The Virtual Arena: London’s Immersive Time-traveling Experience

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams in his latest Virtual Arena column. An amazing immersive adventure based in 1605 London is experienced with the launch of The Gunpowder Plot.

The Gunpowder Plot

The creation of an immersive experience that audiences will be prepared to pay ticket prices to participate in has been a constant challenge. The mixing of the right level of immersive, with live performance and themed environments has been attempted as both stage performance, art installation, and attraction. And London played host to the latest adaption of this process into the mainstream.

Based on the historical character Guy Fawkes, and the turbulent period of English history he was embroiled in, Layered Reality has launched The Gunpowder Plot. This is an immersive experience, combining theatrical theming, and live performance, alongside immersive projection, and virtual reality.

The Gunpowder Plot
Image credit: KWP

Located on Tower Hill in the shadow of the historic Tower of London, the Tower Vaults venue has been transformed into an entertainment space, bar, and dining hospitality. The developers have previous experience in offering this level of immersive entertainment, following on from their successful deployment of Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience – which we reported on previously.  

Layered Reality in collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces and Figment Productions has been working to launch this ambitious historical reinterpretation of the gunpowder plot. Figment Productions, best known for their work in creating the ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon’ theme park attraction; has worked hard to create a virtual recreation of the London of 1605. The developer employs over 50 actors to be represented virtually within this experience, including accurate period costumes.

The developer does not stop there, representing the old London landscape, with the Thames, the original London Bridge, and the surrounding castles so lovingly that you will want to be able to visually navigate the streets of the historic city – eventually lost to plague, and the Great Fire of London. The VR elements of the experience are broken into three distinct portions of the overall adventure for the audience. With the crossing of the Thames by rope, a harrowing night crossing across the river, and an audience with the King!

The Gunpowder Plot
Image credit: Mark Dawson

The adventure is a true immersive experience and builds greatly on a more theatrical representation of the immersive elements. A troop of well-known stage and screen actors fill the cast – led by Tom Felton, better known for his portrayal of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. It is the interweaving of the immersive technology with the live actors that has become a signature of Layered Reality’s artistry.

The Gunpowder Plot
Image credit: KWP

In groups of up to 16, guests are transported through time, with their guides being real actors, using their performances to immerse the audience, complemented by the theming of the vaults. Along the way there are sequences where guests don HTC Cosmos Elite VR headsets and immerse further into the action sequences of the story, concluding with the group having to agree on the moral decisions they should take impacting the conclusion of the adventure. The whole experience lasts over an hour and is broken up with the signature-themed pub area, halfway through the adventure, for the guests to mingle.

The Gunpowder Plot
Image credit: Mark Dawson

Aside from the obvious opening night jitters from the technology, the overall experience was an amazing undertaking and offered a compelling and fun adventure. Only wishing that we could have spent longer admiring the incredible historical recreation rendered virtually of the old city. The experience will be moving from soft opening to taking bookings and is expected to be the first of many immersive themed experiences based on popular properties.

In an interesting quirk of history on its own, the location of The Gunpowder Plot experience is situated in the same vaults that some 28-years ago housed the Legend Quest VR experience. Developed at the time by pioneers, Virtuality, in collaboration with Virtual Reality Design & Leisure, the first true multi-player fantasy VR game was incredibly rudimentary but pointed to the abilities of this fledgling technology. Jump forward to 2022, and again the Tower Hill location offers a tantalizing glimpse of a future in a technological endeavour that will start a revolution in guest entertainment.

The Virtual Arena: Streaming VR Enters Location-Based Entertainment

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. His latest Virtual Arena column investigates developments as the LBE sector moves toward applying streaming VR technology to drive a high-fidelity experience.

Zero Latency
Image credit: Zero Latency

While the establishment of location-based entertainment (LBE) takes hold across the international market. The application of the technology deployed within these facilities is in constant flux. Evolving with the latest developments in the immersive entertainment industry. It is this innovation that makes the market a barometer of the latest trends that could play a part in defining the consumer application of this tech.

One of the biggest trends sweeping LBE has been the deployment of free-roaming experiences, as charted in recent coverage in this column. But technological advances have been made that allow the free-roaming VR experience to be significantly improved and made assessable to a wider audience with a much-reduced cost-benefit (removing cumbersome PC backpacks). A higher fidelity of VR experience moves beyond that achieved using just the mobile processor of current standalone headsets. The developer of these low-latency 5G network applications have been actively reaching out to the LBE community for adoption.

What we mean by streaming VR, is pushing high-fidelity VR directly into the latest headsets. Most of these implementations use a 5G connection between the host PC and a VR headset. This streaming infrastructure also supports updated positional tracking for multiple-player deployment. All this is supported by the latest Qualcomm XR2 standalone headsets, such as the HTC Focus 3, along with the latest systems from Varjo, Pico, and Pimax, focused on commercial application, (as is promised with the Meta Project Cambria, still to be released). This is technology that has been refined for enterprise (SeriousVR) applications such as for training, CAD design, and now commercial entertainment.

