High-grade virtual reality headsets and accessories have made wondrous advances in the past five years, but steep prices have kept consumers from embracing the technology.
A growing cast of L.A. startups is trying to crack that resistance by opening arcades as a way to satiate the public’s curiosity about virtual reality without forcing them to shell out big bucks.
The firm with perhaps the most elaborate vision is Dreamscape Immersive, which launched last year and announced plans this month to open a virtual reality center in Westfield Century City Mall in September. The Santa Monica startup’s electronic rigging allows up to six people to explore and work together in a single virtual landscape. Participants wear sensors on their hands and feet and their movement is tracked around a large room with an array of 16 cameras.
“It will be not unlike a truly big-screen cinema experience, what (Imax Corp.) did for years, or a live show, or theme-park attraction,” said Bruce Vaughn, chief executive of Dreamscape and former chief creative executive at Walt Disney Co.’s Imagineering unit. “I think you can offer something that is a destination, something people will want to do with friends and family.”
Dreamscape raised $11 million this month from director Steven Spielberg and film studios Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 20th Century Fox Film Corp., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., and, perhaps fittingly, Imax. Other investors include Santa Monica venture firm Bold Capital Partners and mall chain Westfield Corp.
Dreamscape is not alone in the pursuit.
Imax has its own virtual arcade, the Imax VR Experience Centre, which opened last month in a former hat factory across from the Grove shopping center in L.A.’s Fairfax District. Downtown-based Two Bit Circus raised a $15 million Series B round in January to open a 30,000-square-foot “micro-amusement park” in the L.A. area this year, which would include virtual reality attractions.
In addition, the companies are banking that the ever-advancing technology will pull customers through the door for years to come. Many arcades have plans to add advanced electronics, such as proprietary headsets, motion-tracking sensors, virtual guns, gyrating chairs, vibrating backpacks, and rooms equipped with fans to simulate wind.
“The headsets are so different from what you had a generation ago,” said Rob Lister, chief development officer at Imax. “There is a lot of capital in the system so the technology is going to continue to improve.”
Virtual reality was brushed off as a fantasy and theme-park gimmick for decades, but that changed in 2014 after Facebook Inc.’s $2 billion purchase of Irvine startup Oculus VR, which manufactures a headset with screens that are able to almost instantaneously change their projected 3-D scenery as a user shifts their gaze, and do so at higher-resolution than earlier hardware.
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