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Dreaming Big - A Captivating VR Experience Is Reaching From Dallas To Dubai

Posted By Michael Ventre, Monday, June 10, 2019

If ever there was a time to put on magic goggles and experience a different reality, it just might be now. The clever folks at Dreamscape Immersive are hoping to transport as many virtual realists as possible away from the current national and global kerfuffles and toward a burgeoning form of mass entertainment, if only for a brief but fun-filled period.

For many years Walter Parkes has been one of the film industry’s foremost experts on non-goggled escapism. Along with his wife and business partner, Laurie MacDonald, he has helped shepherd more than 50 films to the screen as a writer, producer and executive. The duo has had Steven Spielberg as a longtime BFF, and Parkes has received three Academy Award nominations. You practically need a VR headset just to take in the fullness of their credits.

Because most movies are two-dimensional, and great imaginations know no bounds, a natural conflict exists—which is what led Parkes to create the virtual reality entertainment company called Dreamscape Immersive. (MacDonald is not an active partner in this venture, although she sparkles in a supporting role.) Along with co-founder Kevin Wall, Dreamscape offers the kind of VR experience that prescient nerds once whispered about in awe over what could be possible when the technology was first introduced. “Dreamscape as an idea,” Parkes explains, “sort of operates more in the world of theme park rides and Hollywood motion pictures than it does in the world of gaming.”

In the technical mumbo jumbo department, Dreamscape employs a system called inverse kinematics. In motion capture, the subject wears a suit similar to a surfer’s wetsuit, filled with little dots that record motion to a computer. With inverse kinematics, it’s much simpler: Small square sensors are secured to each hand and foot of the traveler, a backpack is donned, then goggles. What isn’t covered on the rest of the body is filled in by an algorithm.

“There is relatively less information having to go through the system because the algorithm is doing a lot of it,” Parkes says, “which is why we’ve had no instances of motion sickness.”

The Swiss-based technology was developed by Caecilia Charbonnier and Sylvain Chague and deployed by Dreamscape. Parkes says this technology boasts two very important advantages that other virtual reality methods do not: 1) it renders the entire body without lag or latency, one to one, so you can truly experience yourself in a VR environment, and 2) it accommodates multiple people at one time.

“My experiences in VR were not very satisfying prior to this because who wants to go alone in a VR space and look at stuff,” says Parkes. “It’s interesting, but it wasn’t really compelling.

Dreamscape’s first location at Westfield Century City Mall has a travel theme and
uses design elements resembling a classic train station.

“But when we saw this technology,” he continues, “particularly because it was social—because we are social animals and we like to consume our entertainment socially—it struck me as something that could be developed not just as an offshoot of gaming but as a way of telling stories.”

The stories being told are brief, with minimal narration and no real subplots, but the VR environment keeps the audience/participant engaged and riveted.

At the Westfield Century City Mall, the Dreamscape location appears like a smaller version of a Cineplex. There is a board displaying showtimes, a small snack area (although there really is no point in trying to munch popcorn or guzzle a vat of cola; it just wouldn’t work), and pods where the magic happens. Adjacent to each pod is a small “gear up” area, similar to a locker room, with spaces to accommodate six adventurers at a time.

Three titles were available at press time, with more in the pipeline: “Alien Zoo,” which is fairly self-explanatory and came from a long-pondered idea for a feature bandied about among Spielberg, Parkes and MacDonald; “The Blu,” a whale-saving undersea adventure; and “The Curse of the Lost Pearl: A Magic Projector Adventure,” which has an Indiana Jones-like flavor and is a collaboration between Dreamscape CEO Bruce Vaughn, and Parkes and his son Graham, a budding wunderkind in the entertainment business. “Bruce had created, built and deployed theme park rides all over the world, ending with the last thing he did there, which was to open Shanghai Disneyland,” explains Parkes.

Each works as a distinct and wondrous experience. But these 10- to 13- minute shows at $20 a pop obviously have significant differences from the traditional cinematic products Parkes and MacDonald have produced over the years, including the Men in Black franchise, Minority Report, Road to Perdition and Catch Me If You Can.

