As exciting as virtual reality is, with all of its potential benefits for education, communication, and entertainment, it presents a unique challenge. Developers and film makers have to confront the fact they can no longer control the camera angle, even if they can its location. Much of what’s been learned in the last century of cinema, and four decades of game development, doesn’t apply to the medium of virtual reality. Everyone is starting from scratch when it comes to virtual reality, figuring it out as they go. Except, perhaps, one company.
“Our talent isn’t necessarily in the technology, but understanding its value. Our talent is in the big idea.”
Landmark Entertainment is a firm that you may not know by name, but you know by its mark. It’s the Disney alumni company behind a huge number of interactive, immersive, and media spanning rides, like the Jurassic Park experience at Universal Studios. It also created the James Bond 007 ride at Paramount Parks, and built Star Trek: The Experience for the Las Vegas Hilton.
This is a company that has been building large scale, interactive, 360 degree experiences and rides for over three decades already. When I that Landmark was developing its own futuristic malls with VR as a core component, and even a Virtual World’s Fair that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home, I had to bend the ear of someone at the company.
Fortunately, the ear I happened to snag was that of Landmark CEO Tony Christopher, who not only has had a major hand in the creation of many of the company’s most iconic rides, but is a choreographer, producer and stage performer in his own right. Christopher is, by any measure, a showman, and that’s what he wants to put on for everyone with Landmark Entertainment’s view of the VR future: the greatest show anyone has ever seen.And even that is just scratching the surface of what he wants to achieve.
His first project, known as L.I.V.E, is a concept mall of the future. Currently being investigated as a potential development in China, where the government is favourable to such grandiose ideas, L.I.V.E. (Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience) is, as Christopher puts it, a “200,000 square foot installation that has one third retail and two thirds ‘anchor attractions.’”
The idea, he says, is to build a shopping center that highlights modern technology. While online ordering is the future, there will always be certain products better purchased in person — but that doesn’t mean shopping can’t evolve.
To Christopher, the mall of the future is one that blends the real and virtual worlds, with dedicated VR sections for gaming and exploration, augmented reality, holograms, virtual zoos, and museums for children to enjoy, all juxtaposed with contemporary shopping experiences that may also leverage the digital world to enhance their offerings and presentation.
“It will all be a software experience,” Christopher explained, “so children can do what they’re used to doing: engaging with the exhibitory and magical entertainment experiences.”
While focused in China for now, Christopher not hopes this style of shopping will catch on elsewhere — believes it needs to.
“We foresee massive problems with the traditional shopping experiences over the next 10 years,” he said gravely. “What we’re trying to do is create a real 21st century facility.”
The World’s Fair, everywhere
While the shopping centre of the future is an interesting concept, Landmark’s real VR heat came with its more recent announcement — the Virtual World’s Fair. Although on the surface it looks like a theme park that you visit using a VR headset in the comfort of your own home, when Christopher began talking about this project, it quickly became clear that that was a moniker he wanted to avoid.
While the World’s Fair will have rides, its scope is much bigger than that. With the World’s Fair, Landmark wants to educate and create empathy as much as it wants to entertain. Not only that, but it wants to become the standard starting point for VR users around the world.
This is a little more than your average VR game developer is working on. Even Oculus, with its access to Facebook’s wallet, is ‘only’ looking to develop the hardware and some software. Landmark Entertainment wants to create a whole world that acts as a door into the rest of the virtual universe.
But this is a big step for Landmark in terms of scale. While in the past it has created rides for theme parks and casinos with major IPs like Jurassic Park, Terminator, and Spiderman, it’s never done something quite like this before. The company has never built an attraction for itself.
“We never wanted to focus on one thing, we wanted to jump from one to another,” said Christopher. “Our talent isn’t necessarily in the technology itself, but understanding its value. Our talent is in the big idea.”
The Pavilion of Me
And big this idea certainly is. The Virtual World’s Fair, when completed, will be accessed through the first development Landmark plans to put out into the world– the Pavilion of Me (PoM). This virtual space is designed to act as a sort of 3D desktop for VR, where you can perform all of the normal functions of your PC, but from a virtual environment. You can answer emails, browse the internet, Skype with friends, view your own library of media in your personal theater, and do all this with a virtual pet and digital assistant.
That’s a big idea in itself, as whenever anyone looks to create a standard platform, they run the risk of users choosing someone else. Just look at the platform wars of years gone past, whether it’s Betamax and VHS, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, someone usually loses out. Despite companies like Oculus working on stores and Facebook likely looking to build its own social, virtual experience, Landmark is convinced its Pavilion can incorporate all of those and more within itself and still provide the best spawn point (if you will) for VR.
