Richard Gelfond, chief executive of big-screen company Imax Corp., unveiled his new virtual reality center Tuesday with a bullish plan to turn the nascent VR industry into a mainstream art form just like movies and video games.
It won't be easy. The VR business, Gelfond said, remains stuck in its early stages for now and badly needs a "jump-start."
Though Hollywood and Silicon Valley have been touting virtual reality as the next big thing for several years, there are huge hurdles to its adoption in the entertainment industry. A major one is that the headsets and computing equipment the games require can cost thousands of dollars. Another problem: There aren't enough compelling games to make VR worth the price.
"Whether it's the lack of content or consumer access to headsets, the industry has been in a holding pattern, slow to go mainstream," Gelfond told reporters at Imax's VR Experience Centre in Los Angeles. "It's a complex ecosystem that's in need of a jump-start, and we're here to start to provide the spark."
Gelfond and Imax are hoping to help fix those problems by making big bets on VR. The company plans to open six pilot centers this year, including the Los Angeles location, which opened to the public last month.
The idea is to give people a place to play around with virtual reality games without having to pay that massive upfront cost of a full-on at-home setup. Customers pay $7 to $10 for a virtual reality "experience," including games based on movies such as Lionsgate's "John Wick" and TriStar's "The Walk," which allows daring customers to step on the virtual tightrope between the Twin Towers just like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Robert Zemeckis film.
"While VR may not be entirely ready for prime time at this moment, we're excited about the opportunity," Gelfond said. "Someone needs to shake things up."
Imax has made deals to build pilot centers in multiplexes with AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group to test whether such attractions will help bring young people back to movie theaters. Each center costs Imax $250,000 to $400,000 to create, not counting real estate spending, Gelfond said. Imax has additional centers planned for Britain and China and is eyeing projects in Japan, the Middle East and Western Europe.
Imax has also made moves to fix the industry's content shortage. The company recently started a fund with companies including Acer and CAA to finance new games for virtual reality headsets, totaling $50 million. In addition, Imax is working with Google to develop a new cinema-quality virtual reality camera. Hollywood has shown a lot of interest in virtual reality, but not for full-length movies made for headsets. Virtual reality experiences are meant to last up to 15 minutes at the Imax center.
The company on Tuesday announced deals with David Ellison's production company Skydance Media and game publishing giant Ubisoft to provide content to the new centers. Skydance's upcoming games include a science-fiction first-person shooter called "Archangel" and "Life VR," an experience tied to the company's upcoming space station thriller "Life." Similar to the movie industry, Imax will share ticketing revenue with the gaming studios.
While the games will be available for at-home headsets, Ellison said locations such as the Imax centers are necessary to get the industry off the ground, much like arcades were in the early days of the video gaming industry.
"The place most people are going to experience VR for the first time is going to be in places like Imax," Ellison told The Times. "We very much want to be a first-mover and we hope to establish a brand with what we're doing here."
The flagship Imax VR Centre, located across the street from the Grove shopping center, opened with a soft launch Jan. 6. Gelfond said it has so far attracted 5,000 customers, and sales have steadily grown. But, he admits, the company's involvement with VR is still in very experimental stages.
"These pilots are really going to be the testing ground," Gelfond told The Times. "I look at this as a very flexible platform that is intended to be Imax's flag in the ground and will evolve as we go along."