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Entertainment studios turn to virtual reality to entice movie fans

Entertainment studios turn to virtual reality to entice movie fans
Cameron Clow, left, and Zac Nguyen, both of Orange, give each other a high-five before entering "Alien: Descent," a free-roaming virtual reality experience, at the Outlets at Orange shopping center. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Sometime far into the future, Phillip Barrigas is a Colonial Marine on a hostile planet, sent on a doomed rescue mission. Swarms of 7-foot-tall aliens chase him as he flees, firing as he goes, watching his ammunition tick down to zero.

In reality, Barrigas, 24, is a school crossing guard standing in a mall in Orange County. He just finished a virtual reality experience tied to the “Alien” science-fiction movie franchise that has been installed at the Outlets at Orange shopping center.

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“It was immersive, extremely enjoyable,” said Barrigas, an avid fan of the six-film movie franchise on which the “Alien: Descent” VR experience is based. “It felt very real. The level of detail was astounding.”

Such high-tech, interactive experiences are popping up at malls, cineplex lobbies and amusement parks around the country. It’s a way for major entertainment studios to drum up interest in a new release and keep fans engaged with a movie and its characters after they leave the theater.

Shopping malls, always looking for ways to reel in customers, see it as a new hook to reinvigorate their properties. Westfield Century City recently hosted a virtual reality experience called “Alien Zoo,” created by start-up Dreamscape Immersive; the pop-up ran for a few weeks.

When a movie has an in-person experience attached to it, viewers “are more likely to be compelled to leave Netflix and go there to have a different, more memorable and lasting experience,” said Hao Li, a computer graphics and virtual reality expert at USC.

Pure Imagination Studios in Van Nuys is the creative genius beind ALIEN DESCENT, a free roaming Virtual Reality experience that heralds the advances in so-called "location based VR."

Standalone VR centers are cropping up as well. The IMAX VR Experience Centre, across the street from the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, is one example.

The type of entertainment represented by the $22 “Alien: Descent” experience, created by Pure Imagination Studios in Van Nuys, is one reason why the global virtual reality industry is expected to grow by more than 46% to an expected $48 billion by 2025, according to San Francisco-based Grand View Research.

So-called location-based VR is “something that can be an incredible canvas for the right creator,” said FoxNext President Salil Mehta, describing it as a new form of storytelling. “We are now at really, literally, the top of the first inning in this new medium.”

FoxNext is the video game, virtual reality and theme park division of 20th Century Fox that was created in 2017. Pure Imagination licensed the rights to make “Alien: Descent” from FoxNext.

Art Director Franck Louis-Marie of Pure Imagination Studios works on an upcoming project. The studio, in partnership with FoxNext Destinations, developed the "Alien: Descent" virtual reality experience.
Art Director Franck Louis-Marie of Pure Imagination Studios works on an upcoming project. The studio, in partnership with FoxNext Destinations, developed the "Alien: Descent" virtual reality experience. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

In location VR, the world shifts to a first-person view of what your character sees. In your mind’s eye, you are no longer in a mall. You are, in effect, seeing yourself descending three floors into a mine. Raise your hands into view, and you see your character’s Marine-issued gloves. Look down at your legs, and you see a soldier’s combat boots.

“It was like being a character in a movie, on a real set,” said Richard Gage, a manga and anime fan who tried “Alien: Descent” at the Outlets at Orange recently.

This was Gage’s first time wearing a VR headset. Friends who are avid video gamers bought him Dramamine as a joke, saying he would probably need it for motion sickness; he didn’t feel any.

“Might have been the adrenaline counteracting it,” he said, “especially when you think the platform you are standing on is shaking because of all those aliens climbing up to get you.”

Entertainment will drive much of the industry growth. But there are many other possible niches for VR outside of entertainment, the Grand View Research report said.

Sales are also expected to be led by VR applications in the aerospace and defense, industrial and medical industries.

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The business research firm Tractica said VR will grow in use for training and simulation for groups like emergency first responders, for virtual prototyping and 3D modeling, and for medical therapy.

Nanthia Suthana, a neuroscientist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, for example, was one of the first to harness the power of VR to help map how the brain encodes and retrieves memories.

“VR is the perfect medium to test those things in human beings,” Suthana said. “We can simulate real-world environments, but still maintain full control over what the participants are seeing.”

This summer, Cadillac will roll out a kind of VR test-drive experience at some of its dealerships. Google is pushing new technology to better enable users to take and, in some cases, make their own virtual reality tours of anything from cities to national parks to college campuses.

Joshua Wexler, chief executive of fun, as he puts it, for Pure Imagination Studios, has an office built for fandom. A model of the Millennium Falcon sits next to a model of the Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft. On another display is a lightsaber from “Star Wars.” But Wexler likes to look beyond enjoyment to other uses for VR.

This goes beyond just what we do for fun


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“Imagine maybe a young boy who’s lost his legs and is trying to learn prosthetics,” Wexler said. “He can put on a headset, and we can make it a little fun for him so he can start to understand how to walk again. This goes beyond just what we do for fun.”

“Alien: Descent” was developed at Pure Imagination’s Van Nuys studio, where 55 employees work. One group is working on a potential new animated series. Another is working on a Lego Black Panther video game.

In a separate structure, there’s another project underway to see if a traditional 100,000-square-foot roller coaster ride can be simulated by a virtual reality set-up that has a footprint one-tenth that size.

Much of the technology is proprietary, but some explanations could be gleaned. An actor wears a suit covered with sensors on the company’s motion-capture stage. As the actor moves, the virtual character “is able to be driven with the same movements in 100% real time,” said Rob Taylor, director of experience production for Pure Imagination.

The first VR headsets, developed in 1968, were called HMDs or head-mounted displays. With advancements in computing power and equipment, technology experts believed that by 2010 VR would be a hit with consumers.

But the headsets never quite took off for home use the way video gaming consoles did. Now, much of VR tech is focused on the public sphere.

Pure Imagination Studios says it has taken location VR technology to a new level, introducing a lighter, more comfortable headset and eliminating the backpack.

Adrian Rodriguez, center, of Garden Grove, has biofeedback trackers attached by Zamani Nunez, right, before entering "Alien: Descent," a virtual reality experience.
Adrian Rodriguez, center, of Garden Grove, has biofeedback trackers attached by Zamani Nunez, right, before entering "Alien: Descent," a virtual reality experience. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Instead, there were four lightweight sensor patches attached with Velcro to each forearm and calf of customers like Barrigas and Gage. Both said they forgot they were wearing the sensors almost immediately.

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“We can make you feel you went half a mile down into the belly of the beast to fight Xenomorphs and facehuggers,” said Karl Stewart, president and co-founder at 1Twentyfour, which has worked closely with Pure Imagination Studios. “You know we didn’t drill half a mile down. You did not rise three stories up, but we made you feel like you did.”

In fact, at first, “Alien: Descent” was too scary.

“Too many people couldn’t handle it, so we dialed it back a little,” Wexler said. “Somewhere between the elevator and the end, they were asking for forgiveness and tapping out basically, saying, ‘Someone get me out of here.’”

Barrigas was a true test, however, acting as a kind of walking Internet Movie Database of “Alien” franchise lore. He didn’t just drive all the way from Phoenix for the event; he came decked out in full Colonial Marine regalia.

He even brought along a full replica he had made of the M56A2 smart gun featured in the second movie in the series, “Aliens,” which was released in 1986. If anyone wasn’t going to be impressed by this VR experience, it would be him.

“But I loved it,” Barrigas said. “I can die happy now.”

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