theme parks could be transformed by virtual reality projects — if teams can navigate the unfamiliar terrain
Roller coasters and live shows are so 20th century. The next wave of theme park projects is all about virtual reality (VR). Entertainment developers believe the technology can give customers a more immersive and intense experience than traditional amusement parks provide. But because VR technology is unfamiliar to most theme park stakeholders, these projects can present more risks than more traditional initiatives to upgrade parks.
VR roller coaster projects—rides that let people feel like they're riding a dragon or a flying stagecoach—have been launched in a handful of countries, including Germany and Denmark. In the U.S. state of Utah, a project team is putting the finishing touches on The Void, an 8-acre (3.2-hectare) entertainment center where visitors will explore and play games in VR worlds that range from an alien planet to an ancient temple. Thanks to technology, including a VR headset and computer strapped to their back, users can sense heat from a virtual fire and feel vibrations after being shot by virtual bullets.
“When you're a pioneer in any field, the first projects are fraught with problems.”
—Tony Christopher, Landmark, Pasadena, California, USA
In China, Landmark Entertainment is in the planning stages of its US$200 million L.I.V.E. (Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience) Centre project, set to open in 2019. The entertainment destination will combine virtual reality and augmented reality (when a digital element or information is superimposed on real-world images, such as the line that appears to move across a swimming pool to illustrate the world record pace in a televised race). The park, in a still-to-be-determined location, will feature a digital art gallery, an immersive movie theater and an interactive museum featuring attractions such as virtual dinosaurs or a virtual trip into space.
The project team is excited about L.I.V.E. Centre, but the road to opening day hasn't been entirely smooth. “When you're a pioneer in any field, the first projects are fraught with problems,” says Landmark CEO Tony Christopher, Pasadena, California, USA. Beyond configuring and testing complicated technology, there are logistical challenges. These include figuring out how to balance the size and scope of the experience with the number of customers likely to come and how long it should take customers to move through it. “You've got to get all of that right the first time, or people won't come back,” he says.
A rendering of The Void in Lindon, Utah, USA
All of this uncertainty can significantly impact schedules and budgets, Mr. Christopher says. Because his team has never built a VR theme park, they have to do a lot of estimating. They anticipate that building three different 3-minute virtual experiences will cost roughly three times the budget of a feature film, but no one knows for sure.
The unfamiliar technology also heightens the need for clear communication. When Mr. Christopher was working on a prototype for another VR project, he provided the project team with clearly defined storyboards and a script, only to discover the team didn't follow them. “In the movie industry, people always listen to the director,” Mr. Christopher says. “But in the game world, there is no director.” He now tries to be explicit with his VR teams to make sure his vision is achieved.
A rendering of L.I.V.E. Centre in China
Confident that VR will remake theme parks around the world, Mr. Christopher sees early endeavors such as L.I.V.E. as an opportunity to identify common risks, build a project template and hone the right set of skills for the project team. With every new project, they will be able to apply lessons learned to reduce the time, cost and risk. Realizing a few risks in this early era of virtual reality is okay, he says, “Because once this is built, we will be able to build more around the world.” —Sarah Fister Gale
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