IMAX’s one-of-a-kind VR center should prove tempting to shoppers who might wander across the street from the Grove, Los Angeles’s large open air mall. But IMAX is hoping to appeal to a different group of consumers with the next step in its VR ventures: moviegoers.
The location in LA, which offers customers a variety of virtual reality experiences at a variety of ticket price points, is IMAX’s first and flagship VR center. The company plans to open five more VR centers this year, and all of them will be inside multiplex theaters owned by the likes of AMC and Regal Cinemas.
The ploy? IMAX is hoping the teenagers selling you movie tickets will be able to convince you to shell out a little more cash for the chance to augment your moviegoing entree with a virtual reality dessert.
“We are going to be experimenting with different ticketing options, one of which will be a bundled option where you can see a movie, let’s say like Transformers, in an IMAX theater...and then as part of your ticketing package you would move from the IMAX theater to the IMAX VR center,” said Rob Lister, IMAX’s chief business development officer, said at the IMAX VR center’s press day.
“For an additional portion of that ticket you could experience the Transformers VR experience and become an Autobot, if that appeals to you,” he continued.
IMAX is working with partners in California, New York, the UK, and Shanghai to get VR experiences up and running in five multiplex theaters (two in NYC) this year, by carving out space either in unused auditoriums or highly trafficked lobby space. Ticket prices aren’t yet locked down, but Lister thought a reasonable estimate is an additional $10 on top of a $15 movie ticket.
“We’ve found so far the exhibitors we’ve talked to are eager to have the type of audience that gets drawn to virtual reality. It’s the demographic they really want,” Lister said. “By going with multi-user games, lots of displays and a really social environment we’re trying to make this a very social experience.”
“We’ll find out if it works,” added IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond.
Figuring it out
That’s been IMAX’s philosophy for the last five decades, to hear Gelfond tell it. He compared the company’s forays into commercial virtual reality to its early efforts to get IMAX into movie theaters in the first place. That involved a classic “chicken or the egg” type scenario: filmmakers wouldn’t shoot in IMAX without theaters in which to show IMAX movies, and exhibitors wouldn’t install IMAX theaters without more IMAX movies to show in them.
One of VR’s current problems is similar, Gelfond explained. “Whether it’s the lack of content or consumer access to headsets, [virtual reality] has been in a holding pattern, slow to go mainstream,” he said.
IMAX wants to change that by offering the public affordable and convenient access to VR games and demos in IMAX VR centers.
The space in LA houses multiple “pods” that each feature a unique experience, from Ubisoft’s multiplayer Eagle Flight to Starbreeze’s John Wick Chronicles. The experiences typically run seven to ten minutes, and customers can buy individual tickets or bundle deals.
“We’re still in that very early stage. We have people coming in who we have to go through what VR is,” said Brooks Brown, Starbreeze’s global director of VR. “We have people like my parents, from Denver, who’ve never done VR before this. They’re not alone. We had a 90-year-old guy with a cochlear implant – not a technology guy. We had an eight-year-old girl who came in for her birthday party with a bunch of her friends to do John Wick, which, shitty parenting aside, is hands down the most adorable thing maybe I’ve ever seen.”
Starbreeze, based in Stockholm, is most well known for its Payday series of bank heist shooter games. But the company has also invested heavily in VR, making its own impressive virtual reality headset, the panoramic wide-angle StarVR, in addition to the John Wick VR game, which at the VR center uses a replica MP5 machine gun as a controller.
Brown sees value for developers in the IMAX VR center as well as for customers. “I’ve launched a lot of games in my time,” he said. “To actually be able to sit and watch – we have an office upstairs and every day I’m down here for two or three hours watching people play, taking notes. I get to actually watch playtesting happen, which is invaluable in ways it’s difficult to explain.”
If you build it, they will come
The Los Angeles location had its soft opening in January, and in just over a month attracted over 5,000 customers, Gelfond said. Half of those visitors had reportedly never tried any VR headset, while a fifth of customers owned a VR headset but came by to try different experiences they couldn’t get at home.
Some of those experiences use additional tech like the SUBPAC haptic feedback vest or D-BOX’s “4D chair.” In SmartVR’s The Walk VR, a virtual reality tie-in with the 2015 Joseph Gordon-Levitt film, users walk across a slightly raised rail on the ground to simulate walking a tightrope.
These experiences would be hard to replicate at home, even for the most hardcore VR adopters. And the company’s executives stressed that everything from the technology and experiences present to the pricing models will be in flux until they determine what works best.
Colin Smyth, IMAX’s vice president of theater services, recounted the story of the Los Angeles IMAX VR Center’s first two customers, a couple who wandered across the street from the Grove the day the center opened. They thought it was a movie theater, and Smyth, standing out on the sidewalk, explained where they’d landed.
“Without hesitation the two of them just walked right in and bought our first two tickets,” Smyth said. He snapped their photo as they entered to commemorate the event.
“[IMAX] is approaching this space with some humility,” said Skydance Interactive CEO Peter Akemann. Skydance was present showing an early demo of its upcoming VR game Archangel, which the company plans to debut publicly at the IMAX VR Center around the same time the game launches in the summer.
“They’re really trying to explore what can be done. I’m really excited to be working with partners like that,” Akemann said. “All of us in the VR space, we’re not really competing right now. We’re all proving it. We’re all proving to the world what can be done.”