High End VR Headsets

The deployment of this approach in entertainment has been gathering momentum. Recently AT&T teamed with Warner Bros., Ericsson, Qualcomm, Dreamscape Immersive, Nvidia and Wevr, to create an ambitious proof-of-concept immersive location-based experience. This was based on the already installed Harry Potter: Chaos at Hogwarts free-roaming VR experience opened at the Harry Potter Wizarding World New York venue. Now using AT&T’s 5G streaming technology, and NVIDIA’s CloudXR, Dreamscape were able to create a prototype version of the experience, at their test facility that removed the need for the cumbersome PC backpacks and streamlined the experience. This development was a proof-of-concept towards being able to offer their high-fidelity VR attraction based on this technology.  

The ability for manufacturers in the LBE sector to upgrade towards the latest technology is a benefit of owning the space. Where consumer VR application needs to establish customer penetration, LBE brings the technology to the player, and so upgrades accordingly. This is best illustrated by Zero Latency, a company that has constantly been on an iterative path with its free-roaming attraction. The company announced its move towards ditching PC backpacks and moving to streamed VR but keeping the high-fidelity VR experience. The company deploying a new system streaming over a local Wi-Fi 6E network to players using HTC Focus 3 headsets. This technology has to ensure the high-end performance needed, as seen with their latest free-roam VR adventure, from Ubisoft, set in the world of Far Cry 3.

Zero Latency
Image credit: Zero Latency

The growth in VR entertainment facility deployment has seen the providers of the content also adopting a streaming methodology. SynthesisVR, a location-based virtual reality content distribution and facility management platform, recently partnered with QuarkXR, a trusted solution provider focused on VR streaming. Towards offering all LBE VR arcade operators a simple, and automated VR streaming solution, previously not available. A solution for wireless VR game streaming was created specifically for the industry through this exclusive co-developed solution, connecting the host PC and Android VR Headset. This will allow VR arcade operators to benefit from the opportunities of streamed VR applications, and the cost-saving this will bring.

We are seeing many established LBE developers migrate to a streaming VR approach, such as with the announcement of the new ‘Hologate-X’ platform. Developed by market leader Hologate, who has established their tethered VR arena platform across the market. The company staying on the cutting edge of new development have created their own streamed VR platform. To be launched at their flagship Hologate-World location in Germany, the ‘Hologate-X’ attraction running the inhouse developed game ‘SIGVRIED: Escape from Valhalla’, offers streamed low-latency 5G network VR direct to headsets, allowing the four players to simultaneously explore the virtual world unencumbered. For the application, Hologate has added haptic vests, along with feedback from the weapons the players carry. All supported by the 4D effects of the arena space they play within.

Hologate - SigVRied
SIGVRIED: Escape from Valhalla. Image credit: Hologate

It is this ability to offer such a high-fidelity VR experience, supported by 4D physical effects that separate what is achievable with commercial immersive experiences from the casual consumer experience. Thus showcasing how VR streaming is able to deliver a new level of VR experience to users. We look forward to reporting on further developments in streaming VR soon.

The Virtual Arena: Immersive Entertainment Gets Social

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column, the sudden explosion in new entertainment venues internationally is revealed, with a visit to one of the latest promoting the inclusion of immersive entertainment.


Following on from our recent coverage of AREA15, and its deployment of immersive technology in an entertainment venue. And many readers will be familiar with the Gravity Active Entertainment facilities in the UK, some 18 venues dotted across the country offering a mix of trampoline and climbing wall activities. Active entertainment has been a popular offering for younger audiences, but the corporation has decided to pivot towards offering an entertainment mix for an older clientele. With this business decision, the company launched a flagship location in a London suburb to experiment with their new concept.

Called ‘Gravity Wandsworth’ – the concept has ditched the trampolines and gone for a modern mixed-use leisure entertainment aesthetic. The 100,000-sq.ft, facility inhabits what had previously been a Debenhams department store – leading to some calling the new Gravity a “department store of fun!”. While for many the venue is dominated by the indoor multi-level e-karting track, (built by 360 Karting), the venue is underpinned by the largest deployment of immersive entertainment technology in a single site in the UK. 

Image credit: KWP

Immersive entertainment is defined by the key applications of digital technology, and “Gamification”. Meaning the application of simple but fun game mechanics into the experience, including progression, scoring and collectables. This is seen with the facility’s deployment of ‘AR Bowling’. The traditional bowling lanes are now enhanced with projection mapping, projected images that are tracked with the ball’s movements and add a new level of engagement for the players. Taking a tired format and supercharging it for the new audience.

Image credit: KWP

An aspect of supporting the new audience and the entertainment mix of the venue has been dubbed “Competitive Socializing” – offering entertainment that can be played by groups of friends, while also enjoying cocktails and food. Pub games accelerated into the 21st Century. The bowling experience at the site, as with other games, is supported by touchscreen kiosks for game selection, scoring and ordering.

Another familiar entertainment given the gamified approach is the ‘AR Darts’. Again, projection mapping is employed to paint the whole of the space with a unique interactive experience. The game of darts transformed into a socially inclusive competition, not focused on score counting, but fun games that can be played with groups of varying skills. Taking away the cumbersome aspects of some games and focusing on the fun elements defines gamification.

Image credit: KWP

Projection mapped AR systems such as this are not new to the social entertainment scene, several venues have deployed AR darts, along with the appearance of AR ping pong, and even AR Axe Throwing experiences. The gamification of these activities, like the bowling, offers a new level of social inclusion, augmenting the number counting and tedious scoring metrics for a much more inclusive experience.

