How the Pandemic Will Change Immersive Entertainment

4 min read

The pandemic turned the world of entertainment on its head. Many of the in-person events that we love, from live concerts through to museum exhibitions, art galleries, and theme parks, all froze in time as we sheltered at home. How can they recover? A little technology will go a long way.

As we plan a return from the pandemic, physical venues will once again become relevant. Like many other aspects of life after the crisis, though, they will operate under different constraints. They must rethink their role in a post-pandemic culture.

Physical venues can compete with home streaming options by creating stories that surround people. That means breaking the fourth wall to draw them into an immersive experience.

Immersion is an ongoing trend that began in the sixties with initial attempts at 3D movies and even experimental systems like 'Smell-O-Vision' that wafted odors into the cinema. It continued with the development of larger screens and enhanced immersive sound systems like THX.

Projecting a vibrant future

Thankfully, we've left Smell-O-Vision behind. Instead, modern technology lets us wow visitors with captivating visual spectacles instead. When the pandemic recedes, tools like large-scale projections that stitch together multiple projectors to create super-bright, crisp moving images will remain.

The evolution of mapping technology takes projection to the next level. Rather than just projecting images onto a single flat surface, projection mapping uses software to mold them around three-dimensional spaces. This suits small objects (imagine projecting video onto the surface of a sphere, turning it into a living atlas), but it also transforms larger spaces.

For example, Lighthouse Immersive worked with Panasonic to shed new light on the work of Dutch post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. It organized an immersive exhibition in Toronto, Ontario's Toronto Star building. A combination of 53 laser projectors configured with pinpoint precision transformed the walls and floors of the 11,000-foot industrial space to immerse visitors in the painter's work.

Immersive digital entertainment can transform a visitor's experience outside a building, too, which is a valuable asset in a society concerned about social distancing. Lighthouse Immersive's design team innovated to ensure a safe experience for visitors to the exhibition, which opened during the pandemic. It included an auxiliary experience called Gogh by Car, which delivered the experience to visitors from inside their vehicles. This extended the reach of the event while maintaining social distancing requirements.

Projectors are now so powerful that they can transform the outside of an entire building. Before the pandemic hit, Panasonic helped artist Refik Anadol do just that when he used projection mapping to transform the Walt Disney Concert Hall into a moving artwork in a celebration of the LA Philharmonic's centennial anniversary.

Projection mapping is a hot innovation area for the immersive entertainment industry. One of the newest developments is real-time tracking, which uses cameras to track fast-moving objects. Projectors map images onto the objects with pinpoint precision and then follow their movements. In demonstrations, a basketball bounces quickly while reflecting a projected bright light or a logo.

This technology carries potential for everything from interactive art exhibits to theme parks in which guests interact with what's in front of them. Imagine carrying a 'crystal ball' around an exhibit that shows different moving images as you approach different parts of the room.

Putting people in the picture

Tomorrow's post-pandemic immersive entertainment experiences might also involve digitizing people. New volumetric capture techniques use several cameras to scan objects or even people at ultra-high resolutions, stitching the scans together to create a moving 360-degree 3D image.

A holographic-like moving image of a visitor who had been scanned just moments before could appear in a movie trailer or as an extra thrill in between pre-film commercials. Folding realistic 3D images of visitors directly into theme park attractions would be hugely appealing to visitors.

Expect projection to complement other technologies in venues ranging from art galleries to cinemas and theme parks. New digital attractions can draw people into lobby areas and entertain them while they wait for the venue to reach safe capacity.

One application for immersive digital technology in physical venues is multi-player gaming. Traditionally a home activity, this promises to revolutionize physical spaces. According to Accenture, 57% of 18-34 year-olds would jump at the chance for multi-player games in a cinema lobby.

While projection can play a part in these attractions, there are other emerging technologies that will expand their reach. One example is the use of augmented or mixed reality. Headsets that superimpose computer-generated images over real-world views, Pokemon Go-style, can integrate seamlessly with venues' physical environments. Theme parks and museums could be filled with animated characters that pop out from behind objects to guide visitors along.

Immersion is just one way that physical venues can compete with online streaming. The other way is to continue those experiences after they leave. Imagine on-site games that continue at home as the visitor accesses them online. Players that began playing at a venue could unlock new characters and in-game assets that relate to a movie they've seen or an exhibition they visited. Visits need not begin and end at a venue's front door.

For some industries, these innovations aren't just a remedy for the pandemic; they're a cure for an ailment that predates COVID-19. Movie streaming was already hindering cinema attendance, for example. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, total movie admissions revenues in 2019 declined almost five percent to 1.244bn. That's the second-worst year for movie ticket revenues since 1995. The pandemic then exacerbated the problem. PwC predicted that the entertainment sector would contract 5.6% in 2021.

Broadband entertainment options and the pandemic might have driven more people home, but it won't keep them there. In the coming decade, on-site visits will become more relevant than ever as people crave the social and tactile interactions that they missed during the pandemic. Museums, movie houses, galleries and theme parks can look forward to an exciting new world of immersive innovation.

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Danny Bradbury