Visitor attractions are racing to embrace Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies. But what are the potential opportunities and possible pitfalls of VR and AR?
Blooloop talked to 5 industry professionals about the what/why/when/where of The Next Big Thing.
Here are their insights to help you embrace the white-heat of technology without getting your fingers burnt.
2016 is the year of Virtual Reality
“2016 is the year of Virtual Reality, ” says film producer and 3D pioneer, Charlotte Huggins.
Her new company, AXYZ Studios, is racing to develop IMAX quality live-action VR experiences to a meet an expected explosion in demand from the attractions industry and beyond.
And while the technology is currently playing catch up to the ideas, she predicts that any hurdles will be overcome in the very near future.
“The technology is being developed in tandem with the stories, ” she says. “If we waited it would pass us by.”
With HTC shifting 15, 000 VR headsets within the first 10 minutes of accepting orders and Goldman Sachs predicting a sector value of $80billion by 2025, a growing sense of urgency surrounds VR/AR on all sides.
Jonathan Robson of the UKTI: “We run a database of leading British companies involved in the attractions industry and we had about 3 VR companies a year and a half ago and now I have about 25.”
It’s clear you can’t ignore it but how do you best apply it to your particular attraction?
Do consumers now expect at least part of their experience to incorporate one of these technologies?
“There is an expectation that it will be there, ” says UKTI’s Jonathan Robson. “Whether it should be, I think, depends entirely on the attraction because there are some things you want to have a more natural experience with. Things like natural history where you go for the experience of the nature itself rather than having it digitally enhanced.
“Whereas if you’re looking at something that’s completely artificial, like a theme park for instance, then you’re expecting a lot more technology I think.
“Part of the problem is that most of the visitors don’t understand the technology. They don’t quite understand what they’re getting. Most of them don’t understand the difference between VR and AR. And, that’s because it’s all new.”
Visitors aren’t the only ones, according to VR Strategy Consultant, Shauna Heller (right):
“It’s been my experience that the attraction designers are less informed than major theme park stake-holders, who have seen immersive technology such as VR and AR come and go in the past, and are more generally aware of the capabilities of the hardware and software.”
In which case, it might just be worth explaining in broad terms the difference between a VR and an AR guest experience.
VR or AR?
Virtual Reality (VR) – the viewer wears an enclosed headset and views created 3D action on a screen inside the headset. This is a totally immersive experience where the viewer engages with an artificially created ‘virtual’ world.
(The image above is from new Virtual Entertainment Centre, THE VOID, in Utah, showing a player and what that player is seeing through their headset.)
Augmented Reality (AR) – the viewer is not cut off from the real world, instead 2D and 3D content is laid over what they’re looking at. This experience can be delivered in a number of ways including special glasses or via a screen, or the camera viewer of a tablet or smartphone.
(The image below is from INDE’s BroadcastAR experience.)
Home-Based Entertainment v. LBE
Much of the technological developments surrounding VR have been aimed squarely at the gaming market where the isolated nature of the experience is not an issue.
“One could argue that as currently set up, the LBE industry and the VR gaming industry are at cross purposes, ” says Heller. “It’s the mandate of LBE to get people out of their homes and into parks and attractions. It’s the mandate of the VR platforms to provide home-based experiences delivered on a PC with few 3rd party peripherals.”
The need to create communal VR experiences is a hot topic right now within the attractions industry. Home-based VR is about to explode. How do you tempt people back to location-based entertainment?
The VR Coaster
Europa-Park and Mack Rides tackled the issue head on by combining the two on the Alpenexpress –VR with a live coaster – the first of its kind in the world.
“We thought – we have to invent a case where people can have a VR experience but they have to visit a theme park, ” explains Steffen Kottkamp (left), Director of MackCreative at Europa-Park.
He invented a name for the experience, too – ‘coastiality’.
“You’re only able to experience the coastiality on a VR ride if you have a rollercoaster in your garden. And, not many people have that.
“What we show in the headset is completely different to everything you saw before because we can use speed and heavy movements much more than any other VR computer game. You will get motion sick if you watch our VR movies sitting in a chair because what your eyes see and what your stomach feels is so different.
“It’s not just marketing, it’s real. You need the real G forces to have a ‘coastiality’ experience.”
Charlotte Huggins (right) is equally enthusiastic about the potential of what Europa Park/Mack Rides has created.
“We are extremely interested in the VR coaster concept. What Mack did is incredibly interesting to us on a lot of different levels. On a media level and a guest experience level. Media is really good at enhancing an experience. It’s way less expensive than building a new roller coaster. Taking that roller coaster that you have and adding a VR headset and a movie experience, it’s magical.
