Virtual-reality multiplexes to offer Avatar experience

In a three-image combo, a user explores a virtual environment created by Dreamscape Immersive.
In a three-image combo, a user explores a virtual environment created by Dreamscape Immersive. PHOTO: NYTIMES

CULVER CITY, Calif. (NYTimes) - It is easily Hollywood's hottest startup.

Steven Spielberg was an early investor. So were 21st Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. The venture's leadership team includes the former chief of Disney's theme park design division; the producer of the Men In Black movie series; and a live event kingpin.

And now AMC Entertainment, the world's largest theatre chain, has invested US$20 million in the fledgling company and agreed to finance the rapid rollout of its product in the United States and Britain.

The fuss is over Dreamscape Immersive, which has been working in a warehouse here for the last year and a half on what it calls a "virtual-reality multiplex". Instead of a variety of movies, Dreamscape Immersive locations will offer a variety of virtual-reality experiences. Its technology, developed by a Swiss motion-capture firm, allows up to six people to explore a virtual-reality environment at once, seeing fully rendered avatars of one another.

"We were mesmerised by what we saw," said Adam Aron, chief executive of AMC Entertainment. "Their vision is to change what VR has been - away from just a heightened level of video game and toward cinematic storytelling - and we think it's what consumers have been waiting for."

The AMC deal, which brings total investment in Dreamscape to more than US$40 million, calls for up to six Dreamscape locations to open over the next 18 months. Some will be inside existing AMC theatres, and some will be stand-alone centres nearby. Additionally, Dreamscape will open a flagship location in the first quarter of next year at the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles. Westfield is another Dreamscape investor.

"In many cases, we have surplus space, and we think Dreamscape will add energy and excitement to our theatres, especially during the week," Aron said. "But this isn't a replacement for movies. It's a complement." Tickets are expected to cost from US$15 to US$20.

Dreamscape joins a cluster of companies that are trying to take advantage of the still-untapped consumer promise of virtual-reality technology, the desperate need by shopping malls to reinvent themselves in the online retail age and the pressure on movie studios (and theatre companies) to find new avenues of growth.

The Void, a Utah startup, recently announced a partnership with the Walt Disney Co. to open Star Wars-themed virtual-reality experiences at Disney malls outside theme parks in California and Florida. Already operating are two Imax VR Centres in Los Angeles and New York; tickets start at US$7, and the Los Angeles location has attracted 50,000 people over the last nine months. Imax said it planned to expand the concept to Canada, Britain and Shanghai this fall.

The Hollywood players behind Dreamscape give it immediate cachet. Joining Spielberg are people like Hans Zimmer, the movie music composer, and the director Gore Verbinski. But their involvement does not guarantee success. Spielberg, for one, has been down this road before, with mixed results. In the late 1990s, his DreamWorks SKG invested alongside Universal Pictures in a heavily promoted venture called GameWorks, which was supposed to use new technology to revolutionise the arcade business. GameWorks never lived up to its billing.

Around the same time, Disney encountered similar disappointment with DisneyQuest, which was envisioned as a worldwide chain offering virtual-reality experiences. Only two were built.

Two members of the Dreamscape management team, Walter Parkes, a co-chairman, and Bruce Vaughn, the chief executive, are very familiar with those efforts. Parkes, a movie producer whose credits include the Men In Black series, worked for Spielberg as a senior DreamWorks executive at the time. Vaughn spent 23 years at Disney, most recently serving as chief creative officer of its Imagineering research and design unit.

"Even big-name brands can have a hard time getting people to go here instead of there," Vaughn acknowledged.

Vaughn was sitting in the Dreamscape warehouse last week with Parkes and Kevin Wall, an Emmy-winning producer of world-spanning music events like Live 8 and another Dreamscape co-chairman. The men, together with Aaron Grosky, the chief operating officer, said Dreamscape's fate would be different, partly because virtual-reality technology has advanced so significantly.

"This is truly the birth of a new storytelling medium," Parkes said.

As if to prove it, Parkes took a reporter through a prototype Dreamscape experience. The company uses more than a dozen cameras and sensors to transport people into various settings - home plate in a sold-out baseball stadium, the spider-filled ruins of an ancient temple or a futuristic, neon-lit city flooded with water. You put on VR goggles and a pair of gloves. An attendant clips a small device to your shoes. And off you go.

Inside Dreamscape experiences, which will last about nine minutes and cost about US$1.5 million to US$2 million to produce, participants can handle objects and - as avatars - even pass them between one another.

"A shared experience is what makes the lasting emotional impact," said Vaughn, noting his track record in creating Disney theme park attractions.

Dreamscape is developing original content. Parkes said the company was also negotiating with various studios and filmmakers to create experiences that put people inside movie franchises.

"If you enjoy our experience, you'll be more likely to see the movie, and vice versa," he said.