#1124 – Immersive Entertainment’s Continued Momentum

An overcrowded few weeks continues for the LBE, amusement, and technology sectors, with the latest development shaping facility business investment and acquisition. We see the holding of one of the largest AR and VR technology conventions, and the beginning of summer is marked by the holding of the first in a long-time physical UK amusement distributor gathering. 

Facility Chains Invest to Stay Relevant

The momentum in the location-based entertainment scene has gathered more pace (if that was possible), with several new developments revealed. The end of the Licensing Expo saw announcements ranging from the launch of the new ‘Nerf Action Xperience’ from Hasbro, and the ‘Mattel Adventure Park’. But these were just the start of several new developments revealed. One of those marked the latest “dipping of the toe” by the largest entertainment operation, Walt Disney Corporation, into the LBE sector. It was revealed by local Chicago media that ‘Pixar Putt’ would be opening in the city at Polk Bros Park at Navy Pier. This temporary crazy golf installation is to be opened from May to August, based on the popular ‘Toy Story’, ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Monsters Inc.’ movie characters. 

Developed by Rockefeller Productions and TEG Life Like Touring in partnership with Disney, the concept even features an “after dark” element for older guests – with this being the first in a series of temporary LBE installations planned. Walt Disney has dabbled in the LBE sector with its short-lived ‘Club Disney’, ‘DisneyQuest’ and ‘ESPN Zone’ properties (at that time under the Disney Regional Entertainment helm). Likewise, with the shuttering of many Disney Stores in a recent purge, the operation has been reinvestigating the use of properties in high-foot-traffic locations to promote its brand. 

The concept of repurposing previous retail department stores and spaces with entertainment is often labelled “Retailtainment” – although this is not a very accurate expression of the various applications of entertainment within a space previously occupied by retail, be it a hall or standalone unit. We have seen Gravity Active Entertainment take over several previous Debenhams department stores in the UK, to turn them into Mixed-Use Leisure Entertainment (MULE) spaces. And in the States, it was announced that Launch Entertainment would be opening the 28th of their FEC branded ‘LAUNCH’ venues in Massachusetts – in a retail unit that had previously housed a ‘Toys “R” Us’ store. 

This has also seen reinvestment in existing models – the need for current facility chains to stay relevant in major times of change, as new properties appear on the landscape. This was illustrated with the announcement by CEC Entertainment that some 10 ‘Chuck E. Cheese’ venues in South Florida were receiving a full upgrade in their entertainment offering. This comprises video and redemption games and illuminated dancing floors. These site improvements will be rolled out across the over 600-venues in the coming months. While in the UK, Tenpin Entertainment Group invested some $300,000 into upgrading their bowling entertainment facility in Croydon, outside of London. The facility received the latest video amusement, and improved hospitality and decor. This was soon followed by ‘Tenpin Coventry’ reopening after a $630,000 makeover, in an overall refurbishment that will be rolled out across their own 47 ‘Tenpin Bowling’ venues. The need for the updating and, in some cases complete redesigning, of existing entertainment offerings to stay relevant has not been lost on operations who, in many cases, have not seen serious refurbishment and new investment in over thirty years.

An example of the need to stay relevant and address server neglect was revealed with the announcement in Intergame that the world-famous Circus Circus Las Vegas Hotel and Casino (first opened in 1968), would be seeing investment into their dilapidated amusement and entertainment offerings. It was revealed that an expected $30m will be invested into the operations, seeing particular focus on the ‘Adventuredome’ indoor theme park and ‘Carnival Midway’ amusements areas – with the purchase of new machines and the renovation of the locations. Reports had circulated, following the acquisition of the resort from MGM Resorts for $625m in 2019, that investment would start from the new owner into refurbishing the location – with an expected opening schedule of 2023. With new casino resorts, such as the new ATARI Hotel, scheduled to open soon with an extensive gaming element, it is expected that all venues will be looking to up-their-game.

The inclusion of a gaming element to the hospitality and hotel offering were previously reported in our coverage of the acquisition to form traded company Two Bit Entertainment. Interest in the resort and hotel business, along with FEC and amusement, has been fuelled by investment analysis that calculates the indoor entertainment market is anticipated to be worth more than $85b by 2028, according to Global Market Insights

Investment has continued apace regarding the establishment of “Competitive Socializing” properties, building heavily on active entertainment. One of those championing the move was soccer technology training developer TOCA Football. The company started in June by announcing a strategic partnership with Blue Sky Center. With this combined effort, TOCA stated this development makes them the largest indoor soccer center operator in North America. This move supports the efforts by the operation to roll out their ‘TOCA Social’ soccer entertainment chain – after opening the first facility in London during 2021, the company has revealed their second facility planned for Dallas in 2023.

This development will inject another four locations into the operation, and the corporation revealed they will instigate plans to acquire another 20 soccer training centers, and another three entertainment centers, in key US locations, for the end of the year. The TOCA Entertainment operation is alongside the original TOCA Football training operation – which originated the ball launching technology and facilitating the training and coaching. These programmable machines originate the “Toca” brand name (Spanish for “touch”).