“It’s an elegant enhancement to an existing attraction.”
But is it a social experience? Interestingly, Europa Park chose not to include audio with their first VR ride:
“You hear your neighbour screaming and all this stuff, which brings it to an experience you have together, ” he says.
Guests can also choose to ride the coaster without VR: “We only make half the ride VR. We invited our Fan Club before we started the Alpenexpress last season – 300 of our hard-core fans. They gave us the feedback that it is very good but that everyone should be able to use the traditional Alpenexpress as well.”
The VR element of the ride is delivered via smartphones within a Samsung VR Gear headset. Robson suggests that smartphone VR is a good way for an attraction on a limited budget to approach the technology:
“I’ve seen a couple of examples using the Google Cardboard headset where the venue gives the visitor the headset because it’s cheap and the headset can be themed. The really expensive bit which is the software and the hardware that creates the virtual experience is actually all there on their phone, ” he says.
“If you want to do something interesting different and engaging for, say, a smaller museum, the option is there to simply create an app, let people download it onto their phone and then provide people with a cheap headset for £2 or £3.”
Mobile VR apps are improving all the time but, as yet, they lack a key component necessary to deliver the kind of immersive experience of, say, an Oculus Rift headset ie. positional tracking. This, in essence, is a sensor that tells the system where you are within your environment by tracking your head movements. Mobile can only offer rotational tracking at present, which means the headset can keep track of your head turning, but not of your movements within a 3D space.
It’s a nut the developers want to crack but it’s proving pretty tough. Real-time rendering is required which takes up a lot of processing power. Having said that, chips are getting both smaller and more powerful almost daily, so never say never.
In any case, the success of the Alpenexpress proves that, within the right setting, Mobile VR delivers plenty of bang for your buck. But, insists Kottkamp, you have to experience it to really ‘get it’.
(Below: A still from the Alpenexpress VR experience)
Seeing is Believing
“We have had a lot of critical park owners that visit us from other parks to see what we are doing and most of them say ‘ok, this is an interesting new technology but nothing for me’ and then they do the ride, ” says Kottkamp. “I’ve met not one single person who went out of the coaster and said ‘that’s nothing for me’. Everyone says it’s amazing. This is a new frontier we’ve crossed, it’s a new dimension.”
Huggins agrees: “Every time we are about to put those VR goggles on somebody, they go, ‘I know what VR is. I understand it’. Then, we put it on and they go, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea.’
“Because, it’s not like anything you’ve ever done.”
Heller argues that it is precisely this ‘wow’ factor that stops VR being as isolating as some suggest.
“VR as a medium is one of the most communal, shared experience development projects I’ve ever been involved in, ” she says. “One of the biggest things you’ll notice when people are checking out VR is that they take off the headset and immediately start talking about it with the people around them. I feel that there are very few people out there who have spent time in, near, around or close to VR hardware and software that would say it’s anti-social.”
“There have got to be ways to take these isolated VR experiences and connect people through them, ” says Huggins, “and that’s what I think the facebooks etc. are doing. They’re resolving the interconnectivity of the VR experience.”
Heller again: “While putting on a headset might look isolating from the outside, the world it unlocks on the inside is tremendous. There are already social apps, such as Oculus Social (available for free in the Oculus Store in a GearVR headset), which demonstrate that you can connect with others in VR in a compelling way.
“Oculus Social (above) is still a bit of a prototype, but I encourage everyone to check it out.”
Virtual Entertainment Centre, THE VOID (below), slated to open in Utah this year, promises superior visuals, sound, haptic feedback, and global/body tracking. It also claims that co-op and multiplayer connectivity will allow ‘family and friends to experience the virtual worlds together’. How far it delivers on these promises remains to be seen although early indicators are very positive. In any event, there will certainly be plenty to learn from it.
Florida-based Magic Leap is another VR/AR company causing a stir, having just netted $793.5 million in VC funding. It’s playing its cards close to its chest, claiming it will be using a different kind of technology to achieve its virtual experience but when this is likely to be ready to go is hard to predict.
Whether any of this will truly solve the isolation issue is a ‘wait and see’. Huggins argues that it may not matter if you’re not connected to your friends within the experience since you are deeply connected to the experience itself.
“3D, IMAX and VR all share something. They’re actually quite intimate, ” says Huggins. “In fact – although the IMAX screen is really big, as soon as it breaks the frame, as soon as you’re not so aware you’re in a theatre, it becomes a very personal experience. In an IMAX, you want the big vistas but you also want a very personal connection and I think that’s what excites me about VR.”
