Immersive media is a broad term applied to any experience that intensifies the experience of presence and participation, using a range of analog and digital technologies to create an “extended reality.” Entertainment, branding, commercials, experimental films, training and education, defense and other industry sectors are increasingly using immersive media technologies and techniques.
In this article, we’ll look at the larger context of immersive entertainment and some of today’s most significant trends.
Dark Rides and IRL Immersive Experiences
At Kent State University in Ohio, professor and digital artist Joel Zika specializes in experience design, immersive media in public spaces, themed entertainment, and virtual production. He’s also knowledgeable about the history of immersive experiences. Zika notes that each of today’s immersive experiences “can be plotted back in history, to something done in an analog form.” “People really desire experiences – something novel and marvelous in a small amount of time,” he says. “This is as true as it was during the Industrial Revolution.”
Noting the relevance of the 17th century’s Magic Lanterns, Zika turns his focus to the so-called dark rides of amusement parks that opened in the late 1800s. At places from Coney Island to Blackpool, England, entrepreneurs used trolley lines to bring city folks out to massive amusement parks where they could enjoy immersive “dark rides,” such as the Tunnel of Love or the 1901 Pan American Exposition’s Trip to the Moon. In time, these dark rides became increasingly sophisticated, using disorienting turns and twists to control the rider’s point of view, forced perspective and an array of special effects to engage and spook the participant.
The apotheosis was the dark rides created by the Pretzel Ride company, established in 1928 in New Jersey. Among their rides (a few of which are still active) were Ghost Train (1934, Australia); Spook-a-Rama (1955, Coney Island); and Devil’s Den (1968, Conneaut Lake Park, Pennsylvania). Zika explains the additions to dark rides as they evolved. “It can have moving images or a trompe l’oeil wall or day glo paint, haptics such as an undulating track rattling the car, hanging string to brush against the face, giving the feel of a spider’s web,” he says. “Dark rides use a can of bolts to create sonic surprises as well as wind and rain machines, horns and whistles.” The dark ride, he says, is a communal public experience at the same time it’s dark and private. “It’s not just about being scared but to be frightened in front of other people and experiencing the emotions as cathartic,” says Zika.
Dark rides, directly or indirectly, inspired cinema experiences like Smell-o-Vision and film directors such as William Castle (“Macabre,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “Tingler”) as well as today’s “in real life” immersive experiences. In 1981, for example, the play “Tamara” debuted, in which audiences took an active role, making decisions as to which actors they would follow – sometimes becoming participants in the action. “Tamara” played for nine years in Los Angeles, starting in 1984. In 1990, I participated in an interactive retelling of “The Brothers Karamazov,” in New York, following actors as they wended in and out of the streets and empty buildings of the city’s meat-packing district.
Today’s Meow Wolf (see Holowire article - ( "Meow Wolf Builds Artful Experiences"), an artist and entertainment company that got started in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2008, is the most salient example of interactive, immersive entertainment in real-life environments. “Meow Wolf is a location-based entertainment,” explains Phil Lelyveld, Entertainment Technology Center’s media initiative program lead. In its locations, which now include Denver, Las Vegas and Grapevine, Texas, local artists collaborate to build these “unique immersive” entertainments. “It’s about the experience, not about the technology,” Lelyveld says.
To that end, Meow Wolf judicially integrates technology including Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and other video, photography, and sound. Among its creations was a dark ride – the 2019 “Kaleidoscope – which debuted in its Denver location. “What’s interesting about Meow Wolf is that they have great flexibility,” says Lelyveld. “It’s a very personalized experience as opposed to dark rides, where everyone has the same experience, and it’s very immersive without using a lot of technology.”
In London, Layered Reality offers another interesting combination of real physical theater with virtual reality and other digital technologies in "Jeff Wayne's The Ware of the the Worlds: The Immersive Experience," which tells the story of a Martian Invasion in 1898. Actors lead participants into a physical set that also features movie-scale sets and special effects, combined with Virtual Reality, projection mapping and "volumetric holograms." Audiences are also immersed in physical sensations including temperature, smell, touch and taste.
