#1125 – Entertainment Embraces New Trends

During these challenging times, the investment in new trends is pivotal to the survival of many businesses. The vacuum created by the current business pressures sees the inclusion of Drones and Robots into the entertainment mix, from delivery to gaming. While at the same time, investment in VR into the Japanese amusement scene is rethought, while others double down on the possibilities to greater revenue this business has to offer.

The #RobotsAreComing

Many of you who follow our social media feeds, as well as our coverage in The Stinger Report, will be aware of the growing trending topic of the deployment of robotic and autonomous systems into the retail, hospitality and even entertainment sector. Having been in development for many years, a combination of staff shortages and the Global Health Crisis has seen an increased investment in the use of these systems in basic food and drink preparation, and food order delivery.

Seen in China, several restaurants opened with the use of food preparation from autonomous platforms, and the delivery to table via delivery robot. Most recently, those very same delivery robots have been deployed on test in US bowling alleys. The bowling equipment supplier, BowlMarc, signed an agreement to offer Pudu Robotics units to operators and, meanwhile, the UK’s new ‘Gravity Wandsworth’ entertainment facility deployed three Pudu delivery robots. The operator of the entertainment venue states to media that the robots’ deployment was to address current staff shortages. The need is blamed on a shopping-list of spiralling costs, Brexit, and the impact of the pandemic.

The use of a mechanical device to deliver items is not a new concept, able to be traced back beyond the Dumbwaiter of the 1840s, or the use of vacuum tubes in offices and department stores – affectations that became popular after the 1918 influenza pandemic, when menial labour was in short supply. But with the ability to deliver a guest’s food order to their table, the basic conveyor belt sushi restaurant approach has been superseded by the deployment of autonomous robot delivery.

The warehouse and logistics industry has fully embraced both warehouse packing and retrieval robots, as well as supermarket packing and delivery systems. Modern variants are able to retrieve items and place them in bags for delivery at a faster pace than any human employee – married to an Autonomous Vehicle for the actual grocery delivery to customers’ doors, and the full circle has been created of the science fiction utopia. 

Robotic service at venues has also been seen in the food and beverage preparation aspects. Already seen in China, meals are being prepared in new specialist venues, such as the ‘Robotic Restaurant’ (Guangzhou), which comprise automated services, food preparation, and a unique ceiling-mounted delivery system. In America, there have already been tests undertaken using robotic burger flipping and food preparation. The fast-food chain White Castle announced the purchase of some 100 food preparation robots to be placed in a third of their venues. The Miso Robotic ‘Flippy 2’ system is configured for the burger preparation duties in the fry station of the restaurants.

Other aspects of the service culture are also being supported – already, the UK will see the placement of the first permanent bartender in a soon-to-open immersive entertainment venue. The franchised SandboxVR location will be operating a Makr Shakr ‘TONI’ cocktail service robot at their London location. This is the first permanent deployment of such a system, although over the years, many venues in the UK have experimented with robotic barkeeps – early outings proving extremely temperamental and the first was ‘Cynthia’s Cyberbar’, opened in 1999. However, with the advancements in robotics, the new platforms prove extremely reliable. Already, the coffee shop business is looking at robotic coffee baristas as a possible future direction.

While some may claim that these autonomous food and beverage servicing and preparation systems are a result of the Global Health Crisis, they are much more than that. The development of robotic support in these areas is an amalgamation of growing hiring costs, new technology, and also customization. The ability for, in many cases, the customer to directly order and customize their selection, from their smartphone app, allows a greater variety of offerings with minimal increased upcharge. The novelty of these systems also offers what some call “Performance as a Service”, as these robotic systems generate guest interest, and so ensure new repeat visitation – so important in a crowded market.

Speaking of robots and drones, and the “Live Play” scene continues to grow, this time in Japan, and the formation of the Japan Drone Fight Association (JDFA) was marked. This is a group linked to the popular new sport of “Drone Fight” – a sport that sees modified racing drones used to burst balloons. The competition has been gaining in popularity since its launch last year and has seen several streams promoting the competition. The balloons are mounted on a stand, and the players use their skill of controlling their drone to ram and burst the balloon against their competitors. The simplicity of the challenge, and the ubiquity of aerial drones, has seen this challenge grow – and already entertainment facilities are including ‘Drone Fight Arenas’ (called ‘BANGPOINT’) within their locations. 

