Welcome to the New Reality: Theaters Invest in VR for a High-Tech Consumer Experience

Virtual reality: In 2019, it may seem like it belongs to the province of museums, film festivals, and tech-forward consumers with the means and will to purchase an expensive personal device. But as VR technology has evolved over the past several years, so too has its accessibility. For some moviegoers, trying out the latest advances in VR is as easy as going to their local cinema.

It’s taken some time to get here. In 2016, Imax and a handful of investors created a $50 million fund to, explained CEO Richard L. Gelfond at the time, “fund VR experiences that excite and attract a larger user base to capitalize on opportunities across all VR platforms, including Imax VR.” Over the following two years, Imax VR installations could be found in select locations in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Bangkok, with custom VR experiences inviting participants into the worlds of Imax releases like Justice League and Creed II. In December of 2018, Imax announced to its shareholders that it would be shuttering its VR operations; all in-theater VR experiences that had not closed down already did so shortly thereafter.

Imax may be out of the picture, but that doesn’t mean the exhibition industry has given up on VR. Two Cinemark locations currently boast VR experiences: there’s San Jose, California’s Century 20 Oakridge theater and the Cinemark West Plano outside Dallas, Texas. The two locations work with two separate VR companies: The Void for West Plano and Spaces for San Jose. “We picked theaters that are not only in an innovative hub, in an area that made a lot of sense from a technology and VR standpoint,” explains Cinemark SVP marketing James Meredith, “but we also had to have a certain amount of available space in our lobbies where we could carve out a particular area to truly create an experience that was additive to the overall entertainment experience.”

North of the border, The Void installations can also be found in three of Cineplex Entertainment’s Rec Room entertainment centers, located in Edmonton, Alberta; Mississauga, Ontario; and Toronto. Cineplex’s recently announced upcoming entertainment complex in Winnipeg, Manitoba, will also have a VR component. Currently, The Void has VR experiences based on Star Wars and Ghostbusters, with a Marvel-themed experience forthcoming and Ralph Breaks VR, based on Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, in the rear-view mirror; Spaces is currently running Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future, where players try to hold their own against the eponymous killer robots.

VR experiences, argues Meredith, provide the same sort of benefit as, say, luxury seating or an expanded food and beverage menu. Sure, there’s big difference between stepping into The Void’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire to stare down Darth Vader and ordering a cocktail while you lounge in a luxury recliner. But the basic idea is the same: giving moviegoers a reason to unplug from their home-entertainment devices and come to the theater. Void and Spaces alike, says Meredith, are “focused on offering experiences that can’t be replicated at home.” 

“One thing that I’ve always believed is that you need to provide people a really good reason to get them out of the home and get them into [an outside] location,” echoes The Void co-founder and chief creative officer Curtis Hickman. The Void does that, putting participants wearing high-tech equipment on a “stage,” in VR parlance, where they can “freely roam around and explore big worlds from a major IP in a very experiential, almost Disney-esque way. It really does hearken people back to the original ideas of Walt Disney: transporting people to these places that they love. That’s really the foundation for what we do. We don’t provide an arcade experience, or even a video game experience.” The addition of environmental effects—hot air and motion effects in Secrets of the Empire to make participants feel like they’re on the volcano planet of Mustafar being shot at by Stormtroopers—further makes the experience more real than anything currently available through home entertainment. 

At Cinemark, notes Meredith, “we’re constantly trying to create an experience that, number one, can’t be replicated at home, and, number two, offers a different entertainment level for all our guests.” That means casting a wide net, offering entertainment options for fans of movies, big-screen sporting events, dining, gaming … and VR. So far, things are paying off. The chain’s Plano location is “in an area where there are a lot of Fortune 500 companies who have their headquarters in and around the area. It’s not uncommon for a group of four people, eight people, to come over at lunch and go through the [VR] experience. It’s a perfect amount of time. So you’re actually able to use the theater during times of day when it wouldn’t normally be busy.”

The Void and Spaces alike, Meredith adds, draw not just people from their homes or offices but from different cities entirely: “It’s not uncommon for somebody in Austin or another city in Texas to drive over to Dallas, because they’ve heard so much about the Star Wars Void experience. And we’re seeing that in the Bay Area, too, where people will drive from different areas to experience the Terminator Spaces experience.”

Another selling point of VR experiences is that they’re communal, not individual, experiences. We’re talking four people working together to fight Terminators, not four hundred people sitting in an auditorium to share the experience of watching a movie—but the concept, though scaled down, is the same. “It’s completely immersive,” says Meredith. “They get to experience it themselves—but they also get to experience it with guests. It’s that communal experience that people, especially in this day and age, are really reaching for.” 

With Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future, players also have the ability to keep score, “which makes for a lot of fun with groups of four, especially if people want to come back a couple of different times to try and beat their score,” says Meredith. “So there is truly a gamification model to it.”

With that word—“gamification”—VR touches on another trend that’s had tongues wagging over the last several years: e-sports. In the context of theatrical exhibition, this typically refers to theaters hosting events where guests can play (and watch others play) popular video games. It’s a huge draw in Asian markets and has begun penetration in the U.S. as well. The Nagra Kudelski Group’s myCinema is taking things in a different direction—one that integrates VR—with its RacerXClub, which puts players in the seat of racing cars and pits them against one another (and, potentially, against competitors in other theaters entirely) on virtual versions of real-world racetracks. The RacerXClub is available with the VR component (HTC’s VIVE Pro headset), or without—in the latter case, the player will watch the racetrack on a screen in front of them. Says Glenn Morten, VP, Strategy and Solutions at Nagra myCinema, they expect the first RacerXClub units to be installed—one in a theater, one in a family entertainment center—in August or September.

Other VR experiences are in the works from multiple companies working in the theatrical space. In addition to RacerXClub, myCinema is working on a “very interesting post-apocalyptic Paris experience. You sit in a chair, and you basically fly over Paris and through tunnels and everything else, and see the world after the apocalypse. It also is a competitive racing type of thing that you can do. But it’s a whole new world! It’s not sitting there in a car, racing.” This year’s CinemaCon also showcased VR products from 4D CJPLEX and MediaMation; the latter, called the Jurassic World VR Expedition, can currently be found in non-theater locations like Dave & Busters. Motion-seating company D-Box has also ventured into the world of VR, bringing its VR-augmented system to various event spaces over the last several years. And it’s not all about entertainment: ICE (Immersive Cinema Experience) has partnered with UK company Sinemas to create “Virtual Showrooms.”

VR and the movies, Hickman says: “They’re two different entertainment mediums that really help each other. The Void brings people to the location. It really becomes a supplemental piece of entertainment to any location, and a very impactful one.” 

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