That said, even if it doesn’t become the standard, Christopher is confident it doesn’t necessarily need to be. He thinks there will be enough people using virtual reality on a regular basis within a few years that even a percentage of that group enjoying the Pavilion of Me would be enough to sustain it.
“There’s 300 TV channels,” Christopher said. “We’re not trying to catch all the fish, we just want to be the best, and I believe we have the ability to do that.”
He thinks PoM is going to be very different from what others were doing. While he said there’s no doubt Facebook and others will create ecosystems to hang-out in, their focus will be on creating places to buy and view other content, like Netflix and Amazon video. What Landmark is doing with the Pavilion is creating a personal space that can be customized in look, feel and accessibility, without sales or advertisements as a primary consideration
“At the end of the day, Samsung, Facebook and Oculus – if I was to be so bold to say – are not content makers or experience creators,” Christopher said. “I believe virtual reality needs a great deal of experience in many different disciplines to make work.”
“Obviously we aren’t as big as some of these companies, but I’m not too worried about what they’re doing,” he said.
Inside the scenes
All of the projects Christopher and co. are working on are being built in the latest release of Unreal Engine 4. While they initially played around with Unity, it was eventually decided to move over to the Epic Games engine for the kind of experience they wanted to put together. We’re also told that the team working on all of this new digital content is internal, with Landmark constantly on the look out to hire some of the best in thebusiness to craft it.
“We aren’t gamer people,” cautioned Christopher, who was keen to dispel the idea that the PoM or World’s Fair were games in any sense of the word. “We aren’t building a gamer team. There will be games within the Virtual World’s Fair and the Game Pod in the PoM, but they won’t be the focus. The focus is creating an experience.”
There was a real whiff of Disney that wafts its way down the copper wires separating us, as Christopher spoke fondly about the ‘casting choices’ being made as Landmark developed its VR division into a Virtual Reality company.
And that’s part of a whole infrastructure change that’s going on alongside this move towards the virtual world. Learning from its experiences during the financial crash of the last decade, Landmark is looking to spin off its reliance on the service industry into its own entity. While the company has sought private investment for these new digital creations, for the most part its own money is being wagered on this project, which is part of why it’s such a focus for Christopher.
Not a game, but a world
What originally attracted me to Landmark’s announcements was its talk of a virtual theme park experience that you can visit from your living room. An MMO like environment populated with thousands of visitors just like you, enjoying a myriad of rides, experiences, games and demos, all within easy-reach of a VR headset.
While attractions and rides are his former bread-and-butter, Christopher was surprisingly not too fussed with discussing them. Yes, there will be areas, where there are roller-coasters, and rides of huge scale, over distances impossible in the real world – something that he believes real-world park owners will need to look into in order to compete – but that’s just a fraction of what’s possible.
Take for example the PassPortal, which will provide virtual trips around the world. There are historical sites and iconic landmarks that users could visit and walk around. Imagine getting a close up view of the Sphinx, or being able to fly around the Sistine Chapel, seeing paintings that the public can’t normally access in person.
And it won’t necessarily all be virtual, we’re told. While CG created versions of those locations would be the simplist way to deliver that experience, Christopher isn’t ruling out live cameras either. There may even be some method of incorporating both techniques at the same time.
Part of the reason these sorts of experiences will be so attractive, of course, is because they will be so much cheaper in virtual reality than in the real world. While visiting the Great Wall of China might cost you thousands of dollars in plane tickets, accommodation, food and other transport, doing so in the Virtual World’s Fair could cost comparably less.
Not a free ride
It will cost something, though.
When I broached the topic of price with Christopher, he said that at this early stage nothing was nailed down, but that the Pavilion of Me would probably be based on a freemium model.
“If you want the beefed up options, there will be a premium model, micro-transaction system for some of its add-ons. The world’s fair will happen a year later (at least) and we will probably have a free visitor pass, but if you want to buy something or try an attraction, that will cost money.
He was quick to reiterate however, that this is unlikely to be an expensive experience.
“We don’t need to make as much as Disney, because our operating costs are so low. We don’t need to worry about employees sneaking ice-cream or pop-corn. In-fact, we don’t need to worry about employee costs anywhere, as much as other companies.”
The World’s Fair will require support staff, and judging by the fact that Landmark is hoping that its attractions bring in 10s of millions of regular visitors within the next few years, a fair number of them would be likely. But nothing on the scale of traditional, real-world destinations.
There will be other ways for Landmark to make its investment dollars back. The IntenCity zone, for example, will feature some of the “traditional” shopping experiences Christopher discussed in his break down of the L.I.V.E. facilities, blending virtual purchases for digital avatars, with real world ones that will send products straight to your door.
