Is it the future of cinema, is it the future for Netflix? Granted, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12, doesn’t quite capture the dramatic cachet of a galaxy far, far away, but undoubtedly Westfield London has been the portal to make the jump to hyperspace into a whole other universe.
To the uninitiated – and there are not too many of them, as the snaking queues at Westfield have proved – Secrets of the Empire makes you the star of an immersive adventure powered by VR. Speaking as a cynic who has stifled many a yawn at the technology’s previous shortcomings, this iteration of the tech is as spectacular as it’s convincing.
You really do believe you are involved in a firefight with Stormtroopers; thanks to a haptic vest, you feel the burn on taking a hit; the brain is totally fooled into thinking it’s travelling on a floating platform above burning lava, and that a wrong foot may result in a fiery death; vertigo is genuinely induced on staring into the bowels of the Death Star, and the illusion is complete in the ultimate battle scene.
If I have done enough to convince you to grab a ticket when it transfers to Westfield’s other site, not so far, far away in Stratford, then consider this:
The experience economy is in fine fettle – consumers are less materialistic and favour becoming rich in experience. Brands that give their customers social currency have the advantage: people love immersive and are prepared to pay! Secret Cinema’s latest high-demand extravaganza, Blade Runner, is testament to this, as is Secrets of the Empire - it cost £32 a pop and there weren’t many empty Haptic vests.
Cinema is a pioneer of the experience economy. From an exhibitor perspective it looks healthy – UK 2017 box-office takings totalled a record £1.3bn. However, offset that news with the knowledge that half of all films never turn a profit. In the UK, spend on film production was £1.9bn last year. It could be that nearly £1bn has been spent on box-office flops, consequently getting pulled after opening weekend. In the US, annual production spend is estimated at $10bn. The thought that, every year, 50% of film financiers may never see a return should prompt a conversation on how their money is invested. One might suggest making better project choices – or, creating a complementary art form that chimes with emerging audience tastes, new technologies, and expands the studio’s core capabilities.
The evolution of cinematic audiovisual technology has sought to create more than a passing sensation that the viewer is at the heart of the action; 3D added to that illusion. The next dimension is to rethink the art of filmmaking, writing the audience in as a protagonist in the drama – exactly what Secrets of the Empire does. To deliver this future, joint investment from studios and exhibitors is needed. No point making the content if there’s no place to participate. So what do the experts believe?
Dave Ranyard – VR developer, former head of Studio for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, chief executive of Dream Reality Interactive (in which Mother is an investor), and an innovation entrepreneur – tells me: "Studios are already taking a keen interest in this type of entertainment, with several development projects in this space right now. Many of the teams working globally in VR tech are a few projects in, and much has been learned - the ‘pop-up’ delivery of immersive VR, as created by The Void with Secrets of the Empire, is a successful proof of concept. The ability of the tech to deliver universes to explore and be entertained is now so compelling that I predict multiplexes will dedicate at least one screen to VR-based immersive entertainment within the next two years."
Now that’s progress.
Netflix changed the way we do telly, turning us into binge consumers of content; surely it won’t stop innovating now. Here again, the logical step is to script its subscribers into the content it creates. The financial wherewithal exists; last year it reported a planned $6bn investment in new shows, and a further $1.75bn to make original content for international markets. Might some of that go to immersive entertainment?
Sky is already a long way down this road, as Ranyard explains. "Sky has a focused strategy," he says. "It will soon be capable of delivering VR to its customers in a single destination, something other media companies have yet to do. The key to all successful content, though, assuming compelling execution as a given, is the delivery platform."
There you have it. I can see a not-too-distant future in which an immersive living room becomes a must-have in the home-entertainment inventory.
Now, where did I put my haptic vest? Probably down the back of the sofa again.
Michael Brown is managing director of MKTG