In a previous column, I asked you to travel with me to the future — the very near future. At the time, the destination was still just a figment of someone’s imagination. Well, that vision has officially manifested, and I was recently invited to experience it. Welcome to the IMAX VR Centre, Los Angeles, California, a flagship experience at the bleeding edge of a technology with a lot of potential and a bit further to go to achieve mainstream maturity, but is already a heck of a lot of fun.
Right across the street from the Grove and Los Angeles’ historical Farmers Market on 3rd Street is where you’ll find the first IMAX VR Centre in the world. That is no accident — both the foot and car traffic here is very high, as there are museums, movie theaters, and more, all within walking distance.
“Since we opened our doors, we’ve had 5,000 people through here, with a 90 percent satisfaction rate,” said Rich Gelfond, Chairman and CEO of IMAX, as he and Chief Business Development Officer Rob Lister briefed media on the site, the business, and their vision. According to Gelfond, “20 percent of [visitors] owned their own headsets and still enjoyed the experience.”
They also announced quite a few partnerships that will help drive this burgeoning venture, including one that will see investments from Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Steven Spielberg. Gelfond was candid about the state of VR and his company’s efforts, telling reporters, “While VR may not be entirely ready for prime time at this moment, we’re excited about the opportunity. Someone needs to shake things up.”
In my initial column on IMAX VR, I introduced you to the Star VR headset, but Gelfond and company have since expanded the hardware that visitors will be using in a new technology and content partnership with HTC. Visit Los Angeles’ VR Centre and not only will you be immersed in other worlds through the Star VR headset, but now you’ll also be exposed to the HTC VIVE, a consumer VR system that typically requires a relatively powerful desktop or laptop to run. It utilizes a headset and two handheld controllers and is one of the best consumer VR systems I’ve personally experienced. Unlike Google’s Daydream or Samsung’s Gear VR, you can actually see and use your hands in your virtual world with the VIVE, adding a sense of immersion you won’t quite get with the others.
After we were briefed on the vision and business deals that got us here, Gelfond and Lister invited those in attendance to experience the VR Centre’s attractions. Eight of them, to be exact, undergirded by the tagline on the IMAX VR website: “What do you want to be when you show up?” The experiences feel more like video games than anything, but they’re nothing to sneeze at. The lobby area was designed by some of the folks who masterminded the look and feel of the Apple store, and when you move from there to the experience center, it’s almost like stepping into the world of Tron.
The white walls and surfaces transition to dimly lit holding areas with white cubic outlines, low-hanging light installations, and black ceilings that feel expansive — your senses are being challenged even before you even step into one of the VR pods. The pods themselves are small-ish carpeted spaces with monitors in them, so that friends you bring along with you can see what you’re seeing once you’ve donned a headset — this was all created with social in mind. The experiences feature motion-tracking so that you know where you are in the space and haptic feedback vests that rumble and provide physical feedback as you interact with the games.
They also did something smart with the design of the gaming space itself. The carpet on the floor of the pod is broken up by a rubbery section that surrounds the space you have to work with. This change in the tactile feel under your feet offers enough feedback to know when you’ve wandered too far and stepped outside of the playable area.
The first game I demo’d was Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight, a multi-player game easy enough for almost anyone to get into and enjoy. This is casual VR gaming at its present-day finest, just difficult enough to keep things interesting, but light enough that you can get into it without investing a ridiculous amount of time. Basically, you’re an eagle, and there’s a rabbit in the center of town; your team has to fly to the rabbit, pick it up, and get it back to your homebase. Yes, this is VR Capture the Flag, and it’s a blast. Speaking of a blast, your eagle screech is actually a weapon, a sonic blast that you use to knock opponents out of the sky. You navigate by tilting your head in the direction you want to go, and you use the HTC VIVE controllers to speed up, slow down, block, or fire off that sonic screech.
