Our Paola Mardo wields a VR lightsaber and pretends to be John Wick on a rooftop.
Walking into the IMAX VR Centre in Los Angeles is like entering a different world. It’s a hybrid between the posh futurism of Westworld’s reception space and the minimalist aesthetic of an Apple store. In contrast to the busy street outside, the centre’s sleek white walls, bright LED screens and plush couch seating exude the mindful calm of a spa. This isn’t just a place to test new cinematic technologies – it’s a one-of-a-kind destination for immersive virtual reality experiences.
The flagship store is called a “pilot centre,” and it’s here where IMAX tests various elements of the “location-based VR experiences” it’s aiming to produce. Like VR content and technology, the centre isn’t perfect yet, but that’s part of why it’s such a great time to visit. It hosts a number of experiences to choose from that are scheduled by time, similar to movie showtimes. They can be bought one at a time like a movie either online or at the centre. They can also be purchased through IMAX VR Samplers which are bundled VR experiences grouped together based on experience levels including Suitable for VR Beginner, Casual Experience and Intense Action.
Once you’ve arrived, sorted out your tickets and watched the instructional video, players are ushered into the big room full of “pods,” or the cornered off spaces where each of the experiences take place. There are a total of 14 pods, lined with white side walls with bright LED lights hanging from above. A tall column looms over the pods in the center featuring screens that remind you of the other available experiences you haven’t yet tried. With its bluish-purple lighting and pseudo-futuristic vibes, the pods look a bit like a cheesy arcade without the machines. But none of that matters once you strap on a headset and swap reality for the virtual world.
In The Walk, I’m transported into a scene from the IMAX film by Robert Zemeckis. I’m at top of the World Trade Center about to walk across a tightrope like Philippe Petite himself, and it is uncannily realistic. My brain is so convinced this is real that I’m sweating and frozen with fear before I make my first step. Blame it on my dislike of heights but also on the ace combination of superb visuals from the HTC Vive headset, high quality audio through a pair of Audio Technica headphones and a Subpac vest worn like a backpack that mimics the feeling of wind on my chest. I eventually manage to get across the rope and at one point I try jumping around even though my brain thinks I’m about to die.
I move on to much lighter fare afterwards in Star Wars: Trials on Tattooine. The piece starts off more like a 360-degree movie than a VR experience as I watch a lengthy title sequence and opening scene. Though I do get to help Han Solo repair the Millennium Falcon, most of my time is spent standing and watching R2-D2 and some flying spaceships. The real fun begins when Stormtroopers start attacking and my hand-held controller conveniently turns into a lightsaber. As I deflect the blasts from their rifles, an epiphany comes to mind: actually wielding a lightsaber is way more fun than watching people do it on screen.
In John Wick Chronicles, I’m the cinematic assassin himself starring in a rooftop shoot-out with an endless amount of bad guys. This feels more like a video game (you even get a score at the end) with the added benefit of a work out. Shooting bad guys, I learn, requires playing a bit of defense. Some of my moves include squats, ducks, and hiding behind objects. This is the most action-packed of the experiences, and at nine minutes it was the longest of the pieces I tried.
The IMAX VR Centre can be fun for folks of all experience levels, though a lot still needs to be done in developing the right content and technology. With regards to picture quality, the HTC Vive headsets seemed to produce far more striking visuals than the IMAX headset used in the John Wick experience. There were also a few glitches in John Wick though they were easily reset by the IMAX employee managing my pod. Having an IMAX employee oversee each pod is essential for safety and quality control, but it can be confusing when they give instructions while the experience is going on and you’re wearing headphones. Designated pods for each experience worked well, but they seemed a bit small for some pieces. I wasn’t able to walk down the entire tight rope in The Walk, for example, because I would have hit a real-life wall.
Regardless of these little kinks, the IMAX VR Centre is a promising prototype for a new brand of immersive entertainment. IMAX is betting big on VR too – it raised $50 million to finance the production of VR content and has plans to unveil IMAX VR Centres across the U.S. and China. It even aims to open these centres in movie theaters with content that could go hand-in-hand with films already playing in-theater.
It’s definitely an ambitious project in the age of streaming and home video game systems. It could take a lot to get people out of their homes and shell out cash for VR, but it could work if it’s done right. Like watching a movie in a theater, you too can enjoy VR in an IMAX VR Centre near you – but instead of just watching a great story unfold, you get to experience it for yourself.
For more on the IMAX VR Centre, visit imaxvr.imax.com.