We see at Gravity the deployment of more immersive entertainment approaches, the facility including the installation of an Electric Gamebox setup. These unique pods house players in a fully immersive (MR) environment, with projection on all walls. Their whole body is tracked and able to control their character within the game experience. The developer of the platform has just launched a brand new game based on Angry Birds, offering a compelling and active approach for a wide audience.

Image credit: KWP

For Gravity it is about a constant process of application to attract a new audience, the facility includes its own eSports lounge, and has its own amusement space dedicated to the latest video arcade, redemption, and prize machines. This space also sees the deployment of several of the latest VR amusement platforms. With the motorcycle game Ultra Moto VR, and the two VR motion ride experiences, Virtual Rabbids and King Kong.

Image credit: KWP

The venue will see opened in the summer a brand new VR attraction installation of a HOLOGATE VR experience – with the four-player tethered VR ‘Arena’, and their ‘Hyper GP’ VR motion simulator system, which will be run on the ground floor in their own dedicated attraction. HOLOGATE recently announced that it will be releasing a Ghostbusters-based VR experience on these systems.

Image credit: KWP

Of the more conventional entertainment the space also includes urban street golf and is supported on the ground and third floor with food and beverage service. The top floor also includes ‘Newtons Cocktail Bar’ offering a relaxing hospitality scene. All this is supported by futuristic robot servers. The space reflects the move to a new level of entertainment for an audience hungry for the latest immersion, but also wanting that social media buzz with “Instagram-able” moments.

The success of Gravity Wandsworth experiment has seen the owners make the announcement of the plans to open a second facility based on the model. This will see a £10m investment to once again repopulate a 180,000-sq.ft, Debenhams department store, in Liverpool. To be named ‘Gravity Liverpool ONE’, it will represent the flagship location of the brand, opening in 2023 – with plans to roll out 30 sites in the next two years.

This will prove very crowded waters as immersive entertainment technology establishes itself as a leading force in the scene, and already other facility developers wait in the wings to launch their interpretation of the new immersive frontier. More developments using the latest technology will be covered soon.

The Virtual Arena: Immersing the Performing Arts Audience

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams in his latest Virtual Arena column. Reporting on the mixture of performance, music and theatre, within a collective immersive environment; seen with the Barbican Theatre’s VR dance experience – “Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li”.

Le Bal de Paris

We have recently covered the way that location-based entertainment XR technology, especially regarding free-roaming experiences being co-opted into the arts, (what some call “Artainment”). Previously with our reporting from the hyper-reality VR experience ‘Current, Rising’ as part of The Royal Opera House season. And then more recently our coverage from the AR ‘Lost Origin Experience’ in partnership with the Almeida Theater and Sky.

London once again played host to a ground-breaking experience, one which looks to be one of the largest “collective immersive experiences” deployed to date. Taking place at the famous Barbican Theatre in the capital, during a short window, the touring experience called Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li, is a fusion of hyper-reality, free-roaming VR, and live performance – that pulls the audience into the narrative.

Le Bal de Paris
Image credit: KWP

Audiences, in groups of 10, gather on the theatre’s main stage, which has been segmented into three unique VR free-roaming stages (accommodating up to 60-guests, along with performers). The audience dons full VR PC backpacks, and HTC Vive Pro headsets – along with unique arm and leg trackers. Once immersed, the guests are transported into a magical world of dance and romance, encouraged to take part in the performance, interacting with actual characters represented by real motion-tracked performers. 

Le Bal de Paris
Image credit: KWP

The experience is the creation of Blanca Li and her company, the imagination and inspiration of the famous choreographer, dancer, and actor, is the latest musical installation in partnership with her dance company, and the Barbican theatre. The amazing dance performances, and characterization represented by the cast and crew in the experience, and a host of recorded motion-capture performances.  

Blanca has worked with developer Backlight VR studios, a co-producing partner to create what has been called an immersive hybrid art form. Backlight, are specialists in VR, having developed numerous Location-based Entertainment (LBE) experiences – as covered in our AREA15 report and their first ‘OZ Experience’ installation – along with creating specialised animated films with extensive producer credits. The company has applied all its VR free-roaming effects skills to the creation of what is one of the largest “collective immersive experiences”. Using Unreal Engine to create beautiful and engaging worlds.  

Image credit: Backlight

This experience comprises a unique element of incorporating virtual fashion. The guest starts the experience with a selection of stylish fashions to clothe their character. These costumes are provided by the luxury fashion house CHANEL – a partner of the experience, creating an amazing atmosphere to the event, guest choosing their stylish dress, suits, and unique animal masks – able to admire themselves via mirrors in the virtual changing room. An example of placing the physical into the digital space, and the creation of virtual costumes and clothing. Long before this is achievable in the metaverse.

Image credit: Backlight

Along with the costumes, the lavish backdrops that the audience is placed within during the 60-minute experience, offer a perception of limitless movement through plane-shifting tricks. Transported from setting to setting via a magical walkway, speedboat, and train carriage, all while still retained in the stage space. Music and dance are at the heart of this work, and the audience is drawn into the experience, even encouraged to dance with the performers in the virtual world. The performers’ movements are able to be incorporated into the experience through Backlight’s full-body awareness platform.

FLUX Laboratory
Image credit: FLUX Laboratory

At the end of the VR element of “Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li” – the audience was totally enthralled in the experience, many of those lucky enough to try this experience, ringing its praises as being one of the most imaginative performance art forms, let alone their best VR experience. The “Immersive Theatre” performances have been sold out during the short run, though is hoped to be the start of a renaissance for this kind of application.

