Irvine’s latest addition to an increasing list of enticing activities is a virtual reality experience called “Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future,” where you suit up in cool gear and participate in a resistance mission with your friends. This mission takes place in the middle of the bustling Irvine Spectrum Center – one of Orange County’s most popular entertainment lifestyle destinations that attracts more than 17 million visitors annually. Burbank-based SPACES launched the VR activity in August, transforming part of the mall into a digital playground.
“Spectrum is a pioneer in many ways as the next generation of malls. There is the iconic ferris wheel, one of the first Dave and Buster’s locations, large cinemas … the environment doesn’t feel like a mall at all,” says Shiraz Akmal, CEO and co-founder of SPACES. “When we did the analysis of all the locations and partners throughout the U.S., this was one of our top choices given the incredible amount of foot traffic. It was a natural fit for us.”
The first of many global VR experiences in the works, the Irvine SPACES location is a multi-sensory attraction where, for the first time, you can experience location-based extended virtual reality. Features include SPACES FACES (proprietary 3D scans of guests’ faces) and top-of-the-line immersive equipment including VR backpacks, designed to enable groundbreaking social experiences that can be realized without being attached to a desktop computer or a television with limited external effects.
“With SPACES, we can play a variety of experiences on the same physical space, which is why we named our company that,” says Akmal. “Every few months we will introduce another major attraction like Terminator.” New attractions will be added to existing ones and seasonal content, like the Halloween experience they just introduced, will also be available. “We will have similar content for holidays like Christmas and Easter, which works well in malls and community gatherings.”
The VR attraction is built to be a shared social experience, starting with this movie-themed space in Irvine, but also including new concepts based on the venue. Several new SPACES locations will be popping up over the next few months, starting with Sega Joypolis in Tokyo at Shibuya Crossing. Cinemark San Jose will open a SPACES Center within the theaters as a high-end flagship location in December. January 2019 will witness the opening of SPACES in China, with the world’s largest walkable attraction of 20,000 square feet catering to 100 people at a time, enjoying a 25-30 minute epic historical fantasy courtesy of Songcheng, a global top-10 theme park group.
“Though these are different types of venues, the common factor is they are places that people like to go together,” shares Akmal. “People are always looking for things to do and what makes SPACES work really well is it’s a group experience.”
Akmal and CTO Brad Herman are co-founders of the company, and worked together at DreamWorks Animation’s DreamLab before branching out on their own, establishing SPACES in 2016. The company offers unique virtual, augmented and mixed reality entertainment with cutting-edge technology that is fully immersive and highly sensory. They’ve raised over $10 million from Comcast Ventures and the Venture Reality Fund, among others. They also have a $30 million partnership with Songcheng Performance Co. to build next generation attractions for parks and retail locations. The locations vary, including mega-malls, high-end theater chains for in-theater experiences, popular tourist destinations and theme parks.
“We can set up a space pretty fast as we bring in all of our tech and hardware. It is exciting for our real estate partners because they have a lot of empty space unfortunately these days and don’t have to spend a lot on outfitting a location. It is great for us because we can get up and running quickly,” says Akmal.
Not all experiences will be movie-related, though initially the company is going with the big brand value experience of movies or games that are easily recognizable by the masses. Their Chinese attraction is a new historical fantasy idea directed by the chairman of the park. SPACES also has a partnership with National Geographic Museum for Washington, D.C.’s first VR theater experience, outfitting the museum’s Grosvenor Auditorium with 450 Oculus Go headsets, connecting audiences with explorers and photographers working to positively impact the planet.
“This is a group social experience so we can scale up to 5,000 people in our audience,” says Akmal. “Our team, unlike most other teams, builds the software and the hardware integrations. We have seen the pattern of how technology changes and so what we have built is a really great software platform that can integrate any kind of hardware despite changes every few months.”
At the Irvine location, each experience in-headset is 10-15 minutes while the entire experience is 30 minutes. This includes scanning your face to make a 3D copy, getting a mission briefing, suiting up with all the cool gear, and participating in the VR experience. Once out, there is a leaderboard ranking so you can see how you did compared to other teams that have played. You also get a copy of your experience in the form of a 90-second movie featuring you and your friends playing together.
“While the headsets and PCs change, what doesn’t change is how you run an operation,” says Akmal. “It is effectively a large interactive video game so people management, operations control, things like the face scanning technology, all of that which happens outside of the headset is software that we built. We are able to keep that content moving seamlessly to new hardware when that becomes available. What we want is to deliver the latest and greatest experience to customers in a way that the hardware disappears and the experience is the most amazing thing!”