The IMAX VR Centers are Leading the Way for Virtual Reality

VR theaters and arcades look to be the immediate future of virtual reality.

It’s safe to say that virtual reality hasn’t been the explosive market many analysts had anticipated. While PlayStation VR has notched 1 million units in sales thanks to a lower price tag and an existing market of PS4 owners, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have struggled out of the gate, moving just 400,000 and 500,000 units in 2016, respectively.

Just early jitters? Maybe, but for platforms like these, virtuous cycles can quickly become vicious ones. Hardware needs content to be successful, and if the hardware doesn’t sell, the developers won’t come. It’s not Field of Dreams!

IMAX might end up being the savior. The theater company is opening up VR Centers around the world starting this year, taking the ownership out of VR. The new centers are like theaters for VR experiences — places where people can pop in and pay movie ticket prices to see what this new VR thing is all about.

The first IMAX VR Center opened in Los Angeles earlier this year. The VR theater consists of 14 12′ x 12′ pods — rooms empty save for the VR headsets and audio vests, which give VR games tactile feedback usually sorely missing from home VR. Customers pay $7 to $10 for tickets to VR games and experiences between 5 and 15 minutes, or $25 for a sampler of games that lasts 30 minutes.

Most of the pods have HTC Vive headsets, but as it always is, the good stuff is in the back. IMAX has reserved a couple of those pods for more intense experiences using Star VR headsets, co-developed by Acer and Starbreeze. If you haven’t heard of Star VR, there’s good reason. It’s only sold to enterprise customers — for entertainment like with these VR centers, or to businesses for training or monitoring uses. The everyday person can’t buy it, probably because it would be too expensive anyway! Besides the 5K displays, Star VR has a 210-degree field of view. That’s wide enough to mimic human field of vision, including peripheral vision, making for experiences that actually deliver on that promise of immersion. (Ed. note: I finally got to give Star VR a try earlier this month at Computex 2017, and while the expanded field of vision really gets you into the game, the image quality wasn’t as sharp as you might expect when you hear ‘5K’.)

But, what about those experiences? So far, a lot of them are companions to marquee movies. It’s the same idea as that 360-degree video made with The Jungle Book, but taken to the next level. When the LA location opened, the featured experience was John Wick Chronicles, a shooting game complement to John Wick: Chapter Two. That’s still running, along with companions to The MummyStar Wars, and Paranormal Activity. Those are joined by an assortment of new VR games, giving the whole enterprise more of an arcade feel.

There’s been nothing sluggish about the IMAX VR Center. IMAX has seen 20,000 different people come through those doors in Los Angeles over the first three months of operation, doing something rare for the nascent VR industry — exceeding expectations. It’s been successful enough for IMAX to hit the accelerator pedal. The second VR Center just opened in New York, but it’s not quite the same as the LA location. While the LA location is standalone, the New York location is opening within an existing theater — the AMC Kips Bay 15. That’s more along the lines of the vision laid out to me by IMAX Chief Business Development Officer Rob Lister when I spoke to him at CES in January. A lot of existing theaters now have empty rooms thanks to declining demand — Lister wants to put those rooms to use by replacing theater seats with those 12′ x 12′ VR pods.

There’s a big advantage to that. Lister talked about selling combo tickets, packaging a movie with its 15- or 20-minute companion VR experience. It’s a shrewd look at VR — suspecting that full two-hour VR experiences are going to be a bit too much for most people’s stomachs, Lister thinks these shorter experiences can give moviegoers a fun taste of VR that they’ll be willing to regularly pay for. The success of the LA center suggests that he’s onto something, but the New York location will really be the proving grounds for that idea.

Whether or not he’s right about the combo tickets, there’s no doubt that dedicated VR centers, be they at arcades or theaters, solve a lot of problems in the VR industry. While mobile VR (like Samsung Gear VR) has been more successful in terms of sales, the experiences are usually limited and passive. Getting a real, immersive VR experience still requires a full headset, but they require a VR-ready PC that most people don’t have, making the whole package cost upwards of $1,000. That’s too much to ask for something that currently exists only for the sake of entertainment. It’s also asking people to buy PCs, which many people just don’t have a need for thanks to smartphones.

It’s also asking for a lot of attention. Thanks to those smartphones, multitasking is the norm now — and VR requires your full attention to get that immersion. There’s not much value in VR if that immersion is broken by a phone call, or a child in need of attention, or the munchies. Roll that together with the high price, and it’s easy to see why home VR adoption has been slow.

Making VR a special experience that you go out for makes more sense in that light. By setting aside time for it, that immersion is going to be guaranteed. It’ll be a lot more enjoyable than trying to enjoy VR while navigating distractions at home, and there’s no expensive equipment to buy — particularly important when everyone knows that expensive equipment will be outdated in just two or three years.

The content problem is trickier. Slow home VR sales have put the industry in a bind — developers haven’t exactly been flocking to VR as a result. And, why would they? The need to create full 3D worlds that players can navigate has made VR development very slow and expensive. It’s hard to justify the investment when there’s not a whole lot of people out there to buy your game when you’re all done.

That’s led IMAX to try to lead the charge in content creation, too. They’re building a 3D VR camera in partnership with Google that’s due out in 2018, and they’ll be working to get that in the hands of developers when they’re done. They’ve also set up an investment fund with a few investor groups that will supply funds for 25 VR experiences, helping to mitigate risk for the developers involved. And, to top it off, they’re working with production studios to share expertise and new VR development tools to encourage those companion pieces.

It’s a pretty smart holistic approach to the VR market, and it could indicate the pent up demand for VR that everyone’s been looking for. Of course, we’re still in the first few months — 3D effects have come and gone in the same way multiple times, and VR has been tried before and failed, too. Time will tell if this new run of VR will prove to be another fad, or if audiences are really ready to embrace it as the next great medium.

If it is here to stay, the success of IMAX VR Centers could indicate that home VR really will succeed once costs have come down enough. We’re still several years from being at that point, but if theaters and arcades like these centers can keep the industry afloat in the meantime, it’ll buy that extra time that those home VR companies need.

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