Imax is getting ready to open its first virtual reality (VR) center at the Grove in Los Angeles at the end of this week, the company’s chief business development officer Rob Lister told Variety at CES in Las Vegas Wednesday. The center will be the first of half a dozen facilities to test VR experiences and explore the potential of VR as a business for Imax.
The Los Angeles facility is owned and operated by Imax, and will show consumers a mix of games and other VR experiences on the HTC Vive and StarVR headsets. The focus will be on immersive and interactive content, not 360-degree video, Lister said, and social could eventually also play a big role.
“We want this to be a true experiment,” he said. The goal was to find out which kind of experiences consumers enjoy, and how much they may be willing to pay for a location-based VR experience.
Imax will open a second facility at a location near London within the next month or two, and plans to launch a total of six centers around the world within the first two quarters of this year. Countries targeted for this first batch of centers include Japan and China.
Lister argued that the slow adoption of VR headsets with consumers actually puts the company in an advantage. “This is a very nice opportunity right now for destination-based to be the first VR experience that a person has,” he said. “Right now, it’s the ideal time to get into destination-based VR.”
Imax is also investing in other areas of the VR value chain. The company announced a partnership with Google to produce Imax VR cameras that make use of Google’s cloud-based Jump stitching technology for VR video last summer, and Lister said Wednesday that he expects to get first prototypes of the camera some time this year, with full production being targeted for next year. Imax then wants to give the camera to studios and filmmakers to produce VR content for its VR centers.
Separately, Imax also recently announced a $50 million fund to participate in the funding of 25 VR experiences. Lister said that the goal was to get exclusive release windows for VR content, which would premiere in the company’s VR centers a few months before it comes to headsets in consumer’s homes.
Imax is looking to leverage its existing relationships with big studios for its VR projects, Lister said, calling well-known IP “the most natural way to attract people to a VR center.” But the company will also look to video games for interactive experiences.
Lister argued that Imax will be able to gain some insights about the direction of its VR initiative within months of opening its VR centers. Eventually, it wants to use that data to determine whether VR will truly be the next big thing for the company. “We don’t want to commit to a big investment” without learning from a few centers first, he said.