A hot sun beats down on a bustling LA and I'm in the darkest room in the city. As I enter the building, it has all the makeup of your everyday cinema: ticket sellers stand at a counter with showtimes displayed behind them; ads for upcoming titles cover the foyer walls; and at the back of the room is a large screen playing trailers on a loop. Soon, a group of us are ushered through door and into next room, but the other side bears no resemblance to a screening room. Instead, the space is segmented into different areas - or "pods" as IMAX likes to call them - each with a different virtual reality experience for us to try.
People predicted virtual reality would reboot the arcade, and here's the evidence: the IMAX VR Experience Center, one of several theaters IMAX plans to roll out in the coming months. Virtual reality is exciting, but it's in a holding pattern and IMAX wants to kickstart it by giving people access to high-end, sometimes exclusive, experiences they might otherwise not be able to try. The experiences vary in type, length and price - five to fifteen minutes, $7 t0 $10 - but all of them are interactive.
Placed opposite the Grove shopping center on Fairfax Boulevard, IMAX is capitalising on some serious foot traffic for its flagship location which appears to be paying early dividends. In just over four weeks of being (quietly) open, some 5,000 customers have passed through these doors, and IMAX plans to open five more locations within the year: two in New York, one in Shanghai, one at the Manchester Trafford Center in the UK, and another in California.
It's going all in, but in his opening remarks on the day IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond doesn't seem too worried. "We've started a lot of businesses and they don't all work, but you know pretty early on if they're going to work or not," he says. "And this sure feels like a thing that's going to work".
Of the 5,000 to have donned a headset here so far, almost half were jumping into VR for the first time, which already goes some way to justifying the very idea of a virtual reality cinema. "It's important to remember that the overwhelming majority of consumers do not have access to headsets," Gelfond remarks.
But IMAX knows that sticking a bunch of HTC Vives in a room isn't enough to achieve VR ubiquity, so it's actively pursuing partnerships with movie studios, content creators and technology companies to build many of its own experiences and position itself as a vanguard of VR. There's a distinct parallel with the end-to-end approach IMAX spent years taking with cinema, involving itself with both the content and technology.
For example, last year IMAX and Google announced a partnership to build a cinema-grade VR camera that will be used to make some of this content, while its investment in a $50m VR fund will help finance at least 25 interactive VR experiences over the next three years across many VR platforms - all of which will appear in IMAX centers, and some exclusively before they move downstream.
IMAX wants the content to be episodic, social and repeatable in nature. Despite aping the theater-going experience in a lot of ways, it knows this isn't going to be the same thing once you're ushered from the lobby and into the VR room. One rep even talked about rolling out special Snapchat filters in the future. You're not in the screening room here; IMAX wants you to make noise and have fun.
Which is why it tells us it's not interested in making full-length VR movies right now, but sees plenty of potential in doing tie-ins. Maybe future IMAX movies could have an optional VR extra on the ticket, where you'll be welcomed to a separate room after the movie has finished for an exclusive VR add-on. It'll be like choosing to see a film in 3D, except this technology might actually stick around.
"Maybe you'll race Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa, maybe you'll try to shoot him down," Gelfond jokes. "We haven't figured that out yet."
Equally important is the technology, and IMAX says it's going to be testing out a lot of different ideas here too. It wants to be on the bleeding edge and has already struck up a partnership with HTC that will give it early access to the company's next-generation VR tech. The game John Wick Chronicles, one of the titles I get to try, is the only game to use a StarVR headset. With a 210-degree field of view and 5K display it's technologically superior to the Vive - and it shows.
Maybe you'll race Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa, maybe you'll try to shoot him down
By keeping apace with the latest developments, IMAX is preparing for the day where VR has a better uptake in the home; it will still give people a reason to go out and experience the latest and greatest the medium has to offer.
As for the coming year, IMAX is going to see what sticks, from headsets to prices to types of experiences. The LA location will be one of the largest with 15 pods, and IMAX is playing with the idea of moving its VR rooms into existing IMAX cinema foyers. It's also looking at how ticketing will work: as well as paying for individual experiences, it's going to offer a "bundle" ticket that will give you access to an assortment of titles.
On show in LA are a handful ready to try, most of them using HTC Vives and a dedicated space to make use of the room-scale technology. Among them are the sweat-inducing Knockout League (think Punch-Out but 100 times more real), The Walk (in which you play the terrifying part of Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers) and a demo for Skydance's upcoming game Archangel. Rabbids VR Ride, for which I sit in a chair that moves in time with the game to make it feel like I'm on a rollercoaster, is the one I return to for a second go. It's really fun, and not something you'd be able to replicate at home without a few thousand dollars lying around.
Then there's the John Wick game I mentioned earlier, complete with replica gun for full dog-avenging authenticity.
Gelfond calls VR the "Wild West" right now and emphasises he has no expectation that every idea will work. It's refreshing to hear IMAX admit to an element of uncertainty, but what's the metric for success here? If IMAX starts making a loss, will it ride it out until the technology truly comes into its own?
"I think we're going to have a pilot period where we open like six of these things," Rob Lister, IMAX chief business development officer, tells me. "We watch for price elasticity, we're checking the throughput, we're seeing what people's content preferences are, what consumers like the most, what they like least."
Beyond the six announced locations, IMAX is looking at Japan, the Middle East and Western Europe
The LA location has high operating expenses, lots of staff, and no doubt an eye-watering lease - so Lister says IMAX is less concerned about the return of investment here compared to other locations, which will be attached to multiplexes. That's where they'll be studying the charts and graphs.
"At the end of that time if we feel as if, firstly, financially this is viable, and we really get a sense from the customer satisfaction that the experience we've aggregated [is a success] and if we really get the impression that people are responding and they think the experience we're creating is brand-consistent we'll consider it a success. And I think you'll see us roll this out globally, similar to how we grew out our cinema business."
Beyond the six outlined locations, Lister says IMAX is looking at Japan, the Middle East and Western Europe for other possibilities. So far IMAX has gone for places where it has exhibitor partners, but who knows how far this could go if it's a success? China in particular interests Lister as VR arcades are already booming over there. It also happens to be a place where IMAX has accelerated its expansion massively.
I also ask him about potentially bringing on big directors for exclusive content down the line, and he says it's something IMAX would like to do. "I think when our network is six or ten [locations] it's not really worth doing that, but I think ultimately if we're co-financing a big piece of content with a director or big studio I think we'd want there to be an IMAX VR theatrical exclusivity".
It's hard to predict how this venture will play out, especially in these relatively early days for VR, but the early signs are encouraging and I know that, personally, I would be happy spending a small amount of money for a bite-sized VR experience.
As Lister points out, when you even compare VR today to how it was a year ago, it's even easier to spend 20 minutes with a headset on without feeling uncomfortable or nauseous. The technology continues to improve at a considerable pace and IMAX doesn't plan to miss a beat. Sure, it may not all work out, but on the other hand it could also galvanize VR and shake up the movie-going experience. As Gelfond puts it himself, "If you aren't giving audiences something new and exciting, what's the point?"
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