Speaking of new openings, one of the largest “collective immersive experiences” also recently opened in Tacoma, Washington – called THE INFINITE, described as an “Out-of-this-World” VR experience. A vast 12,500-sq.,-ft., space transformed into a giant free-roaming environment, for groups of from 10 to 29 users (accommodating a total of 150 visitors at one time), wearing Meta Quest 2 headsets, to traverse a virtual recreation of the International Space Station. This joint venture between PHI Studio and Felix & Paul Studios, created to reimagine the standards of LBE, developed in association with TIME Studios.

The Infinite
Image credit: The Infinite

Another touring experience, THE INFINITE, will be visiting the world’s major cities during the next few years, (we plan to report from it soon). And this is not the only VR experience that is scheduled to open. We will also be reporting on the latest immersive experience to take place in London. Offering not only a hyper-reality event but also a historical experience that could change the way that live performance and VR are combined in the future. Watch this space for our next feature.

The Virtual Arena: Exploring Cyber Space – Virtuality

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column – continuing the marking of a year of anniversaries in the scene – we look at the UK VR company that defined the first amusement phase of VR – Virtuality.


Following on from the marking of anniversaries in the first phase of VR and immersive technology adoption with our feature on the Sensorama – and we jump to the third phase of VR development in the 1990s. At this time, VR moved from the workbench and the simulator centre, and into the amusement landscape. A period that cemented the concept of VR as an entertainment medium and paved the way for the sector we see today.

The late 1980s saw a flourish of innovation and technological advancements coming from English academia, and one such was the Loughborough University of Technology, where a talented entrepreneur was experimenting with spatial viewing systems. This individual was named Dr. Jonathan Walden – and his experimentation was gaining recognition. He would go on to create an unwieldy demonstration system, (nicknamed the ‘Caterpillar’), and win a £20,000 award for “Best Emerging Technology” that would go to fund the company’s dreams to take VR from the laboratory and workbench, and into the mainstream.

Virtuality Caterpillar
The ‘Caterpillar’ demonstrator. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

This funding would be part of the investment that would allow Dr. Walden through his previously formed company W. Industries to drive their commercial ambitions. An operation that would partner with a leisure entertainment company to create a VR platform that could be deployed into the amusement sector. And so, after much development, and major false starts, 1991 would see the launch of the ‘Virtuality 1000CS’ (Cyber Space – Stand-Up), and the ‘Virtuality 1000SD’ (Sit-Down) – released to much fanfare in a big launch event. The newly named Virtuality would go on to place themselves on the London Stock market, ambitions high about controlling the cyber-space.

The launch event for the new VR hardware. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library
Virtuality 1000CS
The Virtuality 1000CS. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library
Virtuality 1000SD
The Virtuality 1000SD Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

The innovation was clear in the concept – though the applications had a lot to answer for. Based on computing power initially supplied by the Commodore Amiga 3000 motherboard. The technology proved temperamental and unwieldy, the Visette-1 head-mounted display, using LCD displays was a shoebox of a design, and as well as being heavy was less than robust to the needs of amusement.

Exploded view of the Visette-1 headset. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

Also, the pace of game development seemed wanting. The company’s first CS game had been ‘Dactyl Nightmare’ based on a demonstrator created for a television show. And while it would find some popularity in its novel multi-player configuration, the other games created for the SD platforms were far less popular. The innovation for multi-player would even see the creation of a fantasy four-player game called ‘Legend Quest’ that would be housed in its own short-lived locations.

Virtuality sunk its investment into lavish self-promotion and marketing, supported by break-neck research and development. The technology jumped in leaps and bounds, and soon they were ready to launch their next iteration of the concept. Late 1993 would see the release of the ‘2000SU’ and ‘2000SD’ platforms – greatly reduced in physical size and greatly advanced in computer performance (now depending on the Intel 486 DX-33 processor).

Virtuality 2000SU & SD
The Virtualaity 2000SU and 2000SD. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

The new Visette-2 boasted better performance and a greatly reduced form factor – with performance that would not be surpassed till the release of the Oculus DK2 some 22-years later.

Virtuality Visette-2
Exploded view of the Visette-2 headset. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

But still, the games would fail to strike gold. Most of the Virtuality hardware was living off the novelty of the VR experience rather than a compelling game platform that would draw repeat visitation. The company looked towards finding a muse or winning formula that would offset the high price of their hardware and plicate their investors. Fanciful partnerships with sales agents in the States, to try and generate orders and placate Virtuality’s investors – seeing the company’s value collapsing from its heyday of being worth £90m.

In 1993, Virtuality would surprise the industry and sign a strategic joint venture to develop virtual reality hardware and software, with Japanese amusement giant SEGA Enterprises. The purported £3m collaboration was to develop VR amusement and attraction hardware based on the joint development and Virtuality’s Visette patents. With SEGA ambitiously projecting sales annually of some 2,000 VR units. The first fruits of this partnership would see the development by AM3 of ‘SEGA-Net Merc’ (‘Dennou Senki Net Merc’) – a poorly executed technology demonstrator.

Virtuality SEGA-Net Merc
The SEGA-Net Merc. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

This would be followed by the full release of the joint VR headset developed by the partners, with the SEGA ‘Mega Visor Display’ (MVD), in 1994. That would be fielded on the first VR ride attraction, the ‘VR-1’. Rolled out across several SEGA ATP (Amusement Theme Park) sites including JOYPOLIS and SEGA-World.

