#1204 – Beyond Virtual – New Immersion

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The development of the next generation of audience-based experiences are seen following the developments in theater business. Along with the investment in new chains of Location-Based Entertainment (LBE) venues, and the opportunity for driving the immersive experience business.

The New Immersive Auditorium

Following the developments at CinemaCon’24, as seen in our previous coverage, we see a drive for the next generation of audience experience. This was illustrated with the news that CJ 4DPLEX and D’Place Entertainment announced their partnership to bring the new ‘ScreenX’ auditorium platform to the North American market, increasing their market penetration. It is this drive for a more immersive audience experience that has been seen receiving serious market investment – a kind of “Cinema 2.0.” to offer a compelling experience for an audience looking for the next big thing.

The growth of audience-based experiences comes on the heels of the claims that Virtual Reality (VR) would be driving this investment. Now, some ten years after the big investments were made into consumer VR, many are now recognizing that the technology offers a much too solitary experience, and the reality is that entertainment needs to support group engagement. So, we have seen the rise in the XR market of a new term of engagement with “Shared Reality” (SR). The term is finding favor with the new “Immersive Entertainment Venues” (IEV) and “Immersive Gallery” locations. The employment of the latest project and display technology is being used to enthral large groups of visitors within immersive and interactive experiences.

This shared reality experience is being championed by the likes of Cosm – the corporation born from the merger of planetarium, and big screen projection specialists Spitz, and Evans & Sutherland, CGI, planetarium, and simulator specialists, combined in 2006, with the Cosm brand established in 2020, adding LiveLikeVR to the operation. From this pedigree in planetarium, audience display and immersive educational content, the new operation started work on developing a new platform for large audience entertainment, with a high level of immersion, and built on the experience achieved from planetarium development and installation.

Cosm entered the immersive venue scene with plans to open, in June, their ‘Cosm Los Angeles’ venue (with a planned second site scheduled for Dallas). It is set to comprise an immersive 87-ft., 12k screen system, aimed at achieving a SR environment for an audience of 2,000 both seated and standing – with example experiences recreating sports events viewed from the touchline. It offers a recreation of a screen experience, supported by specially curated content, and a dedicated food and drink element. Cosm is partnering with several providers, including NBC Sports, to deliver live events, along with a partnership with ESPN to showcase their live sports from the NBA playoffs, UFC fights, and US Open Tennis, beamed to their “shared reality” environment. This demonstrates a new social entertainment platform, with group hire and private events being part of the venue business plans. The flagship LA site will be used to prove the business model towards the Dallas opening in 2025.

Regarding others working in this aspect of the sector, we have also seen the launch of the MSG Sphere project (operated by Sphere Entertainment part of Madison Square Garden Network), focused on immersive live performances along with sports events and edutainment experiences. Originally, the launch of the Las Vegas Sphere opened in 2023, and is soon to be followed by a new project to open as part of the Abu Dhabi mega-project and sports stadium, although information is still in discussion at this point. Sphere Entertainment announced the acquisition of HOLOPLOT during May, taking control of the remaining shares of the 3D audio company which has been instrumental in developing the ‘Sphere Immersive Sound’ platform powering the experiences. These advancements come with their own challenges, as the concept of the large immersive display venue is not right for all localities – the corporation recently announced the abandonment of plans to develop a version of their venue for a previously announced London location.

Likewise, we have seen Illuminarium – another immersive projection concept which has started to look to defend their project in this restructuring market. The company now included interactivity (Gamification) in their experience, with the launch of ‘Lite-Brite’ – a walkthrough experience featuring guest tracking to interact with the projected images. The installation of this new approach has been on test at their Toronto facility and the other two venues are expected to include this soon. But one of the biggest developments sees the pivot to adding a greater interactive experience with an off-the-shelf VR attraction. It was announced the new Atlanta Illuminarium site will now run ‘Horizon of Khufu’ – an adventure through the wonders of ancient Egypt, and the Khufu valley, developed by Excurio Immersive Expeditions, and operated by Eclipso. This is a move away from the original passive experience focus. We have previously seen the creation of non-interactive 45-minute ‘WILD: A Safari Experience’ and ‘Spacewalk’ cinematic content from the corporation. Pivoting to now, the operated VR content seems to fly in the face of the original promotional material for the site, stating “Illuminarium exemplifies a “VR, without the glasses” experience.”