MR Takes Center Stage

One of the most eagerly awaited of the technology events took place this month, with Augmented World Expo (AWE) 2022. This is the Mecca for all in AR and VR and an event that sees new start-ups rubbing shoulders with established technology firms – an event also known for very informative panel sessions, charting the zeitgeist of the immersive technology industry. 

On the Exhibition and Playground (demonstration) floor, we saw much interest from the latest VR and AR (and even true MR) developments. Regarding VR, while most of the developments shown had a focus on consumer (casualVR), there were some crossovers, such as the showing of the production version of the latest YAW VR motion seat. The ‘YAW 2 Pro’ was supported by Kickstarter investment, and now comes with a heavy-duty construction, hoping to offer commercial as well as consumer variants of their motion seat, looking at arcade and educational centers. To demonstrate, attendees were taken for a spin on the AWE’22 show floor. 

Another provider of advance VR motion seat technology, and a proven name in commercia (seriousVR) deployment, was Talon Simulations. The company came fresh with their latest update to the turnkey D&B VR motion system (running the new ‘Top Gun VR’ experience), coming to AWE’22 showing their ‘Talon Vortex’ platform, with standalone motion seat and tethered VR headset unit. Haptic motion seats, haptic vests and gloves were also previewed as means to increase the physicality of the virtual experience.

One of the demonstrations during the event was from a partnership between XCOM Labs – a developer of high-performance wireless technology – and the location-based re-launched TheVOID LLC. During AWE’22, the two companies demonstrated a wireless XR experience, with attendees donning HTC Focus 3 headsets, with haptic vest, and traversing an immersive environment, applying much of the Hyper-Reality effects that marked out the partners’ LBE experiences. And during the AWE panel session, answers were given to address the surprised appearance of TheVOID (what some were referring to as “VOID 2.0.”!). 

The session confirmed that, along with other issues, TheVOID had been a victim of the COVID situation – forcing the shuttering of their 17 venues. This new company was now emerging after the acquisition of the assets and brands (by holding firm Hyper Reality Partners). They were in serious discussion with Walt Disney towards being able to reopen, with updated versions of the original popular free-roaming ILMXLAB-developed game experiences. Now in partnership with XCOM Labs, this brings the ability to ditch the PC backpack and offer an HTC Focus 3 VR headset, supported by their 6E wireless streaming platform. As reflected in the previous Stinger Report coverage regarding streaming VR free-roaming, TheVOID LLC will be entering crowded waters, applying the wealth of recognition their brand has accumulated.

Streaming was on the agenda off the show floor, with the news that SynthesisVR, location-based entertainment (LBE) VR, content distribution, and facility management platform, had revealed their new VR streaming product to VR arcades worldwide through a co-development partnership with QuarkXR. The new platform offers LBEVR arcade operators an automated VR streaming solution, simplified to connect between the host PC and Android VR headsets (mobile processor standalone VR). The partnership with QuarkXR brings their VR streaming and a trusted solution provider for companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Vodafone, and Ericsson, among others. This marks the latest development in this line – most recently we reported on Dreamscape Immersion and Warner Bros. partnering with AT&T, on a proof-of-concept VR experience, as the migration to a streamed VR solution evolves.  

At AWE’22, the commercial side of competitive VR eSports was represented on the demonstration floor from VREL, with the company running their ‘VR Esports League’ service, bringing VR gamers together in tournament competition. The organization of leagues and competitions across the platform, with supporting teams, is seen as a lucrative aspect of the emerging VR games scene. Concerning VR game content on display that offered an LBE opportunity, developer Beatshapers is noted. This year’s show was clearly focused on Enterprise (seriousVR) applications for both AR and VR, with the consumer aspects seeming to be side-lined for the time being, as the scene awaits big announcements from Sony and Apple.

Moving from the VR to the AR, and examples with an audience experience were seen from exhibitor LBX Immersive – the team famous for their ground-breaking work on the original and current ‘The Unreal Garden 2.0.’, which the operation was demonstrating. The show floor had demonstrations of several new AR systems, with Magic Leap heavily previewing their second-generation glasses – now firmly focused for Enterprise utilization, after raising another $500m in 2021 (reaching a total of $35b). Meanwhile, the Tilt Five glasses were also seen in a production prototype form of their project AR system, offering a unique tabletop game demonstration, having raised their own additional $7.5m in 2020 (reaching a total of $9.3m). 

The education aspects of the scene and its importance including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) applications, were represented in numerous areas of the event. One of the many examples of how new technology is being applied was seen from Drone Cadets, an operation teaching future drone pilots, and training children in the basic operation – attendees at the show were taken through the basics of piloting. The interest in drones has been reflected in several entertainment venues offering drone-based attractions (covered later in this report).