Location-Based Entertainment/Virtual Reality
The idea behind location-based Virtual Reality experiences, in an arcade or amusement park, is that it would allow curious people to try out VR without purchasing expensive gear. But a combination of unsuccessful financial models and COVID doomed some of the pioneers. The Void and IMAX were two companies that entered the space early. The Void opened its first LBE VR attraction in Utah in 2015. Its founders Ken Bretschneider, James Jensen, and Curtis Hickman had an ambitious plan to open multiple locations that would allow patrons to explore VR environments with positional tracking, haptics and multi-sensory feedback. It opened a Ghostbusters-themed attraction at Madame Tussaud’s in New York, and then partnered with the Disney Accelerator program to develop location-based VR attractions based on Disney franchises. By 2018, the company had locations in a dozen U.S. cities as well as London, Dubai and Toronto. In 2019, it announced 25 new locations. But, behind the scenes, the company was losing money; all its locations shut down in 2020.
Likewise, large screen company IMAX opened its first IMAX VR location in early 2017, which consisted of individual pods set up with a D-BOX cinema chair and a haptic vest with vibrating sensors. But the financial model didn’t work out and, by end of 2018, IMAX decided to close the unit, and shut down its last few locations in Q1 2019.
Location-based VR entertainment persists, however. Cosmo Collab chief executive/founder Gregg Katano describes his path to Munich-based VR company Hologate, which currently has between 450 and 500 installations across 44 countries and just passed the 20 million player milestone. Before he brought the Hologate demo to the location-based entertainment community via the global trade organization IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions), Katano and his partner Christopher Crescitelli were known for bringing Oculus headsets and computers to events like NAB, CES, SXSW, Sundance Film Festival and Coachella to introduce people to VR via the creations of pioneering VR/AR developers.
When Katano discovered Hologate at Dreamland XR’s event during CES 2016, he said it “was the best VR I had experienced.” At its first showing at the IAAPA trade show, he and the Holgate team sold 73 systems in just four days. Its Arena VR system includes haptic vests with, 40 haptic nodes and four tethered headsets for users to play and explore, and its Hologate X is a free roam system featuring “high-fidelity streaming VR, full-body tracking, and 4D effects including wind, heat and scents” as well as “eye-catching lighting effects” and THX 5.1 surround sound. Its Blitz system is a motion simulator platform for “flying, racing and underwater experiences.”
According to Gibby’s Guide in the publication Road to VR, “location-based VR has bounced back since the pandemic.” He surveyed several LBE VR companies, most of which have limited extra immersive factors. Sandbox VR, which now has over 40 locations in the U.S., Europe and Asia, adds haptic vests and physical objects (weapons) into its immersive mix. Czech-based DIVR, which lists three locations on its site (London, Prague and Stockholm), also provides a haptic suit, with fans and heaters providing wind and heat at appropriate moments. London-based VR arcade DNA VR has four U.K. locations, and Meetspace VR, which also has several locations in the U.K., provides a heavy plastic weapon but no haptic suit or environmental cues.
The biggest immersive media news of the year was the debut of the Las Vegas-based Sphere, which is touted as “the world’s largest dome.” (For more details, read this HoloWire article). Madison Square Gardens spent $2.3 billion to create and integrate the latest technology for this structure that features 16K resolution, wrap-around interior LED screens, and speakers with beamforming and wave field synthesis audio technologies. In addition, 10,000 seats also offer haptics, cold, heat, wind and scents.
But Sphere is not the only immersive dome in town. Ed Lantz is chief executive of Vortex Immersion Media, which creates immersive media experiences including large-scale immersive 360-degree theaters and mobile projection domes. “We specialize in creating live interactive programming including immersive media experiences for Fortune 500 companies and top talent,” says Lantz. His enthusiasm for dome content started in 1990 when he left aerospace engineering to work at the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium in Cocoa, Florida. “I was impressed with the power of the dome because it fills your peripheral vision,” he says.
After eight years of designing dome theaters around the world for a planetarium manufacturer (now COSM), he founded Vortex in 2007, building immersive entertainment centers, including domes with dance floors and tilted dome cinema theaters. Vortex produced numerous pop-up dome experiences including Super Bowl activations, EDM parties, a Childish Gambino concert as well as events at ComiCon and SXSW, he says. Vortex is now raising capital to build permanent immersive entertainment centers. “Sphere has brought a lot more attention to this space,” he adds.
Content for domes face challenges, as creators debate the merits of storytelling versus experiences. Lantz points out that, “the cinematic language used for film relies heavily on the frame … [whereas] the language for storytelling with domes is the wild, wild West.” Experiential content, however, is a promising direction. “The best place to see future possibilities for immersive experiences is at the dome film festivals,” he says, adding that the next one is Dome Fest West, to be held in Boulder, Colorado. “These are largely indie filmmakers with fairly low-budget films, but you will see a lot of interesting experimentation. The language [for dome content] is being developed in those circles.”