#1176 – The Gathering Storm in Reality

The summer holidays move to a close and the markets move head-long into the next phase of developments. We have reports from the largest gathering of the computer graphics industry, the investment into AR and VR applications feeling market impacts, and the way that IP from the entertainment scene is shaping park and venue development. 

Simulated Reality Takes to the Stage

One of the largest and most influential gatherings of 3D display, immersive technology, and computer graphics, was held in the USA during August. SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques) 2023 celebrated its 50th anniversary, holding a massive event at the LA Convention Center. The event comprised extensive presentations and conference sessions, and a dedicated exhibition and demonstration floor – all to attract some 15,000-computer graphics and animation professionals. It was all organized by the international Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics (ACM SIGGRAPH).

Free roaming VR experiences have grown in popularity with the move from the encumbrance of backpack PCs and difficult tracking systems. The latest camera-based tracking elements were on display at SIGGRAPH’23, showing how far things have advanced. On the Vicon booth was their latest Mocap (motion capture) setup, employing the company’s new 26 mega pixel motion capture camera ‘Valkyrie’. To show off the system’s capabilities, several demonstrations took place. One of those was from Dreamscape – known for their LBE VR operation – partnering with Vicon, to run a demonstration using markerless trackers based on a location-based virtual reality adventure called ‘The Clockwork Forest’. It was developed for Audemars Piguet, the Swiss luxury watch manufacturer, as a marketing experience.

The interest in full free roaming tracking was also demonstrated from competitor OptiTrack – another name in Mocap who has supported the LBE VR scene (such as their previous alliance for TheVOID). On their booth at SIGGRAPH’23 was a demonstration called “Track The Trike”. An enclosure of the booth was set up with an array of OptiTrack ‘PrimeX’ cameras, and riders on a special tricycle covered in active markers rode around a course setup in the field of the Mocap cameras. Wearing Meta Quest 2 VR headsets, riders traversed through a virtual environment, created on the Unreal Engine, while pedalling their vehicle, in a concept that would seem perfect for a VR attraction.

VR’s changing situation was reflected in presentations and private and public demonstrations during SIGGRAPH’23. As we will discuss later, the impact of the Apple Vision Pro reveal was being felt. Meta came to the computer graphic spectacular with demonstrations of their prototype concepts from their R&D teams. Concepts addressing retinal resolution (called ‘Butterscotch‘), and reprojection field-of-view (called ‘Flamera’), were all offering image density and better ergonomics. The company would go on to be awarded three prizes as part of the “SIGGRAPH 2023 Emerging Technologies” program.

Basking in the awards, the company made claims that these elements will be applied in future headsets in development, along with promoting their awards, hoping to prove a continued commitment to the scene. But, following the rumored shelving of the Quest Pro, some observers point to the promises made back in 2018 with the CV2 successor to the CV1 – which never was released after extensive showcasing of its then prototype. However, obviously, any advances will find their way into adoption down the path by the originator or other developers through this influence. 

Charting the new trends in the sector, and moving away from VR, SIGGRAPH’23 had a brand-new selection of “Simulated Reality” (SR) systems revealed during the trade event. SR is reflecting the move away from head-mounted display technology, and towards unencumbered representation of virtual elements. Display company Dimenco, a leader in 3D display technology, revealed their 8K ‘SR Pro Display’ range – employing eye-tracking that represents the image on screen as a perspective correct 3D element to the user. This effect is extremely convincing and impressed many who had a chance to use it during the event, even creating a 3D version of ‘Street Fighter 6’. The company came to the show with the news that Dimenco had been acquired by Leia, a 3D display and content services provider, to help steer the drive in this new application and offer a unified solution across all devices. This approach is seen as an important element in driving spatial computing adoption.  

One of the amazing inclusions to the tech on display, was a nod to the history of immersive technology. The SIGGRAPH organizers curated an immersive projection experience that offered an immersive tunnel to walk down, showing visuals of the milestones in computer graphics. Also on display was a VR demonstration of the famous Mort Heilig ‘Sensorama’ amusement concept – a restoration of a fully functional version of the concept intended to be completed soon, as reported by Forbes. Meanwhile, also display previous VR head mounted displays from the sectors history such as from NASA and VPL.

VR/AR Reconning

Developments in this sector are intended to see the acceleration of the adoption of mainstream immersive 3D experiences – with SR offering a new technology path for the creation of commercial and consumer immersion. This comes as investment support wavers regarding consumer VR applications. The news of next year’s launch of the ambitious Apple Vision Pro MR headset was seen as being at odds with the traditional thinking (and business plans) of VR manufacturers and developers. So much so that Samsung, screen developer and electronics giant with a major investment into VR technology, was linked to the cancelation of their planned new VR/AR headset. 

Samsung had partnered with Google and Qualcomm this year, towards releasing a new headset that would focus on a XR approach to the market and be a serious contender against the planned Meta Quest 3 release. Samsung had previously partnered with Oculus/Meta in 2015, with the co-developed Samsung GearVR platform. Now having re-evaluated the XR landscape, Samsung has been linked to the abandonment of their VR project – feeling it did not meet internal expectations. The company is said to be redeveloping the system towards looking to compete directly with the Apple planned release. One key factor here – while being more powerful than the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 processor, intended for the Meta Quest 3, Samsung’s intended Exynos 2200 processor for their XR headset was underpowered in comparison to Apple’s intended M2 processor.