Next up was Knockout League, which is essentially a VR version of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. Once again, I donned the HTC VIVE headset and used the controllers, but this time we added the haptic feedback vest. The controls and movements were simple: dip, duck, dodge, and use the controllers to punch and block. When you begin the game, you go through some training rounds to get you accustomed to its mechanics. Again, this is motion tracked, so the room knows where you are in the physical space, and the game is able to read your offensive and defensive movements. Having been a fighter myself, the timing takes a moment to get used to, but once you do, it’s a lot of fun. The side benefit is that you’ll get your heart rate up and have yourself a bit of a workout as you dodge punches and answer back with counterpunches of your own.
The two experiences I enjoyed the most (though, admittedly, I didn’t try all eight) were the John Wick Chronicles and a game still in beta called Archangel. As awesome as HTC’s VIVE is, I was more excited to check out what the partnership between Acer and Starbreeze studios produced, namely the Star VR HMD (Headset Mounted Display). That was the featured piece of the John Wick experience. Well, that and the H&K MP5 submachine gun controller. Due to language and violence, this game is rated 17 and older, unless accompanied by an adult.
It’s a single-player game, and in it, you’re John Wick, one of the world’s greatest hitmen. In the real world, you’re wearing the Star VR headset, which has a noticeably wider field of view than the VIVE or any other headset I’ve tried. This attraction also utilizes motion tracking, which extends to the MP5 controller, allowing you to move freely with the gun as you would in real life. The game begins at the top of the Continental Hotel, with two non-player characters, or NPCs (the computer generated baddies), coming at you from the side of the roof in close proximity. Once you take them out, you’re accosted by waves of enemies who rush you from various angles and snipe at you from adjacent rooftops. This reveals the beauty of the Star VR: its wider field of vision really opens up the functionality and increases the feeling of immersion. Additionally, despite my previous level of fitness in life, playing this game left me physically sore. It is so dynamic that my glutes, thighs, and mid-back were all feeling it for a couple of days. Worth it, though.
The other game that I could sit down and play for hours was Archangel from Skydance Media. This one utilized the VIVE, and for you gamers out there, this was basically a VR version of Titanfall. You’re in a giant mech (for the uninitiated, think Ripley in the Loader in Aliens) armed with either machine guns or a rail gun on your right arm and two types of missiles on the left arm. You can also activate shields on either arm. Much like Eagle Flight, this is a low-barrier-to-entry experience, but gameplay is difficult enough that it will keep you engaged for hours. Having sons who are gamers, I see this one as a happy medium between the high investment games they play, like Titanfall, and more casual games you may tool around with on a mobile device, except this is highly immersive VR. I think the most important aspect of this is that it is the VIVE, because I see gaming studios creating content for these experiences, then making them available for home use in the future. They’ll have the opportunity to test them out in the VR Centre, refine them, gauge interest, then release them to the public. Not bad.
At the end of the day, the IMAX VR Centre is a paid attraction. There are futuristic kiosks all around the pod area to allow you to purchase tickets for different experiences you may not have initially paid for but might want to try after having watched others in adjacent pods. Would I pay $7 to $10 for each of the five-15 minute experiences? Yes, I would, and I actually will be, since I’m taking my sons down to play sometime in the near future. We have Samsung’s Gear VR at home, but they haven’t tried the VIVE yet, and it’s just a fun experience. As a matter of fact, when the next big movie comes out that my dad and I want to see, I’ll get him in on it too; we’ll all make a day of it, and I think that’s part of the allure that IMAX is counting on.
Ultimately, this is where I think the VR Centres will shine brightest, once they’re actually inside movie theater complexes and connected to your theater ticket purchase — that’s actually part of their business model for future installations. Oh, and in case you’re wondering when those of you outside of Los Angeles will be able to experience this, apparently you won’t have to wait long. Several other VR centres are planned all over the world for the coming months. You’ll see IMAX VR in China at the Shanghai Hongkou Plaza multiplex, an unnamed “high-profile” AMC location in New York, two Regal theater locations in NYC and California, and a few others.
Follow Tshaka on Twitter: @tshakaarmstrong