On the 70th floor of the U.S. Bank building in downtown Los Angeles, a virtual reality camera crew took turns riding the Skyslide, the high-altitude tourist attraction that opened last year atop the city's tallest building. The several-second trip allows visitors to careen down a glass chute that is suspended a vertiginous 1,000 feet from the ground.
With a compact VR rig in hand, the crew shot several trips down the slide, adjusting the settings on the eight-camera Nokia OZO to capture the right balance of morning light and adrenaline rush. The primary audience for this 3-D and 360-degree experience will be VR users in China, who producers hope will be intrigued enough to put down their headsets and hop on a plane to experience L.A. for real.
As the VR industry looks to stoke user adoption, tourism has become a fertile field for content creators in Southern California and beyond. L.A. remains the top U.S. destination for Chinese tourists, and VR is becoming an important marketing tool to reach Chinese consumers looking to travel.
The goal is to take travel marketing "out of a flat experience toward something more immersive," said Azel James, the head of production at FansTang, a boutique Chinese digital media company that specializes in celebrity and sports content. The Shanghai-based company films much of its VR content, including the recent Skyslide shoot, in the L.A. area.
FansTang has captured VR footage of several local attractions and landmarks, including hang gliding off the Malibu coast and touring Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. It has about 35 full-time staff members, with 15 in L.A., in addition to a local freelance crew of about 30.
Chinese consumers will be able to experience the slide footage and other clips that FansTang is producing through VR glasses made by Santa Clara, Calif.-based VR firm Immerex. The headsets will be sold later this year.
The VR experience isn't intended to replace tourism but to offer a next-best experience that is designed to intrigue viewers with scenes that range from five to 20 minutes in length.
VR-enabled traveling "can make you feel present in a way that mere photography can't," said Forest Key, the head of VR start-up Pixvana. "However, there's still a chicken-and-egg problem — very few people have the headsets."
FansTang, a subsidiary of the Las Vegas-based Remark Media, targets Chinese millennials who consume most of their entertainment content online or on mobile devices. Though it didn't disclose financial data, the company said it generates revenue through selling its content to various digital platforms, as well as through ad-supported content and brand sponsors.
Especially popular are basketball-related clips — a camera crew recently shot a VR sequence of an L.A. Clippers playoff party at Venice Beach. The clips are intended to target the growing NBA fan base in China and will stream on platforms including LeSports, the Chinese digital sports media company.
L.A.'s wide range of tourist attractions is a good fit for the VR medium, according to Kate Stewart, a producer at Virtual Reality Los Angeles, which organizes VR expos for companies and consumers.
"Instead of looking at a webpage with a lot of photos, you're actually able to be transported," she said. "People spend hours and hours researching — it's a lot of money to spend. A VR experience may push you over the edge to make that happen."
While VR remains very much an uncertain technology in Hollywood, it is already taking root in the travel industry. Tourism groups in Arizona and British Columbia recently launched their own VR experiences to help draw visitors, while VR companies like New York-based YouVisit create virtual tours of cities and campuses.
"Places that have wide-open, natural landscapes really benefit from the technology," said Stewart of VRLA.
Experts say VR adoption worldwide is still in its early phases but the Chinese market is expected to take off in the next few years. It is estimated to reach $8 billion in hardware sales by 2020 as more Chinese consumers warm up to the technology.
Last year, China accounted for an estimated 40% of VR headsets shipped worldwide, according to a report from Canalys, a Singapore-based technology market analyst firm.
"It does seem like China will be one of the biggest markets in VR if not the biggest very quickly," said Key of Pixvana, a Seattle-based VR start-up that is not involved with FansTang. "The Chinese market versus the American market feels more advanced in several ways," including lower consumer prices in China for entry-level hardware.
Meanwhile, Chinese tourists continue to flock to L.A. in growing numbers.
The annual number of Chinese visitors in L.A. County passed the 1 million mark for the first time in 2016, making it the most popular U.S. destination for travelers from mainland China. The number represents a nearly 22% increase in visitors from 2015.
Chinese visitors spent $1.28 billion in L.A. in 2015, according to the most recent data from the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board. (The board isn't involved in the FansTang project but assisted the company in finding locations to shoot.)
As a result, the tourism potential for VR in China is growing, said Crystal Tang, an executive vice president at Immerex. "Tourism is one of the most interesting categories that VR users can feel and experience," she said. "It's a portable gateway."
FansTang, founded in 2012, plans to create 2,000 minutes of content that will be streamed free for consumers on the proprietary VR platform, which will be available in China as well as in a handful of other countries including South Korea, Japan and the U.S. Immerex hasn't disclosed the price of its new VR headset.
Key of VR start-up Pixvana estimates that only a few million consumers worldwide own VR hardware. But he said that as more hardware choices enter the market, travel will be one of the applications that helps spur user adoption.
The VR market, he said, "will be mature over time and people will start using it to make tourism decisions."