The Virtual Arena: Building the Immersive Playground

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – with an exclusive look at one of the Western markets’ most ambitious entertainment venues comprising all the latest concepts; AREA15.

AREA51 exterior
Image credit: KWP

The investment in brand new entertainment facilities had begun long before the global lockdown, with several ambitious projects. With reopening, the market has exploded as social entertainment has proven a strong draw for an audience looking for social engagement, places to have fun and hospitality together, with XR technology cementing this experience.

One of those projects started before COVID hit was AREA15 – described as an immersive playground, a collision of entertainment with artainment and bazar theming. To be more accurate, AREA15 is part of an entertainment hub within a warehouse district off-strip in Las Vegas, comprising both the main entertainment site and a few complimentary entertainment spaces.

Entering the entertainment hub. Image credit: KWP

This entertainment hub is dominated by the striking design of the AREA15 building, purpose-built to house the entertainment space. Surrounding this are several hospitality and entertainment units collected to compliment the area. These include a permanent installation of the Army of the Dead: Viva Vengeance VR experience, (that we covered when it visited London). Next to this will be the second Illuminarium experience. In the final stages of completion, the space is dedicated to immersive projection entertainment, and is another of the illustrations that the “hub”, as well as the main facility, are fully embracing an XR entertainment ethos.

Illuminarium exterior
Illuminarium in the final stages of completion. Image credit: Illuminarium

Surrounded by a sculpture park, and hospitality, the guest crosses the threshold and enters the vast AREA15 structure through an unassuming door. But once inside the facility and all the senses are bombarded with light, sound, and smell. Greeted by a giant projection-mapped skull, this immersive playground is comprised of key offerings including that of dedicated gallery and artainment. Along with the inclusion of immersive entertainment, strong hospitality, and late-night vibe. The artainment is underpinned by the ‘MEGA MART’ installation, developed by AREA15 partner Meow Wolf.

AREA15 interior
Into the eclectic world of entertainment. Image credit: KWP

The cross between an art installation, funhouse, and attraction, sees ‘MEGA MART’ take up nearly half of the facility, and offers a ticketed attraction – guests wandering around a surreal recreation of a supermarket, exploring the unique isles, and discovering secrets and the venues’ hidden story. The space reflects a throwback to the art commune roots of developer Meow Wolf but also includes some immersive technology effects within the funhouse styling. The attraction has proven one of the major draws of the venue.

AREA15 MegaMart
Where Artainment meets funhouse. Image credit: KWP

But regarding the technology on show at AREA15, we see one of the largest gatherings of XR immersive entertainment platforms under one roof. Crossing the whole gambit of deployments. First off with VR – seeing the first installation of the OZ Experience, developed by Backlight Studios, the free-roaming VR attraction incorporates many of the immersive elements that pull groups of players into the game narrative. VR is also seen at the site with Virtualis VR, running the TrueVRsystems immersive experience. While the venue also has two installations of the ‘Birdly’ VR flying simulator in operation. Artainment is even served this way, with a popup edutainment installation of the Meta Quest 2 powered ‘Van Gogh VR’ (the VR element from the gallery previous reported on).

AREA15 MegaMart
VR Artainment pop-up within the venue. Image credit: KWP

Moving from VR to AR, and AREA15 has both entertainment and artainment borrowing heavily on this application. The ‘Particle Quest’ AR experience at the venue is a unique scavenger hunt, using augmented reality viewing devices that the guests rent. Used to search the whole of the facility, hunting clues to the secrets behind the site. In the ‘Museum Fiasco’, an immersive experience is created using lighting and sound effects. As well as the Wink World: Portal into the Infinite – an exhibit crossing between a funhouse with mirror rooms developed by co-founder of the Blue Man Group. While, immersive projection systems are utilized within Five Iron Golf, a sports simulator and bar venue, as well as with the Illuminarium experience outside.

AREA15 AR viewers
Collecting the unique AR viewers. Image credit: KWP

Entertainment is at the heart of AREA15, as well as a lively hospitality component, and the ‘Emporium’ is a retro arcade with a strong cocktail and bar element. In even creating an amusement and hospitality site, the venue strives to paint the space with light and sound. The site even has its own duelling zipline. While during the day the venue does not need a price of admission, to address over-crowding, the operators have instigated an “Entry Pass” system, purchased by guests after 10 pm, as well as at weekends. While at the same time the venue is proving a strong private hire opportunity, for parties and events.

AREA15 zipline
Guests try out the thrills of the zipline. Image credit: KWP

Never boring, the AREA15 experience proved an interesting gaze on the future of the social entertainment landscape. The need to mix the latest immersive technology seamlessly into the mix of entertainment (conventional as well as unique), but still leave space for wonder and relaxation with the injection of artainment / edutainment. The developers of AREA15 recently revealed their plans to open a second version of their entertainment district in Orlando, Florida, in 2023.

We look forward to reporting on the next entertainment venues to deploy XR technology so lavishly.