A former computer programmer, Ali Kahn, left, and his wife, Disney veteran Samrien Hussain, started "Tick Tock Unlock" because of their passion for puzzles.
The explosion of immersive live entertainment has been led by the popular "escape room" concept. Wildly popular among millennials, escape rooms charge visitors as much as $50 per hour to cooperatively solve puzzles in order to "escape" from the room they paid to be in. While many have been taken by surprise by the escape room phenomenon, creators of games, live theater, and virtual reality experiences, in particular, have found validation, and a new audience, through the Escape Room.
Director and live experience entrepreneur Michael Counts thinks immersive entertainment "has reached a tipping point." In an interview earlier this month, Counts told me, "we are seeing the beginning of an entertainment experience economy."Exhibit A: Sleep No More, a massive immersive theatrical experience where guests mingle in a wordless, multi-floor Edwardian treatment of MacBeth inside the fictional old McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea (it's actually a converted Warehouse). A UK import, the show has been a hit since it opened to rave reviews in 2011.
The epic success of "Sleep No More" in New York represents a tipping point for Immersive Entertainment.
Counts created New York's theatrical theater district tour "The Ride," and most recently, Paradiso, an escape room that combines high tech devices with live role playing actors, some of whom pretend to be FBI agents infiltrating the cultish Virgil Corporation. For a little extra money, Paradiso and Virgil will follow you home to give you an intense, personal, real life experience, as the fictional - or is it? - cult tries to sink its teeth into every aspect of your actual life. Counts says live experience entrepreneurs are simply building on the pioneering work of Walt Disney. "He was the first person to realize that people want to be immersed, transported, into the world of a movie," noted Counts. "He used the technology he had to achieve his vision." Put another way, you don't need to be wearing a head mounted display to be fully immersed and present in a fictional world like Disneyland.
August Moon Drive-In Nashville - Design by Michael Counts, Rendering by Cao Yuxi, Layout by Richard Norris, Project 13
It's not surprising then, that Counts' next project seeks to build a Disney-like immersive installation in Nashville. "August Moon Drive-In" is a 5MM-themed attraction that will transport customers to summer night at a drive in movie theater in 1964. Imagine sitting in the back of your '57 Chevy convertible with a hot dog, a coke, and your girl, surrounded by fire flies, watching a classic movie from the period - or even the most Star Wars movie.
For Ali Kahn, a computer engineer from Leeds and his wife, Samrien, the path to VR started with the success of their "Tick-Tock Unlock" escape rooms in Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool and Leeds, into which they have sunk their life savings. Their games feature theatrical "game masters"who guide the audience into HTC Vive VR headsets, taking the escape room experience into another dimension, literally, while creating a context and a mission. Although their headsets are tethered to a computer, users have room size mobility, can pick up and manipulate objects and can see one another's avatars inside the layered, mixed reality world. Tick Tock Unlock's "Hyper Reality Experience" is scheduled to open April 22nd.
Together with the game developers with whom they are collaborating, the Kahns are raising money to bring a full, untethered "Hyper Reality Experience Center" to London later this year. It will feature two adventures, a World War 2 shooter, and a sword and sorcery fantasy.
Not surprisingly, there are 10 escape room titles for home VR systems: SVRvive, The Puzzle Room VR, Alcatraz: VR Escape Room, Adobe, Escape!VR: The Basement, Unforgiven: Missing Memories, and I Expect You to Die. Over the past several weeks two new escape room VR games, The Other Room (Google Daydream) and Escape Room VR (Rift & Gear) were just released. However creative these games are, they lack an essential, not-so-secret ingredient: other people. Ali Khan plans to network six players together in his upcoming "Hyper Reality Experience Center" in London later this year.
VR game designers can learn a lot from Immersive Theater, for starters: (1) establish the world; this is where movie franchises are useful (2) present an obvious challenge (e.g., escape), (3) force people to work together (4) surprise us with unexpected obstacles (e.g., live actors playing FBI Agents), and (5) like any good storyteller, leave them wanting more.