Huggins is working with technology partner Pulse Works to create smaller motion-based VR experiences ‘that pretty much anyone can have’.
Museums – Sharing Collections Virtually
Swiss company, Kenzan in partnership with Artanim, have produced what they call a ‘Real Virtuality’ experience (above), which allows visitors to explore, in this instance, an Egyptian tomb. (Although, obviously it could be adapted to any enviroment.)
It certainly demonstrates the power of VR technology to bring the past to life without the need for complex, and costly, physical reconstructions. It also offers a dynamic way for museums to ‘exhibit’ their collections in context.
Huggins has no doubts about the educational potential of the format:
“I really think it could be an incredible tool for showing rather than telling people about a topic. Science museums, natural history museums, zoos and aquariums and all these places – they’re all looking for ways to outreach and I believe that outreach is going to be VR.”
Robson cites a VR application at the Dali Museum as a good example of how to further engage visitors with items from a collection, in this case the1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus.”
“Museums are interesting because they have a lot of their collections that they can’t exhibit, ” says Robson. “Putting them into VR immediately expands the size of your museum infinitely.
“A lot of their exhibits have to be behind a glass case to keep them safe and there’s always this barrier. VR can take away that barrier. As long as you know that what you’re looking at is a virtual representation of, say, an ancient vase, if you can explore that vase in VR close up, that might be a better experience than seeing it behind the barrier of a glass case.
“There’s interest there from the museums sector because it hasn’t been realised yet.”
Both Robson and Heller agree that The Wright Brothers First Flight Experience, a private [VR] demo built by the virtual reality studio MatterVR for graphic card maker AMD and curated by the Smithsonian, is a really good example of VR being used in an educational context. In fact, Heller agreed to become their advisor because she was so impressed with it.
However, with technology evolving at pace, Heller advises institutions to be cautious in their approach.
Think Big, Execute Small
“My advice for all institutions, regardless of size, is to think big and execute small, ” she says. “Investing in 20 headsets to install permanently on-site might not make a lot of sense for a small institution with limited funding. They could quickly find themselves with hardware that is no longer suited to the experience.
“In my opinion, a better path is to create a modest pilot programme that focuses on the content and less so on the headset. Set up a few headsets with an excellent piece of content in a controlled beta that the institution can pull metrics from for further refinement. It’s essentially how the themed entertainment industry approaches new attractions anyway, just applied to a VR experience.”
Of course, if you already have a 4D cinema, then repurposing that for VR is a cost effective way to create a whole new guest experience.
“A 4D ride can be reprogrammed relatively easily. That’s one of the advantages of digital. Robotic arms are very advanced these days in their movement and what you can programme to the microsecond. So, what your eyes see and what your body feels in terms of movement is completely tied together, ” says Robson.
Ok, so you’ve transported your visitors to another world using VR. But how do you get them smoothly back to the real one? It’s a serious point because the people coming out of a VR experience are a walking advert – provided they’re saying ‘Wow!’ rather than looking bemused and disorientated.
“There’s an awful lot about tying the virtual into the real, ” agrees Robson. “There’s an interesting example I saw recently about a rollercoaster ride in a shopping mall and when you put the headset on you’re looking at a 3D image of the shopping mall but now it’s got a rollercoaster going through it and the ride then takes you on that. So, there’s a complete tie in from where you come from to where you got to as it were, which is far less disorientating.”
Behind You! So Real it’s Unreal
Augmented Reality has no such problems since it enhances the real world as opposed to replacing it altogether.
BroadcastAR is a cinematic application created by experience design agency, INDE, which introduces elements such as dinosaurs into the viewers’ own environment via a large screen.
“We have a camera positioned on top of the screen so when people walk in front of the screen, the screen acts as a mirror, ” explains Leo Ferri, Director of Sales Worldwide at INDE.
“So you just see yourself on this big digital screen which could be a plasma wall, LED or digital screen projection and the camera, which is capturing the live feed, sends a signal to the computer to overlay 3D content on screen. All the magic happens on screen where you can see yourself with, for example, live dinosaurs.”
The benefit of this of course, is that everyone participating is seeing the same thing and can engage with the people around them. It is a group experience where interacting with friends as well as strangers breaks down barriers and generates a ‘feel good’ atmosphere.
A downside is the space required to house a big screen but Ferri says INDE is already creating a smaller version called HeroMirror for venues such as FECs.
