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Area 15’s The Portal features a 360° projection-mapped room, one of many immersive spaces in the Las Vegas complex. (Photo: Proto Images. Image courtesy of Area 15)

Immersive entertainment is selling out venues all over the world. Meow Wolf’s interactive psychedelic fun houses, Dreamscape’s full-roam multi-player VR adventures, immersive Van Gogh exhibits, and experiential art and entertainment are all part of a growing new ‘experience economy’ that involves both traditional and ‘immersive’ artists. It may transform malls, museums and theme parks along the way.

Those involved in these endeavors are mixing VR, AR, haptics, 3D projection mapping, motion capture, RFID cards and other technologies with older diversions to create new forms of art and entertainment, and building networks of venues to host successor immersive experiences.

The distinctive attractions were already surging in popularity before the pandemic and now are driving foot traffic as the appetite for live events explodes in a post-lockdown era. Like mega must-see art exhibitions of the past, the new immersive entertainment can be family friendly, serve as an original date or simply be a compelling excuse to get out of the house.

“People crave social experiences that they can’t replicate at home. Immersive entertainment fills a void that used to be filled by movie theaters. Modern audiences want experiences that are dynamic, interactive and shareable on social media. Immersive entertainment is the answer,” says Enklu CEO Ray Kallmeyer. Enklu operates The Unreal Garden and publishes VR/AR storytelling software.

Kallmeyer adds, “Enklu will continue to bring immersive augmented reality to the world by partnering with incredible artists like Android Jones as we open up more locations in select cities in the U.S. before going international in late 2022.”

Meow Wolf is an art collective that has constructed several unique and lucrative immersive venues, including House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico (2016), Convergence Station in Denver, Colorado (2021) and Omega Mart (2019) at the Area 15 complex in Las Vegas, Nevada. Set in a 20,000-square-foot space that once housed a bowling alley, House of Eternal Return is Meow Wolf’s flagship attraction, The group managed to purchase it thanks to an investment by fellow Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), who was named Chief World Builder by the collective four years later.

House of Eternal Return has over 70 rooms of immersive art and is full of secret passages and interactive light and objects. Guests make their way through the spaces while following a narrative about a family who disappeared after a forbidden experiment at their mansion. According to Rolling Stone magazine, House of Eternal Return was an instant sensation, drawing 400,000 visitors its first year. “Predicting the future of art or entertainment is very difficult at this point in time,” Martin told the magazine. “I don’t know what’s going to be here when the dust settles. But I think Meow Wolf has created enough that they may emerge as one of the big leaders in that area.”

The exterior of Area 15, an experiential arts and entertainment complex. (Photo: Laurent Velazquez. Image courtesy of Area 15)

The Vortex is an entrance to Area 15 where immersive art exhibits bump up against VR LBE and other interactive attractions. (Photo: Laurent Velazquez. Image courtesy of Area 15)

Under the Experiential Frog Egg Garden in Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station, which opened in Denver in 2021. (Photo: Jess Bernstein. Image courtesy of Meow Wolf)

Experiential C Street in Convergence Station is a promenade of vivid colors and concepts. Meow Wolf’s guests interact with tech layers, like RFID cards, laser-based puzzles and reactive projection mapping. (Photo: Jess Bernstein. Image courtesy of Meow Wolf)

Experiential C Street is a psychedelic delight for all ages in Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station in Denver. (Photo: Jess Bernstein. Image courtesy of Meow Wolf)

Experiential C Street is a psychedelic delight for all ages in Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station in Denver. (Photo: Jess Bernstein. Image courtesy of Meow Wolf)

“Storytelling entertainment has traditionally been a linear, non-interactive experience where audiences passively consume what a corporate entity curates for them. As technology has evolved, these experiences have only innovated in the way they are delivered to audiences – and they’ve stayed one-sided,” comments Meow Wolf CEO Jose Tolosa, formerly Chief Transformation Officer for Viacom/CBS.

Tolosa continues, “Meow Wolf has been an innovator since inception, as our artistic storytelling has always been non-linear and interactive. As guests visit our exhibitions, they navigate worlds on their own paths, which can be different every time, and interact with tech layers like RFID cards, laser-based puzzles and reactive projection mapping. Because our guests want to engage and participate more, we’re adding more digital doors as entry points to the Meow Wolf universe, allowing the physical and digital worlds to become alive with an ever-evolving story, just as they do in many digital video game worlds today.”

Tolosa explains, “In essence, we’re bringing a forward-looking physical entertainment experience to the digital realm and back again. Technology will allow the audience to create the story, to create the art and to create different paths through – maybe changing our understanding of story and art, but most certainly changing the way perspective can be viewed, altered and understood.” Meow Wolf is planning to launch another permanent installation this year in Washington, D.C.

Among the biggest stars of immersive entertainment are the various Van Gogh exhibits, produced by several different companies and staged in an estimated 100+ global venues. All use sophisticated projection mapping systems to bathe the viewer in Van Gogh’s paintings. This has led to some confusion when competing firms have shown immersive Van Gogh exhibitions in the same market.

“The artist himself is the inspiration [for Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience],” according to Mario Iacampo, CEO of Exhibition Hub. “Van Gogh is a rock star of the art world. His life story and work are well-known and highly relatable. Van Gogh was a natural choice for this new type of presentation.”