This year’s AWE’22 show, while interesting with a well-attended gathering, was still just the start of a more decisive move towards a combined MR approach, rather than focused on any one VR or AR hardware. The imminent appearance of the Apple View glasses system that focuses on MR application, as well as Meta pivoting their ‘Project Cambria’ towards a MR future, is illustrating the constant drive to achieve mainstream adoption of technology, with the hardware still seeming to find its consumer legs. While at the same time, the event drew comparisons with Web3 and Cyberspace development – as the term “Metaverse” still seemed to be treated with derision.  

UK’s Amusement Trade Gathering

Celebrations of a return to physical trade gatherings continued in the UK, with the resumption of the well-loved Park Avenue Openday – a veteran gathering of the south of the country’s amusement trade, as well as a smattering of European visitors. Held in the influential Park Avenue suburb of London, which has seen many amusement manufacturers and operators make its home, there was also an air of celebration which affected the whole of the country, marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (70-years on the throne), with street parties and parades.  

The Openday is held between two amusement distributors along the street – United Distributing Company (UDC), the co-host of the gathering, who has been doing this for the last 35-years, threw open their showroom to guests. Along with the prize and mechanical redemption, the operation also represented what we feel is a great snapshot of the state of the video amusement and Videmption landscape.

One of the unsung successes of the modern amusement scene is Asia-based ACE Amusement, with the company having released a string of strong earning Videmption and video amusement, and their latest examples were represented by UDC – who have UK and EU exclusives, along with UAE representation. The company had their new shooter, ‘Galaxy Rangers’ – a light-gun title, with a ‘Halo’ vibe. The two-player game included some nicely designed weapons and a good cabinet layout. In a market bereft of decent light-gun games, this was a pleasant surprise. Other Ace Amusement titles on display included the previously seen ‘Dream Ball’, and ‘Sky Raiders’. We also had a chance to see the four-player Videmption title ‘Nitro Speed’. Along with their video ball rolling game ‘Bowling Champ’, and their video hoops game ‘Game On: Basketball’.

Another manufacturer who is offering originality which was represented by UDC at the event and in the market, was TouchMagix – the compamy was showing the award-winning ‘SpaceWarp 66’ in both deluxe and standard versions, along with ‘Carnival Cups’. Another innovative developer at the show was TeamPlay, with their ‘Launch Code’ Videmption. An additional video shooter on display was the four-player, mini-AK47 blaster ‘Mars Sortie’ – a fast-paced blaster with hordes of enemy to take down with a selection of pickups along the way. The game offers a strong competitive element with great pneumatic recoil.

UDC was also representing the video dancing stage developer Step Revolution, with an example of their popular ‘Step ManiaX’ product. This is a title that is seeing a resurgence in interest as the audience continues its thirst for active entertainment. While prize redemption is not our focus, the trends shaping the amusement market were reflected with the market success story of ‘Pearl Fishery’ (Playmore), the pearl-based pusher, which has proven the continued appeal of ticket redemption in the modern market.

Also, on the street, the other co-host organizer of Openday and veteran amusement powerhouse, Electrocoin, welcomed guests to see to both new products in their warehouse and great hospitality in the outside sunshine. The company can claim to be responsible for the popularization of the occasional distributor get-together, as it was their new showroom opening event in 1987 that started the established Park Avenue gathering. Back in the day, video arcade brands such as TAITO, Sammy, SEGA, NAMCO, SNK, Jaleco, Universal and CAPCOM, would have had representation at the event. This continues to this day, with Electrocoin representing KONAMI, soon to reveal the next in the ‘Dance Dance Revolution’ series for Western markets. And Electrocoin’s association with ELMAC Group (‘Ticket Easter’), was present at the event for over the last ten-years.

Electrocoin’s showroom, however, still proves an important presentation venue for third parties. These include the relationship with STERN Pinball, and their latest tables, and SEGA Amusement International (SAI). Along with the prize games, the company brought the Videmption title ‘Willy Crash’. The fun character plunger launching game, from Bay Tek Games, has been also turned into a mobile game app from the company, with a free download link advertised at the end of player’s game. This is an example of the profitable cross over between amusement and consumer.  

With all this amusement and a hoard of gaming platforms, the company reflected the key trends in the scene, with e-payment providers, and new spec crane machines, including capsule capable units. Whether we will see, in the UK market, an impulse to this system as has been seen in the Japanese market, will be spied upon closely. Beyond the new products, and gracious hospitality (including the indomitable Electrocoin Greek BBQ, and ice-creams), the Park Avenue Openday also acts as an excellent barometer of the health of the industry, with leading executives willing to share their observations on the state of the business, and the issues that are shaping their operations. 

The upsurge of amusement facility development in London was illustrated by the event host Electrocoin, who had opened a brand-new amusement facility in the center of the capital called ‘Funland’ – acting as both a revenue stream and also a test facility charting the audience’s pulse. The number of retro amusements placement has mushroomed, with venue chains such as ‘NG64: Arcade Bar’ and ‘The Four Quarters’ opening their latest sites in the capital – charting the growing Competitive Socializing trend in hospitality venues that The Stinger Report has been covering. How the traditional amusement trade will be able to adapt to this opportunity is in question on many minds.

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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