IMAX is going all in on virtual reality, with its first flagship consumer-facing IMAX VR Experience Centre opening its doors in Los Angeles earlier this year. Five more are planned for 2017 in locations like New York City, the UK, and China, with an eye on Japan, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Western Europe.
PCMag checked out the LA space this month. The partnerships are stellar and the content demos—which include flights of fantasy (a trip into Tatooine created by ILMxLABs), film-related experiences (John Wick from Sony), and VR showcases (Starbreeze, Survios, and Ubisoft)—are best of breed. But the execution is a bit odd. It looks far more futuristic in the marketing photos; in person, IMAX VR in LA looks like a home electronics showroom. There’s also a pervasive newly refurbished car chemical odor.
When you arrive, you pay at the reception desk; it’s $7 to $10 for each VR experience, though IMAX is experimenting with bundled pricing, too. Using a touch-screen display, you sign a waiver against injury, and get a pod number. A helper is at your pod where you strap on an HTC Vive $799.99 at Amazon for a timed experience; friends can sit in the pod and watch you fall flat on your face while you get your VR sea legs.
If the space is intended as a show-and-tell for industry executives and curious tourists after they’ve hung out at The Grove mall nearby, it makes more sense. Especially as the IMAX VR team is experimenting with different peripherals to give full body haptic sensations, like the SubPac, and trying out new devices and VR titles as they get released. But CEO Richard Gelfond’s vision is a consumer entertainment destination.
Perhaps they’re missing a trick? Let’s face it, no one really predicted the return of vinyl or the retro-vintage craze on social from Gen Y, Z, and whatever generation comes after them. If they really want to get into the “teenagers hanging out playing games” business, perhaps IMAX VR could reinvent the arcade. Yes, complete with Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and pinball wizards, Coca Cola in bottles, Dance Dance Revolution, and pervasive EDM audio when they’re not underneath a VR headset. Then maybe VR has a future as a consumer entertainment destination medium.
One group that doesn’t seem to have reservations, however, are investors. Participants in a newly announced $50 million dollar VR fund include Acer, CAA, China Media Capital, Enlight Media, The Raine Group, Studio City, and WPP. Technology innovation on the hardware front will come from partnerships with HTC, Starbreeze and its Star VR headsets, and Google.
The last one is the one to watch. IMAX has long prided itself on developing extraordinary image resolution and compression technologies, so a cinema-grade VR camera IMAX is developing with Google, due in 2018, will probably be fantastic.
And then there’s Hollywood. Gelfond opened the LA event by name-dropping a few content partners to look for in the coming months, including Warner Brothers/Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Westfield Corporation, Bold Capital Partners, and Steven Spielberg as first round investors in Dreamscape Immersive, “a ground-breaking technology” for which details are currently scant.
The only Hollywood type on hand at the demo was David Ellison (son of Larry and brother of movie mogul Megan), who was on hand to demo Archangel from his company Skydance Interactive, which will go live in July.
IMAX can afford to go big or go home on VR. It’s been in business since 1967, and Gelfond is a known risk-taker. With 1,145 IMAX theaters in 74 countries, the core business is secure; we’ll just have to wait and see if people want to trade popcorn and stadium seating for VR headsets and immersive movie going.