Immersive Interactive LBE

The drive towards adding an immersive experience is now also being matched by the moves to ensure an interactive element to these experiences, towards generating the all-important repeat visitation. When talking of these types of immersive sites, we also need to remember there is Electric Playbox – soon to open their second site in Vegas and offering interactive projection with a strong interactive game narrative. The investment in a greater F&B element, as well as immersive dining, are all elements driving the placement of the new Vegas site, based on the success of their original venue. Hopes to generate that repeat visitation have been seen in immersive LBE venues, with the offering of audience based “watch parties”. Building on their “experience economy” shared experience, social entertainment venues like F1 Arcade have championed the inclusion in their lineup of watch parties based around International Grand Prix events – with other venues including a sports fixture in their promoted events.

We have covered several LBE VR operations – and the changing conditions. The early days of more entrepreneurial operations are now being superseded by the deployment of franchise operations. We have charted Zero Latency and their growth through a dedicated franchise program, and others are following this lead. It was announced that SandboxVR, the heavily supported LBE VR free-roaming venue chain, has moved into a new phase of business with a new global franchise operation, offering a program for North America. Of the 46 currently opened SandboxVR venues, 32 are company-owned, the rest selected franchisees. Now the company is opening the door on accepting more franchisees.

Part of the expanding SandboxVR offering also saw the announcement of the latest licensed IP content for their free-roaming platform. The company is working with Netflix on their latest VR team game experience, based on their streamed property. This time they announced the new ‘Rebel Moon Experience’, based on the recent hit streamed series. This hopes to repeat the $4m ticket selling success of the other Netflix license with ‘Squid Game Virtuals’.  SandboxVR has also announced franchise deal with Apparel Group, a global fashion and lifestyle retailer, with over 2,200 stores across 14 countries. This collaboration will begin with 25 locations in the Middle East incorporating the VR free-roam LBE property by the end of 2028 – adding to the current 40-odd SandboxVR locations.

Regarding other LBE VR openings, we have seen DIVR Labs, famous for their Westfield-based VR units in London, announce the development of their new ‘DIVR Immersive Arena’ – a self-contained attraction system based on PC streamed VR, using HTC VIVE Focus 3 headsets and haptic vests. The first of these new platforms opened in the Yokohama World Porters mall, Japan, earlier in the month, and is part of an Asian rollout for the company. Another arena platform rollout was announced with the opening of a new ‘Metaverse VR theater’ from Exploring Digital. Launched at OWA Parks & Resort, the Gulf Coast’s largest entertainment destination in the area, this is part of a rollout of their own in this sector, promoting their several VR experiences. Veteran VR arena-based chain operation Zero Latency also announced the latest opening of a franchise VR free-roam arena with the France-based TAG E-Karting & Amusement, placing their free-roam platform in the 6,000-sq.m., two-floor location.

New Venue Conception

The Japanese capsule vending phenomena makes its latest landfall in the West, after the opening of the BANDAI NAMCO Cross Store and its extensive Gashapon “Vendertainment” offering in London. This has been followed by a Californian site and, in April, the opening of a mega installation. The Oakland Mall in Michigan became the home of a brand-new Official Bandai Gashapon store – comprising some 500 capsule vending units and offering the latest imported toy ranges. This is a major undertaking, and the latest and largest, deployment of the capsule-based vendor in the States, let alone outside of Japan. While major installations have been experimented with by the likes of Round 1 USA, this marks the first major move to establish the capsule toy collectable in the States and saw members of the Japanese operation make the trip to the States to help with the installation. It is operated as a franchise, by an operator owner associated with enlivening the mall location, and we look forward to reporting on developments in applying this cultural concept to the American customer base.