Virtuality - Mega Visor Display
Diagram of the Mega Visor Display (MVD) headset. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

This VR headset platform would be superseded by the hype-driven ambitions of SEGA America to create a consumer VR headset. Interest in the real SEGA Japan MVD would be side-lined by the ignominious collapse of the fictitious US consumer prototype. Thus, marking the start of the implosion in VR interest.   

SEGA Mega Visor
The SEGA Mega Visor. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

For Virtuality the company was in dire straits, unable to capture a winning formula that would enable high quantity sales, and address the technical issues raised by new versions of their hardware. Haemorrhaging capital, the company would rush to release the third iteration of their amusement hardware, with the ‘3000SU’ – powered by an Intel Pentium. Desperately attempting to address complaints and lacklustre reception to their games. Even in 1996, jumping into an ill-fated partnership to license ‘PAC-MAN’ from NAMCO, creating an abortive first-person perspective interpretation of the classic arcade maze game in VR.

Virtuality 3000SU
The Virtuality 3000SU. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

But nothing could stop the downhill trajectory, the company wildly pivoting from one business initiative to another, trying to salvage some market share, and leverage their investment. Going on to partner with Philips Electronics, Takara, and Atari Corporation, to create some of the first consumer versions of VR technology. Examples include the aborted Atari ‘Jaguar VR’, or Philips ‘Scuba Virtual Immersion Visor’ that would be released but failed to enthuse. Virtuality wildly pivoting to partner with IBM, to create a workstation variant of their amusement hardware for the commercial sector.

Virtuality Scuba Visor
The leaflet for the Scuba Visor. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

For Virtuality the end was near. Too many failed partnerships, too many promises broken, and agreements with sales agents that failed to deliver. While at the same time those machines that were in circulation were prone to mechanical failure, and growing player indifference as the growth in console gaming and the apathy of the amusement trade took hold. VR was unable to live by novelty alone. Eventually, the investors would have enough, unable to live on hype alone, Virtuality would be wound up in 1997 – its assets sold, and the name would vanish into the shadows. But the legacy would live on.

For many in the 1990s, their first taste of VR came from these machines in the arcades, and that first taste had started a hunger. Over 20-years-later, others would go on to borrow heavily from Virtuality’s innovation and the path they had carved. Though many would be less able to learn from the painful lessons the company endured.

The Virtual Arena: The Shoulders of Giants – Sensorama

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column – marking a year of anniversaries – we look at the birth of immersive entertainment, and how Sensorama needs more recognition as it celebrates an important Sixtieth anniversary.


As the increased investment and interest in all things immersive entertainment takes hold, there is a habit amongst some to ignore the lessons and innovation of those that come before them. This year sees the marking of two important anniversaries in the phased evolution of VR and immersion. The first is an often-overlooked story regarding one of the many visionaries that laid the foundations for what has followed. A visionary, and his creations that have been side-lined, even though their innovation lives on.

Not a familiar name in the history of immersive technology, Morton Heilig, was an inventor that far exceeded his times with the scope and imagination of the immersive entertainment landscape to come. The concept that would later be defined as ‘Sensorama’ originated from a 1955 concept for what he defined as an “Experience Theater” – using the latest 3D movie processes and physical effects. What would be described as “The Cinema of the Future”!

3D Camera Morton Heilig
Morton Heilig – wielding his 3D motion picture camera. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

While the design for the Experience Theater was more expansive, the ability to create a proof-of-concept was needed, and so was fabricated the first ‘Sensorama’ system, completed based on the 1962 patent. Called the ‘Sensorama Simulator’, the system was described in its marketing brochure as a “new kind of communication device”, created to allow the user the feeling of being physically present in a different environment. This was achieved through effects such as a tactile inducer seat and controls, wind, three-dimensional motion picture, a binocular viewer with audio, and the use of aroma emitters – all housed within a unique cabinet.

Sensorama Patent
The ‘Sensorama’ Patent. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

Created for the first machine, the multi-sensory experiences available included five different short films – including sequences from a go-kart race, helicopter flight, and a reckless motorcycle ride. The gasoline fumes and landscape smells recreated chemically, through the aroma system. But with an eye for the future opportunities, Morton included one short film in the line-up that offered a raunchy sequence, including a local belly dancer, with added tactile effects. All these “experiences” would be specially choreographed 3D movies, married to the special effects. Morton would apply his skills as a cinematographer to the creation of these experiences, using the bulky 3D camera system to capture the sensory film. With stories of hair-raising motorcycle rides while wielding the cumbersome camera equipment.

Sensorama render
A lovingly recreated render of the Sensorama Simulator. Image credit: optimisticmonkey

With the creation of the first Sensorama production prototype, Morton would present the opportunity to the amusement trade to be part of this revolutionary new aspect of their business. A campaign to woo the coin-operated amusement trade to adopt the simulator was started, a machine was placed on test in 1963 at ‘Simon’s Arcade’ in Manhattan and reported fantastic revenue generation. The machine was paraded to the leading amusement distributors, and taken to a major trade event. Generating great interest at the time.