The concept of drone balloon competition can trace its roots back to 2019, when the first “Balloon Bursters” competition was held, followed by others until it held its third competition in 2020 – with this the organization started to solidify and became ‘Drone Fight’, with the JDFA organization founded March of 2021. The association and its members have been created to create national guidelines and best practice amongst the operation, and to organize national and global conventions based on the competition, which will elevate the action to eSports style entertainment. It is expected that the first example of ‘Drone Fight’ will make its way to the West in the coming months. Already in the amusement scene, there is a drone competition platform (Drone Interactive), and we have seen some other new entrants.

It was announced that the Electronic Playhouse venue would be one of the first Western locations to install a ‘Micro Drone Racing’ attraction. Developed in partnership with a collective of Mexican drone pilots, called ‘Nuevo FUEGO’, the attraction has been designed for players of all levels of skill to be able to pilot the drones safely, and take part in competitions. The venue will be holding tournaments and a championship finale in support of the new attraction. It is expected that other drone-based entertainment experiences will be released soon.

Birth of Amusement Theme Parks

We see an important anniversary, in a year of important footnotes, in the establishment of the modern business – nearing the 30th anniversary of the creation of an entertainment business trend, that would see great investment and would inevitably lead to the Mixed-Use Leisure Entertainment (MULE) business that we see today.

In 1993, the opening in Tokyo, Japan, of the ‘Taito Park – Cannonball City’ facility would mark a milestone in the power and investment of the Japanese amusement trade. TAITO, at the time, invested $30m in the development of what could be best described was an Americana-themed entertainment hub, comprising amusement, attractions, and hospitality. The amusement factor would even develop specialized deluxe amusement pieces to operate within the site, such as the 360° rotational ‘Super D3Boss’ simulator, as well as unique attractions such as the ‘Knock Back Car’ power-sliding cart experience. 

The reason for the importance of this milestone, was that this marked the move towards “Amusement Theme Parks” (ATP), with the upscaling of the traditional video amusement environment, into a dedicated park experience. From this, SEGA would develop their “EN-JOINT SPACE” business strategy for centers, that would evolve into the ‘SEGA World’ and ‘JOYPOLIS’ concepts; NAMCO would launch their ‘Wonder Egg’ venues; and SNK their ‘Neo-Geo World’ sites. We would see a migration to considering interactive (large-scale / high-entertainment) and not passive audience-based experience – in a social environment (regional entertainment).

These “High-Entertainment” attractions would come in many guises but would build on Japanese video amusement prowess towards a new genre of audience interactive engagement. This would be best illustrated by the 1993 release of the ‘AS-1’ from SEGA – a fusion of commercial simulator motion technology from manufacturer Moog, combined with cutting-edge CGi and video effects by the newly-created SEGA AM5 team and partners Showscan, all supported by special interactive experiences for up-to-eight players, and with the experiences including branching narratives. The system (labelled a “Virtual Ride Motion Theater System”) would be released as part of the EN-JOINT initiative, to create attractions to populate the new generation of ATP (Amusement Theme Parks) envisaged by the corporation. And soon, other original concepts would be added to the list.

While marking the 1993 appearance of these systems and the opening of the first environments, much of what had been expected from this new business model had been trialed back in 1990 – the year prototype High-Entertainment platforms had been revealed during the Japanese Amusement Machine Show. The conventional amusement trade was confronted with these “Super Deluxe” platforms, expensive game systems that would be out of the reach of only a select few operations, and manufacturer-run ATP venues. Suddenly, the traditional amusement trade was confronted with a business model where they would be unable to compete. So was born the descent towards supporting the ATP initiative – a strategy to force manufactures to return to selling hardware appropriate for the wider market than exclusive venues.

