As entertainment move towards integration of reality and digital, VR became a galvanizing tech that let us build out extraordinary experiences in ways more than just digital. Taking cues from the great storytellers of Disney and Universal studios, the VR industry learned that the onboarding was essential to the in-headset experience.
This lead me to finally dip my toe into physical buildouts, logistics, throughput, and more from the challenges around IMAXVR Centers to the largest VR Theme Park at the foot of the Burj in Dubai.
IMAX VR was a collaboration between Swedish developer Starbreeze and the film tech company IMAX. The intention to push into the VR market heavily, IMAX wanted to use their theatrical experience to build VR Arcades. I was fortunate to partner with IMAX and lead design and development.
As a flagship location our mission was simple. We had to create something visually stunning AND able to push a good throughput. Without any other VR arcades out there to emulate, we had to blaze new ground. So we designed pods with a combination of the needs of VR tracking as well as player safety and usability, but ensured players could be watched by friends.
With spots for any of the many complex tracking systems, tracks for cords and specially built methods to retract cables, the challenge was immense. Paint and material had to have a certain reflective factor, couldn’t be certain colors. We learned so very much. In the end it was an excellent model and followed by VR Arcades globally.
Our Lobby was meant to be a transitional space, playing up the IMAX film background heavily. So we chose to build animated film posters with vertical 4k television and lightly animated visual posters created alongside IP owners.
Universal Pictures had their giant franchise play for the Dark Universe landing in 3 months, and they had limited franchise extensions. We proposed building a new type of VR experience to follow moments in the film from above – and build a Helicopter VR where you start in the air, but land and actually step down onto the ground and keep fighting.
Following events in the film exactly, the film essentially takes place below you as Tom Cruise flees the Mummy and Zombies in an ambulance until he wrecks himself. Our storyline – under supervision of the film writer and directors – was fully diagetic, and had you protecting Cruise’s character as he fled.
The filmmakers and franchise team at Universal worked with us to get the actual models from the film, so we could generate accurate art and stay true to the actual vision of the film. It also meant we got to see animations, scripts, story moments, early shots of the film. And then – our favorites – camel spiders.
Installed nationally alongside the premiere, from 30 Rock in NYC to Hollywood and Vine, our installations were multipart and powerful. People had never been able to fly then walk, a seemingly simple thing we had to work hard to ensure wouldn’t cause motions sickness or dysphoria.
As EMAAR, the owners of the Dubai Mall, closed down Seega Republic, they needed a replacement. They began working with a team out of Sweden, who brought in Starbreeze to supply VR. As time went on, it became clear that the team on site had never made an isntallation of their own, as simple missteps were starting to become prevalent, and EMAAR was getting impatient.
Starbreeze brought me in to help smooth this and fix the problem.
Comprised of 13 attractions in 20,000 SqFt, PVRK was intended to be the largest VR theme park in the world. As anyone who has been in Dubai knows, the spectacle is what drives the traffic is spectacle. And it isn’t a small mterm. A city famous for everything being ‘The Biggest’ or ‘The Largest’. So we had a gigantic hole to fill. And what was meant to be done in 18 months we now had three.
The Raft is a 4 player VR game set in the world of the american south, as players navigate the back rivers of the woods as demons attack. My design utilized an overhead walkway to ensure a proper queue, Multiple specially built pods to contain the experiences, an automation system to enable only one attendant, and SFX and visuals to play with the participants as they entered.
ApeX places you atop a skyscraper looking down on the city. So we built a little Dubai for people to stand with. The LED wall behind played cloud scenes and it quickly become one of the most Instagrammed spots thanks to the day/night cycle, and how it matched the weather outdoors and the brightness.
Easily the most popular experience, The Walking dead was seeing a massive boom in the region. Our throughput ahd to be insane, but we also had to care for in/out traffic, attendance, and automation. Our solution was a series of hospital rooms covered in touchable and quite tactile gore, brains, and blood, as users sat in wheelchairs matched to the actual ones from the experience. 48 Users at once could go through.
Dubaio is a city of large families, and without something for younger children we were warned the success wouldn’t be there. Geminose was our solution, and we created a slowly rotating experience to match the VR headset setup as the children sat and relaxed. Designed to enable parents to hold the child, full safety precautions, as well as on-off partitions, Geminose was quickly a hit.
With all of these things around you, a standard café simply wouldn’t do. So our setup was simple – taking the Café design that already had multiple spots in the mall itself, we extended the menu digitally with a curved LED screen with a lower brightness but high contrast. At a distance among the lights, the screen looks static, printed, but we added light animations that would consistently make customers smile, and again – drive Instagram moments.
Starbreeze brought their Payday VR title to PVRK in style. A cooperative game about bank robbery, we built a full bank lobby with marble flooring, a teller station for ticket purchase, a CCTV security setup to watch players, and each pod was inside it’s own vault, letting you Heist in style.