Why Social Media Loves AR
“This will be operated more like a photo booth, ” he says. “In an aquarium, for example, you could have a penguin appear next to you and then have a photo taken of you with the penguin. These images populate social media very well and very quickly you have that exponential photo sharing, likes, tweets, comments.
“One of the videos taken by INDE’s SnapShare app at a project we did in a mall in Hong Kong was seen almost 20 million times in a week. So, if you can have your company logo on that video…”
Using AR to make social media work as an advertising tool for attractions is very compelling. Ferri cites an AR event at Zwolle ice sculpture park which was intended as a bit of fun but grew out of all proportion because of the images flying round social media.
Toronto Zoo is using the technology within the zoo as a separate paid attraction.
“We are not saying that the virtual animals should replace the real ones, ” says Ferri, “but it’s a nice way to engage with their clientele and hopefully to increase revenue.”
Edutainment – Bringing Learning to Life
Ferri is also keen to stress the educational potential of AR:
“Digital signage is becoming more and more prevalent in the daily activities of kids. AR, which can become an experience, a visualisation technique, allows you to connect with them because it’s something fun but, at the same time, you are delivering educational content to them as well.”
By using the camera function on a tablet, an AR application can easily be used to enhance existing museum displays. It can place artefacts virtually into their original context or turn a sherd of pottery into the complete object. It can recreate Roman villas, Egyptian temples and allow museums on small budgets to get a bite of the ‘wow’ factor.
“It’s much easier to reinvent yourself digitally than it is in a physical real world. It’s all about how you use your collection, ” says Robson.
“But, do you skew it towards education or entertainment? That is a responsibility that needs to be taken very seriously.”
Ferri believes that with so many options and so much confusion surrounding these technologies, developers need to offer venues and attractions accessible, ‘plug and play’ solutions. And, his view is that AR is the technology to invest in.
Kottkamp disagrees: “Personally I think the VR technology as we do it at the moment, fully immersive, no other visual things around, no cameras – this is the real future.”
On March 19th, Europa-Park launched their Pegasus Coastiality fully-immersive VR experience using specially-written content by bestselling author David Safier. The ‘Happy Family’ animated content (below) ties in with a 4D movie of the same name showing in the park’s 4D Magic Cinema. The idea is that viewers watch the movie and then ‘live the experience’ on the VR coaster.
He says of AR: ‘This will be an add-on. I think the full VR visual experience will set the benchmark.”
Having said that, his team is also working on an AR idea using the mobile camera within the VR headset: “So, one day it may be possible that you ride through an existing coaster but you are attacked by a dragon.”
Content is King
What nobody doubts is that the quality of the content is key. And in the end, that may ultimately be what drives the technology, rather than other way round.
“The trick is to achieve high quality content that simultaneously showcases the technology and provides real engagement, ” says Heller.
However, she warns that ‘a genuinely compelling VR experience, one that encourages presence and believability, is difficult to accomplish. When a user puts on a headset and is immediately bombarded by visual imagery and overly intense audio design–two things that often happen when going for the ‘wow’ factor—the ability to connect with the experience drops dramatically.”
“There is always going to be someone who will chuck out something cheap because they can, ” says Robson. “Quality of content is the biggest danger. The consumer is very discerning.”
INDE collaborates with experts such as National Geographic and palaeontologists to ensure their natural history content is accurate: “The shine on the skin of the penguin when it comes out of the water, that slowly fades out, ” says Ferri. “These small details make it look even more real.”
Huggins believes that true virtual reality can only be accomplished with live action: “We really want to solve the live VR experience. Right now it’s pretty much in the domain of computer graphics. Lots of technology experts are working on cameras, rigs, capture systems, stitching systems and the delivery systems – those 5 systems all have to be in line to deliver to a really flawless 4K resolution in the VR headset. We’re concentrating on cinematic VR experiences – things that have a beginning, a middle and an end.”
IP owners are also keenly looking at ways to use VR to further engage with audiences.
“We’re talking to a lot of people worldwide right now about bringing in IPs and to say how do we deal with the content in the future and how do we deal with the technology in the future because it develops very fast, ” says Kottkamp.
No one can honestly predict exactly how these new technologies will develop. That they are fast becoming a key component of the entertainment experience is not in doubt.
‘It’s not going to be too long, give it five years, before everybody’s got something virtual, digital, augmented and it’s the ones that aren’t doing it that will stand out from the crowd as different, ’ predicts Robson.
But, one suspects it would be a very brave attraction indeed that decided to sit out this revolution.
Images kind courtesy THE VOID, Europa-Park, MediaMation, Oculus and INDE