Kevin Wall, entrepreneur, producer, and co-founder of Dreamscape Immersive (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images For Tribeca Film Festival)
Ten years ago, a little voice whispered in producer and entrepreneur Kevin Wall’s ear about Facebook, and he got in before the IPO, giving him the resources to dream big dreams. When Wall heard that voice again, it was whispering about the transformative potential of virtual reality. He made a point of visiting everyone and trying everything the could access, including free roam VR pioneer, The Void, headquartered in Salt Lake, which Wall visited on his way to the Sundance Film Festival in 2016.
Free Roam VR uses backpack computers, head mounted displays, and arrays of sensors for complex real time motion capture, to fully immerse the user in a digital world, where they are free to roam and interact. The Void, whose system also includes mixed reality elements like haptic vests, wind, and theatrical set pieces, created the Ghostbusters VR attraction at Madame Tussaud’s in New York, and just opened a flagship center in Salt Lake City. Zero Latency of Australia has a growing number of centers in Asia (Australia, Tokyo), Europe (Madrid) and the US (Orlando) and just announced area development deals for Boston and Philadelphia, along with a major project in Dubai.
The February, 2016, Sundance VR Forum featured a demonstration of a free roam system from a team from Geneva, Switzerland, Artanim. Wall saw in them what other experiences lacked. “You’re completely present,” Wall told me in an interview with co-founder Walter Parkes last week. “You have arms and legs, and a body. You can touch and shake hands. You can pick up a torch and pass it, or throw it.”
Wall left Sundance full of ideas. He’d experienced “Sleep No More” in New York, which charges a hundred dollars for a “free roam” theatrical experience. He saw the international explosion of the “Escape Room” among urban millennials, who pay up to $50 an hour to, well, solve puzzles to escape from a room. Wall called his friend Walter Parkes, producer, writer and founding president of Steven Speilberg’s Dreamworks movie studio. Parkes has some cred in geekdom as the co-author of the seminal 80s hacker movie, “War Games” and producer of “Minority Report”. He had been talking to Wall for some time about immersive entertainment. “There was something in Kevin’s voice that told me to take this seriously,” Parkes recalls. He eagerly agreed to fly to Geneva with Wall. Tribune de Geneve says the duo “conquised” (conquered with great affection) the trio of Swiss engineers (one of whom, Caecilia Charbonier, was a former pro tennis player) who founded Artanim. Hey, when Hollywood calls, ask where to sign.
Walter Parkes, writer, producer, and co-founder of Dreamscape Immersive, whose credits include "Men in Black", "Gladiator" and "Minority Report" (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)
The two producers were convinced that by combining Hollywood talent and storytelling with Artanim’s technology, they could create something exceptional. “We plan to use the medium to create large scale cinematic experiences”, Parkes explained. They brought their new Swiss partners and the system to LA for a series of demonstrations which created tremendous enthusiasm from creatives, studios, and investors. In just a few months they were able to assemble strategic investors like Westfields Malls, three movie studios, and Parkes’ former boss Steven Speilberg. “We wanted either three studios or none, because we wanted it to be clear that Dreamscape was “agnostic” with regard to content”, Wall explained.
Relying on Hollywood serendipity and a powerful rolodex, the partners nabbed as CEO the Disney Chief Creative Officer behind the massive Shanghai Disneyland project, Bruce Vaughn, who had planned to take a well deserved sabbatical, until Wall interrupted him with Dreamscape’s ambitious plans. Along with other Disney Imagineers recruited for the effort, Vaughn’s job is to spearhead development of both the experiences and the venue, which is being designed by Yves Behar, who Forbes described as “the most influential designer in the world.”
Dreamscape Immersive is planning to open its flagship at the landmark Century City Mall in Los Angeles this fall. When they’re sure the venue can be operated profitably, they’ll explode into hungry malls around the country. But first the company has to develop powerful, unique experiences that will bring people back with friends. Wall and Parkes were mum on details about the first two experiences Dreamscape plans to offer. What they did tell me was that there are a dozen programmers and artists collaborating and iterating with them from Geneva, and they are not making a shooter. “That’s the opposite of what we want to do”, said Wall.
“What ultimately sets us apart from virtually all other VR companies, which are run by technologists, is that we’re run by content creators,” Parkes said. “The fact that people like [composer] Hans Zimmer and [production designer] Rick Carter and Yves Behar and even Steven [Speilberg] have become part of this says something about the essence of the company and our plans — and underscores just how far the tech has traveled, from an industrial space by the Geneva Airport to the heart of Hollywood.”