Sensorama Flyer
Amusement flyer for the machine. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

But then the industry cooled. The idea of a “sensory” amusement experience was just too alien for the operators. The idea of turning their amusement halls into “sensoramas” was outside of their comfort zone. And so they side-lined the concept. Dreams that the machine could have a life beyond amusement, deployed in the travel business, government and even academia – as a public information device were hatched, along with the creation of a two-seater version of the platform – all supported by new specially created immersive films. Dreams that would never see the light of day.

To better understand what was lost, Sensorama was much more than a precursor to VR (that would come later) but was an example of XR – an extended or extreme reality platform comprising immersive audio, visuals, olfactory and tactile motion. A much higher implementation of what is achieved with theme park 5D theatres, or the cinema 4D seating currently. But in side-lining this visionary platform, another even more far-reaching concept was dashed to the realms of “what if!”

The following concept, leading on from Sensorama, would prove equally amazing and prescient towards the prospect of the technology. Under Patent #2,955,156 – Morton, in 1960 defined his ‘Telesphere Mask’ – a platform that would supply stereoscopic 3D visuals via a Head-Mounted Display (HMD). The forerunner of the modern VR headsets today. This system was a true fully immersive platform, rather than a synthetic reality viewer. A sensory immersion platform over 60-years from the VR scene we inhabit today.

Telesphere Mask patent
Telesphere Mask patent. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts
Telesphere Mask prototype
Telesphere Mask prototype. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

Today, many will not be familiar with Sensorama, while a few may be familiar with the distinctive image of the amazing cabinet, but not so familiar with the story of its creation. With subsequent patents – Morton would continue to champion his creation, though would end up working for Disney on their theme park attractions, and on other innovative projects. It would take great effort for the entertainment industry to recognise the genius of the creation, taking till after his death in 1977.  For more on the life, works and amazing imagination of Morton Heilig, and the patents and legacy, we would recommend visiting the USC School of Cinematic Arts website.

This period of the VR and immersive entertainment birth is described by some as the first phase of VR adoption, in the late 1980’s we would see the second, and then in 1991, we would see what is the third. Continuing charting important anniversaries, our following feature will look at the amazing story of Virtuality, and the first real attempt at mainstream VR adoption.

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.

The Virtual Arena: Amusements VR Obsession Continues – Part 2

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. His latest Virtual Arena column concludes its two-part coverage of America’s largest amusement trade event, charting the leading immersive trends.

AEI showfloor
Image credit: KWP

Returning to Las Vegas, and the 2022 Amusement Expo International (AEI) – the event offered a chance to chart the significant trends that are shaping the market. The hunger for VR was still intense from operators entertaining the returning audiences to their facilities. The lockdown has incubated a “cabin fever” with many of their customers, and social entertainment has proven still to be a growing business, even post lockdown. However, there is a need to find the right mix of immersive technology, and repeatability, from the trends on display.

One of the leading new trends in VR for location-based entertainment (LBE) adoption are those of tethered “VR Enclosures” and free-roaming “VR Arenas”. The latest tethered headset enclosures offer the ability for players to compete in groups, with multi-player experiences. This was represented at AEI by Inowize, bringing its ‘Arkadia Arena’ six-player VR Enclosure to the show, avidly played by exhibition attendees. The company launching a new VR game for the system called Heroik – a competitive battle arena game.

Akadia Arena - Inowize
The Akadia Arena from Inowize. Image credit: KWP

Regarding developments in the free-roaming VR applications, AEI debuted several new developments. Previous years had seen backpack PC’s employed in the free-roaming business approach, but the latest standalone VR headsets, favouring mobile processors (mostly the Qualcomm XR2), have offered an opportunity to develop the next generation of VR Arena, and offer a more simplified operation model.

VEX Arena
VEX Arena in full action. Image credit: KWP

Exhibitor Shaffer Distributing represented VEX Solutions, which had its VEX Arena hyper-reality platform, going through its paces at the show, an arena that is scalable, able to accommodate the available space at various locations. Next to them was SPREE Interactive, with their family-friendly SPREE Arena. Both platforms are able to accommodate multiplayer VR games, using Pico headsets.

The Pico Neo VR headset series offers equal performance to the Meta Quest 2 but is focused on enterprise, and had become a simple alternative headset for mobile processor standalone gaming. SPREE was also promoting development of a new arena-based experience with its VR Bumper-Car platform, developed in partnership with I.E. Parks, a report on its deployment after launch coming soon.

Spree Arena
Multiplayer action on the SPREE Arena. Image credit: KWP

The competition element in social entertainment was underlined across the numerous new releases at the amusement trade event – and especially regarding VR developments. One of those exhibiting their state in this was Phenomena, with its ‘VR Esports Arena’. A dedicated turnkey arena-based system that can support from four to eight groups of players, competing in a fast-paced eSports-based tournament with livestream eSports support, all from an audience-friendly arena. The platform is one of the first at the show to run on the HTC Vive Focus 3 headset, though many other manufacturers in this sector are looking at this headset as a go-to solution for the next generation of standalone gaming.

Phenomena arena
Competitive action in the VR Esports Arena. Image credit: KWP

Mixed Reality

Not all the interest in the market was on the VR side, AEI was the launchpad for a brand new MR platform. Developer Valo Motion will be a familiar name to readers from our coverage of their Valo Climb augmented reality climbing wall platform – marrying projection mapping onto the wall and tracking players’ movements and interactions with the virtual objects. So, creating an interactive game system from a conventional climbing experience.

Valo Motion has taken the aspect of placing the player’s physical movements into the game experience to a new level, with the launch of the ValoArena. Using chromakey and tracking, up to six players can compete in mini-games within the “Immersive Enclosure”, with their bodies and movements represented on the screen. The competitive games are supported by the ValoApp which allows players and operators to chart scores and create tournaments – leading obviously to a streamed eSports opportunity. Game videos can be shared instantly, too. Exhibitor CSE also had a body tracked game system with its ‘iWall Arcade’ – players getting quite a workout from the system, their body movements represented by their on-screen avatar.

Physical turned digital in the ValoArena. Image credit: Valo Motion

The ability to mix the digital with the physical was also illustrated by exhibitor Media Vision. The company along with their active physical games systems demonstrated The Great Bazookaball Time Transporter. Using a large projected screen, players use the company’s pneumatic “bazookaball” launcher, shooting real balls at hordes of zombies on screen, in a cartoon wild west game. The ability to have multiple players makes this both a fun and compelling game experience for indoor and outdoor applications and illustrates the diversity of the immersive game experience in the modern market.

Bazookaball Time Transporter
Physical balls launched at digital screen from Media Vision. Image credit: KWP

AEI 2022 was a great return to physical trade events, and an eye-opener to the advancements and developments in the LBE VR scene, but also opened a window on the greater deployment of immersive technology with MR starting to make inroads into this lucrative market.

COMING NEXT – While staying in Las Vegas, The Virtual Arena will be reporting on the application of XR in the venue business, with detailed coverage from the brand new AREA15 immersive entertainment venue.

The Virtual Arena: Amusements VR Obsession Continues – Part 1

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. His latest Virtual Arena column provides two-part coverage of America’s largest amusement trade event, charting the leading immersive trends.

Image credit: KWP

It would be difficult to hide the shock that some in the media have had towards the explosion in interest for out-of-home amusement and entertainment, following the arduous global lockdown. Where some had written that the restaurant, cinema, and amusement industries would never survive – in the shadow of the global health crisis. But the customer has again proven popular media wrong – and has jumped at the ability to socialize and enjoy entertainment post calamity. Mirroring the 1918 pandemic, many observers now expect a “New Roaring ‘20’s” atmosphere to grip the market.

The American Amusement Machine Association (AAMA) and sister organizations held in Las Vegas during March, the 2022 Amusement Expo International (AEI), gathering all things amusement and entertainment to bask in the return to physical show events, but also the newfound excitement in the business – and one of the trends that was defined in this excitement was VR.

Virtual Reality

We have reported from the last London amusement trade event on developments seen there, and we can see that they have gathered pace since January with many new developments and trends in evidence on the Las Vegas show floor. The leading trend was the continuation in investment in “Self Service VR Kiosks” – these systems offer an amusement-like operator’s dynamic, but still embrace the interest in VR entertainment.

We had reported on the launch of the VRsenal ‘V2’ Standalone VR Kiosks previously. The game was shown for the first time for most US operators at AEI, supported by the latest game content, including Vader Immortal – Lightsaber Dojo (licensed from ILMxLab). And new titles Rhythmatic (developed by Blackwall Lab), and VR shooter Space Pirate Trainer (developed by I-Illusions, through Vertigo Games). The ‘V2’ uses a rugged HTC Vive headset in a special retractable harness mounted into the eye-catching kiosk.

AAMA - VRsenal titles
Latest selection of titles on the V2. Image credit: KWP

Creative Works booth also showed a ‘V2’ platform, but this one was populated with content developed by VRstudios. The new ‘Fury’ platform was running the two-player basketball skill game Hoops Madness. The immersive hoops game had the player trying out their game in virtual reality, developed to support an extensive tournament element that will create league-based competition supported by online apps. This is the first of a series of sports-based VR games aimed at creating thrilling competition from VRstudios.

AAMA - Hoops Madness
Getting to grips with the Hoops Madness VR game. Image credit: KWP

A newcomer to the Western market that launched at AEI was VAR Live with their ‘VAR Box’ VR kiosk system. The company has had strong success with the system in the Asian market. The ‘VAR Box’ currently using an Oculus Rift headset (though the company is planning on rolling out a new headset soon). The player wielding a gun interface incorporating their controller, taking part in several shooting experiences. These games are linked to a dedicated tournament infrastructure, which has eSport support and looks to apply the same model in the West.

Shooting action with the VAR Box. Image credit: KWP

Also, on display in this category, exhibitor Benchmark Games International, working in partnership with BoxBlaster had developed ‘VR X-perience’ – a VR kiosk with a popular kid-based VR game called ‘Gold and Mace’, offering one of the first ticket-redemption VR pieces. We had already reported on the launch of the SEGA Amusements International (SAI), ‘VR Agent’ platform – the upright VR kiosk that incorporated the VR headset into the body of the players gun to create an immersive shooting experience that did not need cumbersome headbands, that was seen by the US trade at the show, for many for the first time.

We have also charted in the trade the explosion in “VR Ride Systems” – two-rider, motion seat machines such as the Virtual Rabbids (LAI Games), STORM (TRIOTECH), or King Kong of Skull Island (Raw Thrills), along with at AEI, Chinese examples from company 360action! using Deepoon E3 VR headsets.  But the technology had gathered pace and a new entrant to this category was revealed to the amusement trade.

AAMA - VR Ride Systems
The VR ride experience from 360 action! Image credit: KWP

Creative Works on their crowded AEI booth showed SpongeBob VR a licensed property, developed in partnership with MajorMeg. The game has two players taking the rolls of SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star in a wacky racing game. The motion-base cabinet, using tethered HTC Vive headsets, has the driver using his body movements to steer their jalopy, while the player at the rear launches Krabby Patties at customers lining the course, to score points. Building on the VR ride experience, but with a strong game element to generate repeat play.

SpongeBob VR
Fast two-player action on SpongeBob VR. Image credit: KWP

The ability to offer a unique physical element within the immersive experience differentiates Out-of-Home VR gaming from consumer applications, and AEI had examples of the latest “VR Motion-Platform” products. Barron Games represented the ‘Birdly’ flying VR experience from Somniacs. Players lay on the special motion platform, moving their arms to steer their flight through the virtual world. With experiences such as ‘Wingsuit’ and the virtual bird simulator ‘Cities WeR’.

The ability to totally immerse the player within the virtual world was given a new spin at the show with the launch of the production prototype of the EnterIdeas, gyro-motion ‘AT360’ platform. An enclosure single seat simulator that spins the player through a 360’ motion envelope, offering a thrilling ride experience. The company has developed the unusual DogeCoaster, a VR crypto meme-based ride. Just starting the process of placing the attraction at venues in the US.

AAMA - AT360
Going for a spin in the AT360. Image credit: KWP

This concludes the first part of our coverage of the 2022 American Amusement trade extravaganza. The second part will follow shortly covering the other VR and MR trends making their mark on the scene.

The Virtual Arena: The Immersive Gallery: Painting with Light

The application of XR into the attraction, amusement and entertainment landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – embracing “Artainment” while evaluating the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and its unique technology.

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience_image2
Image credit: KWP

We have covered the application of immersive technology in the arts in this column over the last few years. We have seen opera represented in virtual reality, and have also experienced Immersive Theater, but we can now add a new aspect to this list – that of the “Immersive Gallery”. Along with new openings in US cities, London became the latest city to open the ‘Van Gogh Exhibit: The Immersive Experience’ and we were lucky enough to get to tour this compelling event.

Immersive gallery experiences have gathered momentum in popularity in recent years, and this adaptation offers a blend of the latest digital display and immersive technologies, in a pop-up exhibition that is capable of being taken on the road. Having toured since 2017, the Van Gogh immersive exhibit has captivated over 5,000,000 visitors across America and Europe. But, unlike most touring exhibitions, digital XR immersion is at its heart.

The Van Gogh London Exhibit: The Immersive Experience has been brought to the UK capital by entertainment producer Exhibition Hub together with Fever, one of the leading entertainment discovery platforms. Plunging audiences into a digital art exhibition of the work and life of Vincent van Gogh, one of the greatest artistic geniuses of the 19th century. But rather than a stayed and tired art gallery exhibit, the exhibition uses the latest projection, VR and MR elements to create an immersive experience.

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience_image3
Image credit: KWP

“Experiential” is a term that is growing in usage regarding the deployment of immersive technology – the means for the guest to be captivated within the digital world, be that using headsets, or immersive projection platforms. The Van Gogh exhibit employs all these elements and more while staying true to the artistic power of his work. The exhibition is split into three key elements, housed in the unassuming (but appropriate) 19th-century stable buildings opposite Old Spitalfields Market.

The first element of the exhibition is a gallery section – along with re-creations of the original artwork from the master, the digital theatre presents details of Van Gogh’s life and influences to help gain knowledge of what shaped his work. The vibrancy of these artworks is also represented with a Projection Mapped recreation of his famous works adding a three-dimensional element to understanding the composition of his genius.

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience_image4
Image credit: KWP

Moving through this space, guests that are prepared to dive deeper are offered the opportunity to experience the world of the artist in VR. An area comprising several Meta Quest 2 headsets have been installed in a special area of the exhibition, where users traverse through a virtual period re-creation of the real-world settings, from the South of France that inspired the artist to create some of his most famous works. The narrated experience is passive but allows the guest to be part of the environment, walking alongside the artist.

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience_image5
Image credit: KWP

The final aspect of the exhibition is one that is most talked about – that of the giant hall with the latest 360’ projection technology, painting all four walls with images of the most famous paintings. Rather than just projecting them, the space has been developed so that the audience feels like they are placed within each artwork, their vision saturated with the colour and vibrancy of the paintings. Deckchairs were laid out for guests to sit back and let the imagery wash over them. 

Overall, the organizers present the exhibition as a 60-to-75-minute experience, with many of the guests relaxing in the Immersive Hall, captivated by the artwork that surrounded them, smartphones out to try and capture the experience to share with family and friends on social media. This was the best example of how immersive technology can accentuate an experience – along with the fact that many of the digitally re-created artworks would never be able to be assessable to an audience in real life, so adding another level to the exhibition.

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience_image1
Image credit: KWP

What some have dubbed “Artainment”, this exhibition allowed XR technology to bring the wonders of Van Gogh to a new audience. Turning the “digital into physical”, this XR approach offers a new interpretation of the gallery experience, a future that is being applied to many other artists’ works.

The next instalment of The Virtual Arena will look at the impact of the VR and MR on the current US amusement scene is reported on, with the latest trends on display at the 2022 Amusement Expo International.