Get immersed in virtual reality

(Above from left) Chief executive Bruce Vaughn, co-chairmen Kevin Wall and Walter Parkes; and chief operating officer Aaron Grosky of Dreamscape Immersive, which creates virtual environments for users (left).
(Above from left) Chief executive Bruce Vaughn, co-chairmen Kevin Wall and Walter Parkes; and chief operating officer Aaron Grosky of Dreamscape Immersive, which creates virtual environments for users.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES • Dreamscape is Hollywood's hottest start-up - and investors are waking up to its promise of using virtual reality (VR) to take entertainment to a new level.

Director 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 (S$27 million) 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 for the 11/2 years on what it calls a "virtual-reality multiplex".

Its technology, developed by a Swiss motion-capture firm, allows up to six people to explore a VR environment at once, seeing fully rendered avatars of one another.

"We were mesmerised by what we saw," said Mr Adam Aron, chief executive of AMC.

(Above from left) Chief executive Bruce Vaughn, co-chairmen Kevin Wall and Walter Parkes; and chief operating officer Aaron Grosky of Dreamscape Immersive, which creates virtual environments for users (left).

"Their vision is to change what VR has been - away from just a heightened level of video game and towards 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 others will be stand-alone centres.

Dreamscape will also open a flagship location in the first quarter of next year at the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles.

"In many cases, we have surplus space and we think Dreamscape will add energy and excitement to our theatres, especially during the week," Mr Aron said.

"But this isn't a replacement for movies. It's a complement."

Tickets are expected to cost US$15 to US$20 each.

Dreamscape joins a cluster of companies trying to take advantage of the promise of consumer VR technology, the desperate need by malls to reinvent themselves in the online retail age and the pressure on movie studios to find new avenues of growth.

The Void, a start-up, recently announced a tie-up with Walt Disney to open Star Wars-themed VR 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. The Los Angeles site has attracted 50,000 people in the last nine months.

Imax plans to expand the concept to Canada, Britain and Shanghai.

At Dreamscape, the Hollywood players give it cachet. Joining Spielberg are people such as composer Hans Zimmer and director Gore Verbinski.

But their involvement does not guarantee success.

Spielberg, for example, has been down this road before, with mixed results.

In the late 1990s, his DreamWorks SKG invested alongside Universal Pictures in 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, envisioned as a worldwide chain offering VR experiences. Only two outlets were built.

But Hollywood thrives on dreams. The pitch from Dreamscape chief executive Bruce Vaughn is that "a shared experience is what makes the lasting emotional impact".

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

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'Get immersed in virtual reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe