INDUSTRY: WHAT IS LBE?

By Debra Kaufman

January 28, 2020

Location-based entertainment is on a roll, never more immersive, interactive, and innovative. Around the world, creative entrepreneurs are using the latest and greatest to design and build engaging experiences using mixed reality, virtual reality and a range of next level interactivity technologies.

Two Bit Circus Founders, Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman
Two Bit Circus Founders, Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman

The roots of Two Bit Circus go back to 2012, when CEO Brent Bushnell and CTO Eric Gradman started a traveling carnival that evolved to become the current STEAM Carnival “micro-amusement park” in downtown Los Angeles. Now, the 40,000-square-foot space offers several VR-based multi-player experiences and so-called story rooms where players work collaboratively. In one such story room, the players take on roles of pilot, navigator, and gunner on a spaceship and work together to defeat enemies. “We do that through technology—20 connected computers in an IOP environment—and it can be episodic,” says Bushnell. Then there’s what Bushnell calls a “meta-game,” a blend between an interactive story and a scavenger hunt, in which players search for clues all over the park.

“We’re very excited about 5G, particularly the low latency feature,” says Bushnell. “It will change a lot of the game play mechanics, especially for on-site competitions and being able to do VR without a backpack.” The demographics of Two Bit Circus attendees span the range, from children who have graduated from Chuck E. Cheese to young adults after work and on Saturday night dates to young families looking for fun on Sundays. Two Bit Circus is also the site for corporate team-building events and birthday parties. They even have a robot bartender — that one you have to see first-hand to believe!  

Avengers: Damage Control
Avengers: Damage Control

ILMxLab, Lucasfilm’s immersive entertainment studio, creates interactive storytelling experiences via virtual and mixed reality. Most recently, in conjunction with Marvel Studios and The Void, it debuted “Avengers: Damage Control,” which is installed at a dozen Void locations in North America and Malaysia. Michael Koperwaus, who was the “Avengers: Damage Control” visual director, notes that, at ILMxLab, the push is always about visual fidelity. “We’re going for the most believable and captivating experience possible,” he says. “We work with The Void to come up with new tricks and use what’s available with effects, including wind, heat, rumbles, scent. Some portions are visual, others are more experiential.”

Koperwaus notes that VR experiences have taken off more than AR or mixed reality experiences because of the widespread consumer adoption of VR headsets in the marketplace. He says that “Avengers: Damage Control” appears to appeal to all generations. “Everyone comes out with big smiles on their faces,” he says. “Fun is age-independent. It’s a social experience for people to go through at the same time.”

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In VR, the free room experience—in which players can roam a room wirelessly—is what’s taken off, as it offers the most immersive and seamless experience. Zero Latency, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, went live with its first experience there in 2015, using HP headsets. “We realized early on that to experience fully immersive entertainment in VR, you need to be untethered in a large space,” says VP of Business Development Phil Martin, who notes the company is hardware agnostic. “That’s one of the important elements to understanding how VR will become more mainstream,” he explains. The company already has 41 location-based entertainment sites worldwide, including the MGM casino in Las Vegas. Zero Latency’s system can handle up to eight untethered people in a single space. In games, the players “cooperate together against a wave of enemies and then compete together to defeat them,” says Martin. Maintaining a fresh library of content is important, and the company is beginning to work with third-party developers as well as focusing on esports. “We’re trying to bring VR into the leisure decision matrix,” he says.

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Unlike the other LBEs here, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico—which calls itself a “creative production company” that strives to “unlock creativity in peoples’ lives”—relies on augmented reality via smartphones for its large-scale multimedia immersive art experiences. “It’s now driven to the phone, but we have a lot of interest in progressing into headset-driven spatial computing,” says CEO and co-founder Vince Kadlubek. Meow Wolf, which now has 500 employees and is working on $200 million worth of projects, integrates physical art such as sculpture, painting, architecture and storytelling, with an entire digital show controller network that fuses physical and digital realities. “Once headsets are fully developed and replace the phone, which we believe will happen in the next 10 years, the physical world will become relevant to technology again,” says Kadlubek. “The world is now the screen, and it will have a more symbiotic relationship with technology.”  

Another exciting component is the next generation of holographic displays. Technology advancements such as those from Light Field Lab in San Jose are creating visual experiences that current headsets cannot replicate. Having a headset and glasses-free experience will allow audiences a whole different type of real-world experience. “Holograms do play a role in the future of Two Bit Circus,” Bushnell said. “I’m a real believer that new and early technologies belong first in LBE. In public, you can craft the experience for a particular use case—and people can be wowed and mystified. Once they try it, they’re excited to experience it at home.”