The Westfield Century City shopping center in Los Angeles is a multi-level marvel, a combination of shopping centers and aesthetic complexes that combines a large AMC movie theater, the Italian Eataly market and dozens of high-end retail stores. But through the courtyard from the location of Amazon Books, tucked next to the Tesla Motors store, no less, there is a road to another world.
When I enter the emergent location, I see postcards and paintings of surrealistic and multicolored creatures: a giant bat called wothe and a flying beast similar to a ray known as astafie. I sign up for my appointment, step behind a curtain, and before I know it, I'm in a small spaceship that shoots away from the Earth's atmosphere towards a massive orbital station that's full of intergalactic foliage and fantastic wildlife.
Welcome to Alien Zoo.
Alien Zoo is the first virtual reality title for Dreamscape Immersive, the Los Angeles-based startup led by former Disney Imagineering creative executive Bruce Vaughn and Hollywood producer (and former DreamWorks president) Walter Parkes. Like Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire or other experiences of The Void, Dreamscape aims to move virtual reality beyond the limited experiences that currently flood the consumer market and towards an experience more similar to the holodeck: a that combines virtual reality with physical sets, accessories and sensations to give life to their digital worlds.
"This was an idea we were thinking about long before DreamWorks, and it was always an interesting concept," Parkes tells me about the origins of Alien Zoo. "But we've never realized how to do this like a movie, so we all thought this was an incredible opportunity, and it allows us to consciously start with a piece of original material."
Westfield's emerging location was launched earlier this year for a three-week run at $ 20 per ticket and has already been extended twice. (It is currently sold out until March 14). After check-in, groups of up to six visitors are escorted to the back where they are equipped with a head-mounted display, computer with backpack and small trackers that slide on their hands and feet. From there, they enter the virtual world and walk towards a small platform that becomes the launching pad for the 12-minute experience.
I could fight from side to side with an alien horse as I would with a playful dog
The story of Alien Zoo is that the guests visit exactly that: a zoo in orbit populated by creatures from all over the galaxy, almost like an Interstellar Jurassic Park. Standing on a levitation platform, the guests are dragged along the grounds of the zoo, where they encounter all kinds of wild creatures and some stressful moments of danger. The visuals of virtual reality are charming, but it is the physical elements of the real world that really sustain the experience. During Alien Zoo, the wind blew against my face and the floor below me rumbled as the platform swept the park. When a soft, horse-like creature approached my group, I was able to reach out and touch it physically with my hand, even fighting softly with the beast as you would with a playful dog. (A glance behind the curtain after the experience revealed that he had simply been interacting with an automated accessory, but he would not have guessed at the moment). Upon entering a dark and cavernous section of the zoo, participants take lanterns hanging from the railing of the platform and use them to illuminate the walls around them to avoid something called sicari, a giant alien creature that looks like Predator had a baby with a panther.
The check-in area for Alien Zoo.Photo: Dreamscape Immersive
While inside the experience, the guests are represented by avatars with body that they can select during the check-in process. It gives Alien Zoo a common look that makes the visit a shared group experience, one that may be slightly different each time, depending on where you look or how your friends respond. It's a fun and familiar demonstration of what this kind of virtual reality technology can provide audiences. And while the virtual reality approach will not feel new to someone who has tried to work in companies like The Void, it is very differentiated in terms of content style. Where Secrets of the Empire and Ghostbusters: Dimension focuses primarily on game mechanics, Alien Zoo looks more like a dark ride from Disneyland, similar to Pirates of the Caribbean or Pandora's Na & River Journey, which gently takes visitors from one great show to another on a tour of a fantastic world.
That said, there is a narrative and thematic line that runs through the piece, and Dreamscape sees Alien Zoo as a budding franchise, with a premise that can admit multiple excursions. "Think of it like the wild animal park, and at this time 40 percent is built, and they are bringing people," says Parkes. "But soon there's going to be the polar enclosure." The Zoo is going to be that: build other sections so you can go back and take another route. "
Similar to a dark interactive VR walk, which takes visitors from one great view to the next
Along with the additional chapters of Alien Zoo, the company is also working on a series of other original experiences in collaboration with Hollywood filmmakers such as Gore Verbinski (The Ring). But Century City's current location is just a one-time pop-up window, and seeing the experiences that Dreamscape currently has will require more location-based VR facilities. The company hopes to open a permanent flagship immersive center in downtown Westfield later this year that could reach up to four titles at any one time, and thanks to the AMC theatrical partnership that it announced last year, Dreamscape also plans to bring the A handful of AMC movie theaters by the end of 2018. In addition to that, the company will also be internationalized, with plans to open a location at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.
Conceptual art for Alien Zoo.Photo: Dreamscape Immersive
This type of platform deployment, a flagship anchor center, while additional locations develop word of mouth when appearing in theaters or shopping centers, is becoming the reference strategy for location-based virtual reality; Both The Void and IMAX pursue similar strategies. However, where Dreamscape can have an advantage, it is in size. IMAX VR consists of static modules, which can be limiting, given that currently they do not offer much more than what is available in domestic configurations. The Void facilities offer a much richer experience by taking guests to a physical labyrinth, but that entails certain logistical and space requirements. Something like Alien Zoo, on the other hand, offers a similar sensation of physical and tactile exploration as something akin to the Secrets of the Empire, albeit in a more limited sense, but its physical imprint is small. Parkes and Vaughn estimate that the totality of the active guests of the playground in Alien Zoo does not occupy more than 200 square feet, a fraction of the size of the stage in Ghostbusters: Dimension. When talking about bringing virtual reality facilities to existing locations such as shopping centers and cinemas, that smaller footprint could offer Dreamscape greater flexibility in its next implementation.
Meanwhile, however, it is about creating a broader awareness so that audiences are prepared for what they can expect when those new locations finally open up. While Century City's pop-up window may close on March 14, the founders say they will tour different locations in California in the coming months, which will give the company the opportunity to expose Alien Zoo to more guests and obtain a better service idea of what works and what does not work in such an incipient environment.
"I think for a long time, we thought we would start with a dedicated facility, and this has shown us that that was not the right idea," says Parkes. "This [approach] does a number of things, it makes it work for the public and the press, it gets excited in Westfield because they say, 'Oh, people are excited', as shopping malls are transformed from shopping centers and more in entertainment centers, but perhaps more than anything else, it's for our own learning curve. "