By the end of 1999, most of the investment into ATP would be over – the high cost of manufacturering and operations made them difficult bedfellow with the traditional amusement business. SEGA would hive their facility operation into a separate division, which in turn would see China Animation and GENDA take control. While TAITO, NAMCO and SNK would unceremoniously shutter their facilities. But once again, the MULE approach to ATP rises in popularity. Spurred on by more cost-effective and advanced technology, and a will by a new industry to establish this blend of entertainment and excitement into a model that can work internationally.  

Japanese Amusement VR Progress

While the dream of the ATP had been banished from most Japanese amusement factories, so they still clung to the possibility of defining their places in the evolution of the entertainment space business. BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment, following their merger, restructured business plan and worked on a secret project internally, one they felt would redefine their stature in the facility operation business.

Building off the sudden resurgence of interest in VR, the company set to work developing a range of amusement-based VR attractions, that would build off their extensive video game pedigree and would project them in the lead of deploying this technology into amusement and facilities. At the same time, a unique environment would be designed to house these new VR attractions, and even be part of a wider global project to open venues internationally, all based under the ‘VR ZONE Project i Can’ brand. The company’s ambitious plans saw initial ‘VR ZONE’ venue openings, showrooms for the hardware, and evaluation of audience reactions. Things proved positive, and the team behind “Project I Can” cultivated a brand image, promoting their virtual reality experience.

Soon a flagship facility would be needed that would house a dedicated space for the entertainment. ‘VR ZONE SHINJUKU’ would open in 2017 – two floors of dedicated VR entertainment, with some hospitality and active entertainment. The concept saw long crowds wait to try the VR experiences, and to marvel at the unique design. But the storm clouds were circling. While popular, the actual repeat interest in the amusement experiences was not compelling, and their development was an expensive drain on resources. The high price of development and operations proved uneconomic, and the amazing profits predicted from the venture in the ‘VR ZONE’ did not materialize. In a repeat of history, the Shinjuku location was developed on a temporary lease, as had been seen with the corporations previous ‘Wonder Egg’s ATP projects in the 1990s. And so, in 2019, the flagship ‘VR ZONE SHINJUKU’ site would shutter permanently.

Attempts to find international operators of the smaller ‘VR ZONE Portal’ concept would prove challenging, with BANDIA NAMCO partnering with operators, as seen in partnership with Hollywood Bowl in the UK, who operated portals at several their sites until recent changes in their business model saw them removed for more conventional amusement. But other ‘VR ZONE Portals’ still are in operation, including at ‘Namco Funscape’ in Manchester, ‘Tenpin Acton’ in London, and ‘Pathe Cinema’, in France. While in Japan, attempts to repackage the ‘Project i Can’ concepts within the ‘MAZARIA’ facility concept would be even shorter lived, with the 19-attraction space, shuttering after only a few months of operation.

While the ‘Project i Can’ approach may now have been retired, BANDIA NAMCO is still active in applying VR within the amusement remit of its business. The company’s satellite distribution in the West has installed the TRIOTECH ‘STORM’ and Raw Thrills ‘King Kong’ VR platforms in several locations, and seen strong revenue generated from this Western-based approach to the needs of the modern operator. While in Japan, the parent corporation has started a process of repositioning their amusement facility business.

For the rest of the Japanese amusement factories dalliances with this emerging technology, CAPCOM has invested in several projects for their facilities which incorporate VR, most recently with ‘ROCKMAN VR’ and ‘BIOHAZARD: Walkthrough the Fear’ and ‘Valiant Raid’ (partnering with VAR Live). The experiences were launched at CAPCOM venues as part of their ‘VR-X’ initiative, creating their own VR showroom to preview this technology. Meanwhile, SEGA, through their partnership over the ‘JOYPOLIS’ ATP operation (under the ‘CA SEGA JOYPOLIS’ brand), has continued to include a VR offering, most recently deploying the Zero Latency free-roaming VR experience on property. 

It seems that, under the new period of re-invention, the territories leading operators strive to find the right mix needed for the modern amusement venue audience.

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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