The Emoji Company GmbH corporation announced a partnership with UNIS Technology, combining forces to launch a chain of family entertainment centers – which will be branded ‘Emoji Planet’. These arcade centers aim to offer a bright and vibrant venue to immerse players within the brand. UNIS will be providing amusement and prize hardware themed on the IP. The Emoji brand covers some 2,000 trademarked icons and designs globally, generating revenue of over $3b during the last six years. This also includes globally recognized IP with partners such as PUMA, L´Oreal, and Burger King. The brand also received a movie release through Sony Pictures Animation, seeing an international box office of $200m. UNIS already released a series of Emoji redemption pieces, and this deal will see wider adoption of the brand in entertainment venues.

Latest Competitive Socializing

Another ex-Debenhams department store is about to be turned into a social entertainment space, with the news that TOCA Social will be opening their second site in the UK in Birmingham, planned for June. The new venue will comprise 23 interactive football boxes (each box able to accommodate 12 players), with a selection of five games; along with four bars across the two floors of the facility (this is the second facility since the 2021 London venue). The venue opening is tied into the Euro 2024 football event, with several German-themed experiences tied to the football-themed venue’s opening.

The UK will also see the opening of the latest Electric Shuffle venue, this time in Manchester. The gamified social entertainment shuffleboard venue will also be opening in June. It is operated by Red Engine, the company which is also is responsible for the Flight Club chain of gamified darts locations. The new Electronic Shuffle venue will include the signature tables and an extensive cocktail and food service. There are plans to see further expansion of the chain, with reports suggesting Oxford, Liverpool, and New York openings before the end of 2024.

Meow Wolf announced that it will be laying off some 165 positions from the operation. The immersive art installation and marketing operation is famous for the ‘Omega Mart’ installation at AREA15, the opening of the Convergence Station art installation in Denver, and the ‘Real Unreal’ permanent exhibition in Texas, along with other installations. The operation worked on a consumer VR mini-game project, ‘Walkabout Mini Golf: Meow Wolf DLC’, in collaboration with Mighty Coconut. This latest development follows the 2020 layoffs from the company that saw 201 staffers laid off, with the layoffs blamed at the time on the then ongoing COVID situation. These latest layoffs were reported as being significant from the over 1,000 workforce (10-percent) – although the number may change following discussions with Unions in the impacted localities. This news seems to conflict with plans to see Meow Wolf open a new office in Houston, as well as announcing plans for a 2026 opening of a new Meow Wolf installation in Los Angeles. The corporation has seen extensive management changes over the recent months, and even announced the selection of a former Disney executive to their board.

As we mentioned previously, regarding the draw of an audience through watch parties, F1 Arcade has also been in the news regarding the accelerated rollout plans of their F1 branded race simulator and hospitality chain. The operation saw their Boston opening in April, marking their first US installation. The appearance of a race sim facility with a F&B element offers an interesting blast-from-the-past to consider. We wonder if there is anything to be learned from another social entertainment racing facility chain that launched over 15-years-ago. Known as ‘NASCAR Sports Grille’, the concept comprised a restaurant and bar design, supported by several racing car simulators. In what was seen as a defining moment for “eatertainment”, this casual dining and entertainment venue would see sites opened in Florida, South Carolina, and Indiana. However, attempts to define the brand and offer a compelling entertainment engagement, along with its hospitality, became a serious challenge for the operator and the sites would close in ignominy.

The interest reignited by F1 Arcade in this approach has seen other developers looking to throw their hats into the ring, offering a CompSoc racing venue. Hopefully, they will be able to learn from the mistakes that the NASCAR Sports Grille envisaged and build off the interest in racing and eSports, without losing sight of the entertainment element and repeat visitation needs.

About the author call_made


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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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