Original premium cinema brand IMAX has launched into the virtual reality (VR) market through a series of initiatives ultimately aimed at rolling out high-quality VR content in cinemas and other out of home locations later in 2016.
To build on this strategy, IMAX has partnered with Google to build an IMAX branded cinema-grade VR camera for high-quality VR content. The initiative is aimed at enabling leading producers to produce 3D 360 degree video content by utilising Google’s Jump platform, an open source VR platform for creating and editing content in post. The deal will also enable Google to access IMAX’s library catalogue of documentaries for conversion and application with VR technology.
To enable its vision, IMAX is also partnering with Swedish developer Starbreeze, on both the content and headset front, which in turn has linked with Acer to build the actual VR headsets.
The launch of an IMAX branded VR camera is in keeping with the company’s existing production ties and vertically integrated pipeline for mainstream blockbuster content and increasingly local origin movies. By applying its expertise in capture technology to the world of VR, the company is continuing to take a leading role in immersive content experiences as well as growing the brand’s association with innovation.
While the rise of VR has so far been driven by the gaming sector, the launch of a highest grade cinematic VR camera fills a niche in the void for high quality VR capture for film content, by opening up the market to leading producers to create novel as well as marketing-related VR content around their tentpole titles. The move could also act as a stepping stone towards the creation of full length feature films shot entirely in 360 video, by enabling producers to create VR footage for certain or introductory movie scenes. Although US Studios have already dabbled with VR experiences, including Disney which recently launched a new VR app on Stream for the HTC and Fox which last year announced it would be bringing over 100 movies in either 2D or 3D to the Oculus store (but not as full VR experiences). The IMAX VR camera heralds a further development stage.
IMAX will roll-out its VR experience hubs across its premium cinema network starting with six locations including one in LA and China, later this year. For audiences, the option of entering into a VR world before or after the initial film screening extends the overall premium cinema experience and ties into the current large-scale investment by exhibition to provide technologically advanced and relevant experiences in the theatrical setting.
As well as jumping on the VR bandwagon, IMAX ultimately wants to usurp home VR by creating a superior and immersive VR experience that will be unrivalled in the consumer market. By providing VR entertainment hubs in multiplexes (as well as other high traffic consumer locations such as malls) this also links into the wider social experience that continues to drive audiences to the cinema, and at least initially, novelty will also be a key driver.
On the business side, it was reported that IMAX could charge between $7 to $10 for a 10 minute VR experience, indicative of the underlying investment costs but also potential revenue uplift. Longer term, IMAX also intends to license its VR technology in a similar vein to its existing set up for joint-venture premium theatre systems. The potential footprint for VR experiences in IMAX theatres is 1,061 sites (based on screen data at end 2015), of which 943 were in commercial multiplexes plus over 200 further theatres in backlog, the latter mostly in China. IMAX is, however, targeting other out of home locations opening up the potential market further still.
Currently, the main options for high-end VR headsets are Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, (both just launched in Q1 2016) and where initial costs could prove a deterrent for all but avid gamers. For IMAX VR hubs, Starbreeze headsets boast 210 degree full peripheral vision versus 110 degree for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.For Google, the deal also coincides with the launch of its Daydream VR platform (based on the next version of Android) that combines Daydream optimised mobile phones with custom headsets, as a follow on from its starter Cardboard VR viewer, but continuing with its open stance VR strategy.
For cinemas, this is not the first launch of VR in the theatrical setting, with the recent set up of permanent VR cinemas in Berlin and Amsterdam by Samhoud Media. The venture initially started as a pop-up business. The venues feature 360 degree swivel chairs, the loan of a VR headset based on the Samsung Gear VR and Samsung Galaxy S6 plus headphones (currently there is a lack of immersive sound for VR experiences although Dolby Atmos has launched into the area) and content provided is currently a range of up to 30-minute VR films.There are also other technology providers targeting the theatrical (and wider) market for VR content experiences including D-Box, CJ 4Dplex and Mediamation, all incidentally providers of 4D or immersive motion seating technology, underlining the growing significance that premium experiences will continue to be to the cinema going industry.
Longer term, the role VR will have to play in cinemas is uncertain based on its ubiquitous nature led by PlayStation and other games developers plus lower-cost mobile based viewing, nonetheless the involvement of IMAX as arguably one of the strongest exhibition brands (with a high premium association plus film production credentials) creates a new potential viable revenue generator and side audience attraction for multiplexes.
The rise of VR in cinema is therefore another potential outlet for exhibitors as they reposition themselves as general entertainment destinations through the diversification of content (event cinema, live cinema) and experiences (gaming rooms, e-Sports, VIP areas, in-dining) alongside ongoing investment in seat and screen technology such as laser projection, immersive sound, PLF packages screens, 3D, 4D and more novel panoramic screen formats such as Barco Escape. VR in cinemas could therefore fulfil a predominantly marketing-orientated role or second screen entertainment away from the main movie based experience, but alternatively cinemas could also act as a venue for premieres for first-run high quality VR content, of which the launch of the IMAX VR camera goes someway to building this new ecosystem.