Iacampo explains, “Exhibition Hub created and produced the entire concept for Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, [which] utilizes 4K resolution technology provided exclusively by Barco to present its Immersive Gallery experience.” It is a 360-degree light and sound spectacular in an expansive room (typically 10,000 square feet, and 300,000 cubic feet of space) that brings more than 400 of Van Gogh’s works to life in a 35-minute digital presentation.

“The Immersive Gallery allows guests a unique opportunity to feel Van Gogh’s works wash over them,” Iacampo comments. “Barco’s visual display technology allows guests to step into Van Gogh’s paintings. Our unique experience is made possible by state-of-the-art video mapping technology, coupled with projections on the floor to create the impression of being enveloped in the art.” At the end of the show, there is also a 10-minute VR experience that allows guests to take a voyage through the French countryside to see Van Gogh’s inspirations.

Iacampo comments, “The public is looking for more transcendent experiences and deeper connections to iconic artworks and artists, and our immersive experiences deliver that. This is a new way to create and experience art. There is now room in the art world for these large-scale digital installations to interpret existing works and to create entirely new ones. Immersive art is here to stay and will join the more traditional methods of making art as another style in the artist’s palette.”

Iacampo adds, “We are continuing to develop new immersive art experiences, including ones focused on Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, René Magritte, Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí. We are also focusing on family experiences that incorporate immersive technologies into more traditional exhibitions – think of your natural history museum’s dioramas coming to life all around you.”

The Galaxarium of the virtual reality experience Men in Black: First Assignment at Dreamscape Immersive. Steven Spielberg, IMAX, Westfield Malls, AMC Theatres and Nickelodeon are among the firm’s investors. (Image courtesy of Dreamscape Immersive)

House of Eternal Return has an otherworldly tree house and backyard along with 70 rooms of immersive art. Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin purchased the site for this first permanent Meow Wolf attraction. (Photo: Kate Russell. Image courtesy of Meow Wolf)

In the House of Eternal Return, even a washing machine can serve as a portal. Meow Wolf now has several attractions, more being planned, and hundreds of employees. (Photo: Kate Russell. Image courtesy of Meow Wolf)

Lighthouse Immersive was set to launch nine Immersive Frida Kahlo exhibits by mid-summer this year, with Impact Museums partnering in several locations. Laser projectors and an internal network create a 360-degree experience. (Photo: Kyle Flubacker. Image courtesy of Lighthouse Immersive and Impact Museums)

The Unreal Garden 2.0, with locations in San Francisco and Denver, provides an augmented reality experience full of interactive art, which runs on Enklu’s immersive storytelling platform. (Image courtesy of the The Unreal Garden and Enklu, Inc.)

Other location-based VR attractions also offer immersion. Parkes comments, “What differentiates Dreamscape is the background of the people involved. On a technical level, our motion capture and inverse kinematic algorithms were developed by our Swiss partners whose background is in medical technology. This gives us a level of precision and reality not found elsewhere. On the content side, our team represents decades of experience in creating successful four-quadrant global entertainment in film, theme parks and music.

“All this,” he continues, “adds up to, we hope, a unique array of experiences which blur the line between movies, games and theme park attractions.” Parkes says the ‘full roam’ aspect of the experiences will always provide a greater stage and scale than what is possible with VR at home. He explains, “Not just because of the size of our stages, but because of the haptics and physical effects which are integral to Dreamscape experiences.”

Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience typically uses Barco 4K resolution technology to immerse participants. (Image courtesy of Exhibition Hub)

Parkes notes, “Dreamscape employs ‘sparse capture’ – meaning we only capture the position of our users’ hands, feet, back and head. From that our inverse kinematic algorithm can construct a ‘skeleton’ which is rendered as an avatar through which our audience experiences VR from the ‘inside out,’ in full contact with all of their senses. Because much of the process is accomplished algorithmically, we can accommodate up to eight users simultaneously without the latency or lag which plagues most other VR experiences.”

In The Unreal Garden 2.0, visitors wearing Microsoft HoloLens 2 headsets may experience awe and wonder around the next corner. (Image courtesy of the The Unreal Garden and Enklu, Inc.)

Regarding the visual effects of the project, Dreamscape has a core group of programmers, engineers and animators “who are largely responsible for everything we make. We also bring in independent contractors depending on the needs of any given project,” Parkes says.

Area 15 is an experiential arts and entertainment complex in Las Vegas where immersive art exhibits bump up against VR LBE and other interactive attractions. Area 15 has Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart, which contains interactive art, an interactive playground, a maze and portals to other worlds created by the likes of Brian Eno and Android Jones, as well as retail items for sale. Omega Mart had over a million visitors in its first year, according to the firm. Area 15 also contains Exhibition Hub’s Klimt: The Immersive Experience, Wink World: Portals to the Infinite (from Chris Wink, co-founder of the Blue Man Group), the Virtualis-VR LBE, and many other interactive and immersive attractions. Superblue (Miami), Seismique (Houston, created by Steve Kopelman, principal and COO of Escape the Room), ARTECHOUSE (Miami), Wisdome LA (Los Angeles), and Otherworld (Columbus) are other notable experiential entertainment attractions and/or immersive installations.

As for what’s around the corner for immersive entertainment, Dreamscape’s Parkes comments, “At their best, these are compelling, unique entertainment experiences based on technologies which didn’t really exist until the last several years. The question is will they expand and become part of what we think of as ‘mainstream entertainment.’”

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