Future tech

Imax plan for VR pods in cinemas around the world, including China and Japan, may be the boost the technology needs

The high cost of equipment seems to be a hurdle the public won’t pass, but location-based VR offers new opportunities for manufacturers of gear, creators of content and distributors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 1:50pm

Is virtual reality (VR) about to radically change from being a form of home entertainment to a luxury add-on to a movie experience in your local multiplex? A pilot project by large-format film company and cinema owner Imax to replace seats with VR pods in select locations looks set to be built around the most powerful and immersive VR headsets.

The first Imax VR centre opened at the Grove Imax in Los Angeles last week, with more to follow this year in London, China, Japan and a further two in North America. The new venues will offer consumers a mix of games and other VR experiences on the HTC Vive and StarVR headsets.

The plans were outlined during the recent annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where more than 170,000 delegates had expected to experience more mobile VR gear. Instead it looks like VR could be about to find a radically different home.

Imax is experimenting with the concept of location-based VR for good commercial reasons. It’s based on the premise that most people can’t afford the three leading VR headsets: the HTC Vive (HK$6,199), Oculus Rift (HK$4,655) or the newly released PlayStation VR (HK$3,099).

Although sales figures are hard to come by, Statista’s projected sales for all three combined in 2016 were under seven million globally.

The most popular VR product is actually the much cheaper and more basic Samsung Gear VR headset (HK$888), which uses a phone as the display. That particular product is little more than a novelty when compared to the others, but sales figures don’t lie.

“It’s an opportune time to get into destination-based VR, and part of the reason is that the consumer proposition has challenges,” says Rob Lister, Imax’s chief business development officer.

“It’s a US$2,000 investment to get an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, at least when you combine them with a powerful enough PC.”

He adds that few people have the spare room needed to set-up a dedicated VR rig: “But most significantly, the content that comes with the headsets is a work in progress, which is why sales have been modest.”

Though interactive games and short films have been created for VR headsets, and both YouTube and Facebook support 360-degree video, there’s been no “killer content” to persuade the mass market to invest in VR.

Lister insists that content will be the priority for Imax as it spends the next six months experimenting with various forms of VR.

Initial plans are to fit a dedicated cinema within existing Imax multiplexes with between 10 and 14 pods. The idea is that movie-goers will tack on a short but sweet VR experience in a pod for a movie they’ve just watched in a separate auditorium. Seen Star Wars: Rogue One? Now explore the Death Star in VR, enjoying fabulous production values and facilities.

That’s not to say the VR doesn’t have a future in the home.

“In the long term, prices will come down and the headsets will go mobile, untether themselves from PCs, and increase in processing power,” says Lister. “In the short term, location-based VR is the best bet, and we want Imax to be the destination for anyone who wants to have the very best VR experience.”

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The best will come at a price, of course. “If someone wants a premium VR experience, spending US$10 to see some exclusive content from Hollywood at an Imax VR centre is a really good proposition,” he says.

To that end, Imax is currently building the Imax VR camera with the help of Google, and it’s also put together a fund of US$50 million to finance about 25 VR “content experiences”. Each will be 7-12 minutes long, and show exclusively in Imax VR cinemas for a period of time.

Although these first forays in VR are on the safe home turf of multiplexes, in future the Imax VR pods could appear in shopping malls, tourist destinations and museums. The latter seems particularly enticing given how well the technology could be suited to providing “virtual field trips” to faraway locations, and the fact that Imax already has cinemas in some of the world’s best museums.

The Hong Kong Space Museum, London’s Science Museum, and The Smithsonian in Washington are just three examples of museums Imax is active in.

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“We have relationships with a few hundred museums around the world that have Imax theatres in them, so we could give them Imax VR headsets and curate an exhibition about bringing a faraway place to a museum,”says Lister, adding that this kind of VR content is much easier to produce compared to creating a narrative around expensive intellectual property from Hollywood.

If, for instance, you want to document a Unesco World Heritage site such as Angkor Wat and show it as it is, all that’s needed is a 360-degree camera.

The plans from Imax give an indication that VR could be about to take a big step forward in quality rather than quantity.

Also at the CES, multi-lens stereoscopic 360 degree cameras were launched, including the Vuze (HK$6,200) and Hubblo (HK$775), which will go on sale in spring. Also in Las Vegas was the Shenzhen-based Insta360 Pro (HK$23,270) for sale later this year, which captures 60-megapixel 360-degree 3D stills to create 8K resolution.

While the 4K resolution of current TVs is arguably more than enough for most living rooms, resolution and detail becomes far more important for VR content.

“People want to be able to see details and feel like they’re the first person to see them,” says Brooks Brown, global director (VR) at Starbreeze Studios. (Brown used to work at Lightstorm Entertainment, where he helped director James Cameron create the world of Pandora for the 2009 film Avatar.)

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Talking at the CES, Brooks referenced Westworld, a popular TV series from HBO about a world of artificially intelligent robots that guests can pay to interact with inside a curated game-like world – a highly advanced form of virtual reality.

“A really effective VR experience gives people the opportunity to be there, and to believe they are in that moment,” says Brooks, stressing the need for high resolution. “That feeling is something that films and games have simply never been able to touch.”

Starbreeze Studios makes the StarVR, one of two VR headsets being experimented with by Imax for its VR pilots. Crucially, StarVR has a “human-like” 210-degree full peripheral field of view, which is much wider than other VR gear. It seems a perfect fit with the large-format ethos of Imax.

So although totally convincing immersive VR experiences are years off, the foundations are being laid, whatever the location.

The CES presented some other steps forward for the VR experience – quite literally – that ought to aid immersion in VR worlds. Other previews at the trade fair included haptic feedback footwear and gloves from Taclim, which let the wearer feel what they’re walking on in a VR world, while 3dRudder’s VR controller allows the user’s feet to control where they’re going.

Also welcome was the announcement at the CES that the HTC Vive can now be completely wireless. That’s a positive development, because being tugged around by tethered cables coming out of your head while in a VR world feels like immersion with chains.

HTC also launched Vive Tracker, an attachment that allows physical objects to be brought into the VR world using the Vive’s position-tracking tech.

VR remains an embryonic group of technologies and Imax would do well to take its time experimenting, but it seems that the pieces of the VR puzzle are slowly coming together.