Starting today, the first thing you’ll see when you walk into the Scotiabank Theatre in downtown Toronto — even before the giant Klingon Bird of Prey dangling above the escalators — is a state-of-the-art virtual reality arcade. You’ll probably even hear a few of the telltale shrieks that come from someone’s first VR experience. Today, IMAX is opening the latest of its IMAX VR centers with its first location in Canada. The launch follows VR installations in theaters in Shanghai and New York, as well as a flagship location in Los Angeles that debuted back in January.
According to Mark Welton, president of IMAX Theaters, the current locations have been successful at capturing audiences who are already going to the movies. But with its central location and prominence within the theater, the new Toronto arcade could represent something different: an experience where people go explicitly to check out the latest in virtual reality, as opposed to simply jumping in after they watch a movie. “I think this site is going to be different,” says Welton.
Design-wise, the Toronto arcade is similar to the existing IMAX VR locations. It features 10 pods, which look like vaguely futuristic cubicles that are empty aside from the necessary VR gear. The pods are designed to be modular; currently they’re small cubes, but walls can be removed to create larger spaces for more free-flowing VR installations. The current slate of VR experiences features a number of familiar faces, like the shooter John Wick Chronicles, sci-fi co-op game Raw Data, Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight, and the team-based Star Trek: Bridge Crew.
Most games use the HTC Vive, while a few utilize the fledgling StarVR headset, which features a greater 210-degree field of view. Currently, only John Wick supports StarVR, but there’s also an experience based on The Mummy in the works. Most of the experiences also utilize some form of force feedback — either through a chair or Subpac rumble backpacks — and IMAX says that it’s experimenting with potentially adding smell for a full “4D” experience.
Along with the new arcade, today also marks the launch of a new collection of Justice League experiences. The new Justice LeagueVR game — which at launch is exclusive to IMAX — lets you play as each member of the superhero team in different scenarios, and I was able to try three of them. As the Flash, you run through a subway tunnel, dodging obstacles by stepping left and right. You can also drive the Batmobile, using the HTC Vive’s motion controllers to turn the steering wheel and fire machine guns at a seemingly never-ending onslaught of enemy vehicles. As Aquaman, meanwhile, you swim down a trench and stab a giant sea creature with a trident. Each is exciting while being simple enough you can understand in a single, short playthrough. They’re also mostly on rails so that it’s impossible to get lost.
The Justice League experience came about through IMAX’s VR fund, which will see the company co-finance an expected 25 VR experiences over the next three years. The idea is to partner with prominent names in the film space — so far the likes of Justin Lin and the Russo brothers have signed up — to create exclusive experiences that make sense in a theater environment. IMAX is also working with Google to develop what it describes as a “cinema-grade VR camera” for these filmmakers to utilize. It’s expected to launch in 2018.
Though it’s been close to a year since the first IMAX VR location debuted, the project is still very much a work in progress. Welton describes it as being in a “pilot phase.” Certain elements, like pricing and content, are still in flux and regularly change. At the Toronto location, for instance, you can buy tickets for each individual experience, which range for $8 to $15 and last an average 10 minutes each. Meanwhile, other locations include an option to buy a ticket that gets you an unlimited amount of play within a fixed period of time.
The team at IMAX is also still figuring out what, exactly, theatergoers want out of a VR experience. According to Welton, over the first 10 months of the project people have gravitated to more social experiences; not just ones that are fun to play together, but also ones that are entertaining to watch as a group. (The VR pods feature low walls on one side so it’s easy to see people flailing about while pretending to be The Flash.) IMAX has also introduced a new color-coded system that gives you a better idea of what kind of VR experience you’re in for when you buy a ticket. Each individual experience is given a handful of qualifiers — such as “casual,” “action,” “physically active,” or “age restrictive” — so you know what you’re spending $10 on.
Despite its prominent location, the new Toronto VR arcade doesn’t necessarily represent a future direction for these installations. Instead, Welton says, IMAX will be tailoring each arcade to its location’s specific needs. There are plans for six more VR setups in theaters across the globe; an upcoming Manchester location, for instance, will feature a VR arcade in a prominent shopping plaza across the street from a theater. The idea is to try different things, and see what works. “We’re changing constantly,” says Welton.