“The interesting thing,” Parkes says, “if you want to get nerdy about it—there’s two fundamental elements of film language in telling stories: the frame and cutting. If you see a pretty girl, I cut to you looking, I cut back to her, I cut back to you, and it tells the audience you’re looking at her as an object of desire. If I want to know more about what you’re thinking, I go in tight.

“Those two fundamental things are taken away (in VR). Basically there’s no cutting and no frame. So you have to find other ways to make up for that. And the other fundamental thing about film storytelling that we’ve found in our many years is point of view. You’re telling somebody’s story. The trick here is that the audience has to be the main character. (That) challenge is really interesting and difficult.”

The Westfield Century City location is owned and operated by Dreamscape. The next four Dreamscape venues are being done in partnership with AMC and its CEO, Adam Aron. The theater chain is now the company’s biggest investor, and you can probably understand why.

Dreamscape is also working with Majid Al Futtaim Group, a lifestyle-leisure group that operates shopping malls throughout the Middle East. Dreamscape is scheduled to open a venue in the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai in August or September. And stateside, openings are planned in Dallas and Columbus, Ohio.

In addition, Dreamscape is looking at venues like the British Museum of Natural History, which has the largest blue whale skeleton in the world. “We may install there semi-permanently,” he says. “If we’re able to install near that, it would be pretty cool.”

Now put on your goggles and imagine a world where such VR venues have not only original stories, but offshoot tie-ins to big Hollywood features.

First up, Men in Black.


Chris Hemsworth (left) with producer Laurie MacDonald and Tessa Thompson in London on the set of Men in Black: International

The latest installment of the franchise, Men in Black: International, which is set for release on June 14, features new stars in Tessa Thompson (Creed, Westworld) and Chris Hemsworth (the Thor series). Men in Black debuted in 1997 with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith on the one-sheet. This new one is the fourth feature release, and there was also a TV series that ran for 53 episodes.

The premise involves agents of a secret organization who specialize in rooting out extraterrestrials here on Earth.

“This is one more slot in the franchise,” MacDonald says, “but it expands the universe of the whole organization. That’s why it’s Men in Black: International. It posits that we didn’t know there are agents operating all over the world. It’s based in London.”

In their semisecret Culver City location, Dreamscape engineers are busy working in a warehouse-like space on new product, including a VR version of Men in Black. The dream is to have the VR experience open  before the feature, and then play through and possibly beyond its run.

Dreamscape isn’t alone in the VR marketplace. One of its major competitors is The Void, which is aligned with Disney and produces work from Disney titles. “They’re a very interesting and good company that has been around a couple more years than us,” says Parkes. “Their experience is more on the gaming side of things.” And the arena surely will fill with more such companies as VR builds popularity.

“Studios have realized that you sort of have to look at your movie as part of a great big ecosystem of your franchise,” Parkes explains. “And it has to exist in digital, and in mobile, and publishing, and retail, and in all sorts of things. This is nothing new, but there’s more value put on the ancillaries than ever before.”

That is putting Dreamscape in an enviable position. Parkes reports that the company’s Century City location is operating at “near 90% utilization, which means it’s 100% on all weekends. It’s operating at almost twice the model in terms of number of tickets sold.”

And apparently it isn’t just teenagers out on weekend dates looking for new excitement. Granted this is anecdotal, but Parkes says he recently witnessed an example of how the word on VR may have breached demographic borders.

“About three weeks ago, I was there (in Century City) in the morning and there were six ladies I would say between 78 and 82,” he recalls. “They had never done VR, and one of them walked by us and said, ‘We’re gonna do this!’ And I said, ‘I’m sure they’re gonna do ‘The Blu,’ but they said no, they’re doing ‘The Magic Projector.’

“Not only did they love it,” he adds, “but I looked at them, and there was this great sense of accomplishment, like they were able to do something they weren’t sure they’d be able to do.”

Could it be that VR will be a key to bridging the technical generation gap?


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