The arms race in VR adoption had taken a serious hit, and much depended on the successful release of the Meta Quest 3 – especially in the face of the poor adoption of the Meta Quest Pro. More information on the difficult trajectory of developments from Meta’s Reality Labs group was revealed, as it was reported that the partnership with Meta and sunglasses brand Ray-Ban (EssilorLuxottica), to release an AR system, had seen poor adoption. Sources revealed that monthly users of the ‘Ray-Ban Story’ AR system had dropped to 27,000 – which was intended to be an everyday, stylish, smart glasses device. While overall sales had hit 300,000, no real retention of interest had been achieved. At the same time, Meta’s promises of releasing a new AR glasses system (codenamed Orion) have been delayed during major restructuring. Some still affirm it will receive a 2024 release but is greatly curtailed in its production run. 

AR, in general, is seeming to fail to achieve any of the promised goals in market penetration from any manufacturer, be it Microsoft, Magic Leap, Sony, Google, or Meta.  Much now rests on the. reaction to Apple’s entry into MR and the ambitious plans of Niantic, and whether Meta does release its next AR glasses – to prove the validity of the continued hype surrounding the technology. Further information will be revealed during the next Meta Connect conference, which returns to a live format.

Changing Park and IP Business

There is one property which is having major ramifications across videogame, movies, and now location-based entertainment. Nintendo and Universal (owned by NBCUniversal/Comcast Corporation) have seen a profitable partnership across these entertainment mediums. The success of the ‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ (the second highest grossing animated film of all time), was in support of the successful opening in Japan and California of the ‘Super Nintendo World’ gates at the Universal parks. This was reflected in the corporate report from Comcast, ending in June, that saw theme park earnings increasing by 32-percent – this factored across the Japan, California, Florida, and Beijing parks.

In the report to investors, special mention was made of the record quarter that Universal Japan had achieved, and that this had been repeated at Universal Hollywood – both benefiting from the opening and operation of the ‘Super Nintendo World’ gate. This new adventure land especially focuses on the IP of Nintendo’s Mario mascot and his universe; but also includes the implementation of immersive technology in AR-based dark rides, and interactive attractions and frictionless technology, as seen with the Magic Bands. At the same time, Universal confirmed to investors their plans to build a family-friendly park resort in Texas, as well as a new LBE horror attraction venue in Las Vegas, as part of the AREA 15 expansion. Overall, investors were told that 2022 saw unprecedented park attendance that pushed revenue substantially ahead of expectations – making the company bullish for their parks’ business future. 

As covered in The Stinger Report, the Nintendo inspired adventure represents a new future for technology application within the theme park sector, and those who attempt to ignore this will fall seriously behind. This was reflected in reporting from the Walt Disney Company, announcing to investors that their domestic park business has seen a moderation in demand during the back half of the year. This was blamed on inflationary pressures – but was seen by some observers as Universal parks benefiting from park goers, favouring the new Universal investment over a troubled Disney brand. This is a brand that has been mired in massive layoffs, union issues, poorly performing movie properties, and internal issues over messages.

Criticism has been laid at the door of Disney management over the handling of key movie properties – while at the same time, we see accusations over price gouging though the use of the Genie+ ticketing/booking app, and a general poor turnout at the parks, with trash visible, and poorly maintained areas. The impact of guests voting with their feet was best illustrated by the abandonment, due to poor reception, of the ‘Star Wars: Galatic Starcruiser’ – closed after just a year of operation (see our previous coverage on the AI impact on this project). With a lack of innovation and with wastage prevalent across the park operation, Disney is yet to field a truly interactive entertainment experience. A failure to innovate was revealed recently, with what the media called an epic tech failure, as Disney ticketing systems failed at Disneyland, forcing executives to sincerely apologize on social media. 

Meanwhile, even smaller resort and park operations open their own experiences. It was reported that veteran Sally Dark Rides, partnering with AlterFace Projects, had opened the ‘Treasure Hunt: The Ride’ at Daniels Wood Land (DWL) in California. The companies have developed what they describe as a multimedia interactive ride experience, which combines gameplay elements as the guests traverse the dark ride. It incorporates prop characters and interactive media-based targets that the players need to hit with their wand controllers, during this fantasy and piratically-themed experience. The attraction marries themed environments with immersive interactive game elements, to create an attraction aimed at the “new guest”. Gamification adds to the experience with collectibles, power-ups, and scoring – in the latest example of this approach being applied into the attraction scene. IAAPA, in November, will be seeing the announcements of several new attraction projects which incorporate Gamification at their heart – a trend others will ignore at their own cost. 

Speaking about Universal owners, NBCUniversal/Comcast Corporation, the success of park business was reflected in the bottom line, also sitting alongside the success of movie properties. As reported, the Nintendo property ‘Super Mario Bros: The Movie’, broke the box office record for a videogame-based film as well as an animated movie. Videogame and IP were major winners in the cinemas during the year – the Mattel toy brand exploded onto the silver screen with the success of the ‘Barbie’ movie, achieving the perfect storm and seeing a record breaking $1b worldwide box office shred with Warner Bros., Discovery.

The need to position prominent brands correctly for movie and streaming success was a factor in a decision by the other major toy brand, Hasbro. Famous for their successful ‘Transformers’ movie properties, the corporation has been looking to streamline its operation to weather difficult times in the streaming scene. It was revealed that the company has confirmed an agreement with Lionsgate to acquire their Entertainment One (eOne) movie and streaming production studios for $500m. This move follows the 2019 acquisition of eOne by Hasbro for $3b – during that time the toy and entertainment company moved to realign their plans to focus wholly on their own inhouse properties, which they will develop separately. 

With the coming amusement and attraction trade events, we will see the continued growth of big IP inclusion in design and presentation. The convergence between marketing of entertainment brands into the physical parks and attraction medium will come to define the future profitability of the business. We will be reporting on major developments to be announced in the coming months from the licensing and marketing industry, as reflecting their impact on the Out-of-Home Entertainment landscape.

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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