Virtual real estate can be purchased, giving Amazon its own store, or letting Nike have a pavilion dedicated to its products, where users can buy a shoe that would be only available on that day. That space can be rented to those companies, and who’s to say Landmark couldn’t take a cut of the profits at the same time?
If the talk of dollars and cents has soured you on the idea of the Virtual World’s Fair, it should be said that everything mentioned before now is a secondary, and in some cases tertiary consideration for Christopher. Yes, he wants to make money from this venture – we’d be suspicious if he said otherwise – but a company that’s worth tens of millions of dollars is successful enough for any person.
With the Virtual World’s Fair, Christopher wants to use virtual reality to change the world by expanding what’s expected from virtual experiences.
The Tower of Humanity
Changing the world is a dream we’ve heard every VR developer claim at one point. Whether it’s discussing gaming, social interactions or movie making – VR is going to change how it all works. We know. We get it. But not in the way Christopher sees it.
To him, the big pitch that VR is making to the world is an emphatic one. Virtual reality not only allows us to see other worlds through our eyes, it lets us see our world through someone else’s. It lets us see the real world in ways that are simply impossible on 2D displays.
Chris Milk, for example, is someone Tony Christopher is a great admirer of. Milk has been prompting VR as an empathy machine. He’s a film maker who began his life as a music video director, but what once was a 2D production has now become a 3D virtual one. He’s filmed in Syrian refugee camps with 360 degree cameras and shown that footage to politicians and policy makers who can impact the lives of those people.
As Christopher tells it, such footage can be a profound experience for individuals who are thousands of miles away from the people their actions affect. It helps them understand more than ever the situation of the people they have a measure of power over and, indeed, a responsibility for.
“VR goes beyond social, beyond education and beyond even entertainment,” Christopher says. “In the Virtual World’s Fair, there’s going to be a place you can go that celebrates the world and fixes its problems.”
That’s where the Tower of Humanity comes in. It will not only show us the world’s problems by letting us set foot on the ground in disaster zones, but it will let us see through the eyes of the people who, by luck of their birth time and location, are struggling to get by. And the Tower of Humanity will make it easy for us to help them.
“The problem I have, is I’m a busy person. When I hear about terrible things happening in the world I get upset about it, but I know I can’t do much to help. And so I tend not to,” Christopher said with a slightly nervous laugh. “I’ve always been a bit ashamed of that.”
With the Tower he wants to make it not only possible to find out about the world’s problems, but give a direct line to the people and organizations that can make a difference.
A new approach to encouraging empathy needs a new approach to doing something about it, so this won’t be the usual subscription based donations. One system Christopher wants to set up is “penny for your tweet,” where every time you tweet about a cause, you send a penny to an organisation that can aid it. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s the kind of donation that anyone can make, and if even a percentage of the potentially millions of visitors that Landmark wants to attract take part on a regular basis, that’s much better than decreased sensitivity to charity work due to regular requests for much more sizable sums.
“Charities are always trying to get as much money from everyone,” he said. “I think they should widen the net.
Ultimately if I have 100 million people giving me a penny every day, there’s the ability to do some real good there.”
“If you can go to a place that makes you feel that bit less helpless, maybe feel like you’re actually helping people and to make planet Earth a better place to live, it will be incredibly popular. I think the Tower of Humanity could be the most successful part of the park. I’d be very proud if I could make that work.”
Landmark Entertainment’s goals are lofty, and it is looking to trail-blaze through a landscape that is fraught with perils for those making missteps on their way to the virtual future that we are all so eagerly anticipating.
But so far, so good, as Christopher and his team are ticking a lot of the boxes early. The whole platform will be hardware agnostic, it’s not looking to sell out to a firm like Facebook if it gets the chance, and it’s looking to build tools that are free to try and transparent about their costs when it comes to paying for them. These are all the sorts of things that gamers and – when they catch on like their PC and console playing pals – the general population will appreciate when the time comes.
That time isn’t too far away, either. With the launch of the first commercial hardware starting perhaps as early as mid-December — and certainly by the end of Q1 next year — the Pavilion of Me won’t be far behind, and from there we’ll get to see what Landmark Entertainment’s internal VR team is really capable of.
It has a stunning pedigree with a long line of incredibly successful, entertaining and informative 360 degree experiences behind it. But whether that can be translated into the virtual world on a 1:1 scale of wonder, well, we’ll have to wait and see.
The proof for VR will always be in the pudding. Here’s hoping that Landmark’s tastes as good as it sounds.