectators and another 16,000 livestream viewers.

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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