A new virtual reality experience in Century City does for alien creatures what Jurassic Park did for dinosaurs — bring them so close you’re dwarfed and awed by their presence (and, at least in once case, worry you might wind up on the menu).
Alien Zoo takes visitors on a 12-minute journey to a virtual world, where they interact with the environment and each other — touching the snout of one curious herbivore, rolling a ball to an otherworldly feline, and working together to fend off a giant predator.
The pop-up attraction at The Atrium at Westfield Century City mall is the first from Dreamscape Immersive, a start-up backed by some of Hollywood’s biggest players including 21st Century Fox, Warner Bros, Nickelodeon and AMC Entertainment.
Alien Zoo is an example of location-based VR — an out-of-home experience that blends elements of cinematic storytelling with the immersive feel of a theme park attraction. Participants suit up — donning VR goggles, a backpack and reflectors on hands and feet — and step into the virtual space, where they can interact with their surroundings and one another.
There other examples of this budding form of entertainment, including Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire at Downtown Disney, in which guests walk around freely while virtually interacting with digitally created characters and each other.
Industry observers say such virtual reality experiences hold potential to revitalize malls, which are facing an existential threat from online shopping. Time magazine cited experts as predicting that one out of every four malls in the U.S. could be out of business by 2020, victims of changing tastes, a widening wealth gap and the embrace of online shopping.
Dreamscape Immersive uses VR technology developed by Swiss researchers for medical applications. There’s no perceptible latency — so participants are unlikely to feel motion sickness caused by a discrepancy between what we see in a virtual environment and the motion sensed by the inner ear.
Film producer and company co-founder Walter Parkes (Men in Black, WarGames) brought a movie-maker’s sensibility to the experience. The Alien Zoo experience follows a familiar narrative arc — including a moment of peril and triumph — and incorporates a score from noted composer Hans Zimmer.
“Most virtual reality companies tend to have one foot in the tech world and one foot in gaming,” said Parkes.”We have one foot in theme park attractions and one foot in big movies.”
Dreamscape’s CEO Bruce Vaughn draws from his 25-year experience as an executive at Walt Disney Imagineering to begin transitioning the guest from the mall into the story from the moment they enter the Alien Zoo lobby, decorated with curious specimens under glass and zoology cards featuring unfamiliar creatures.
“The more you touch things, interact with things, the more you create suspension of disbelief,” said Vaughn. “When you see things in the lobby, you don’t understand them … But you anticipate what you and your friends are going to feel.”
Parkes said the company hopes to eventually open Dreamscape Centers, where visitors can choose among multiple different stories — like a VR multiplex. These VR experiences may wind up in a converted theater, as a lure to boost attendance during the week. The company is even mulling educational experiences, such as whale watches, that might be suitable for school field trips.
“There’s a little bit of trying to bring in the best of Hollywood moviemaking combined with what Bruce and his team from Imagineering knows about haptics, about how to get people in and out,” said Parkes. “Those things hopefully merge to what we want to see is the building of a new forum of storytelling.”
The attraction has been well received enough that Dreamscape extended the the experience through March 14.