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Friday, June 21, 2024

Immersive Video Games Are Coming to a Theater Near You

Time is running out inside the Gamebox, and you've got to jump or die. You're a contestant in Squid Game, the hit South Korean Netflix series, but in this interactive version, you're playing inside an illuminated cube measuring 12 feet in each direction. 

You're partnered up with your friends, who must agree on questions about a series of images projected to the left and right of you. Each of you wears a visor with sensors on top of it; the box can tell where you are and how you move. In this challenge, called “Glass Bridge,” your team must decide, as seconds tick away, the answer to questions like, “Which side had the most birds?” To vote, teammates jump on circles representing the left or right side.

Answer correctly and your onscreen avatar jumps safely forward onto a rectangle of glass. Answer wrong? Your character falls to a bloodless, relatively nonviolent death (compared to the TV show), and your team takes a hit, losing some of its player characters.

The game moves quickly and bathes you in the pinks and yellows of the TV series. The members of your group must work together through six challenges inspired by the show, including “Tug of War” and “Red Light, Green Light.” But it's not Squid Game: The Video Game, it's one of about a dozen titles that also includes Angry Birds on a software platform that's spreading to movie theaters and entertainment centers in the US and overseas.

Immersive Gamebox is the name of the cube, as well as the British company that makes it. The boxes started rolling out in 2019 in London and have since expanded to play centers, malls, and movie theaters. They are now in about 20 US markets, including Dallas, San Jose, Denver, Salt Lake City, and New York City, with a target of 100 locations in the next two years. 

Will Dean, who previously cofounded the Tough Mudder obstacle course event company, said that for his sophomore startup, he was looking to do something similar involving group play, but in the tech space.

“I became really interested in this idea of taking the dynamics of a video game, which is the individual versus the environment, and creating something that's all about team bonding,” Dean says. “I think I'm good at understanding what makes things fun, and we live in an age where, unfortunately, technology isn't bringing us together in the ways it might have 15 or 20 years ago.”

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Dean says he looked at VR but felt it wasn't collaborative enough. Instead, he began building off inspiration from tech like the original Nintendo Wii to start working on a smart game room that would use projection, motion tracking, and lidar. The first prototype, made in 2018, was a version of Pong with two players moving around the room functioning as the paddles. Dean says it was “super basic, but it was fun, and I think people enjoyed it.”

The company then began working to raise capital. As investors got interested, they built a model of putting out easy-to-assemble game rooms that they could build locations around or franchise to others, what Dean began calling “a theme park in a box.” The company would build its own original games, but also partner with companies like Netflix and Rovio to do licensed versions of existing IP.

The first US location, at Grandscape, an entertainment complex near Dallas, was set up by a separate team and operated remotely, as the London team was stuck overseas due to pandemic restrictions. “It was frankly quite petrifying,” Dean says.

How Do Gameboxes Work?

At first glance, the Interactive Gamebox looks like it's made up of giant screens on the inside. They're actually simple white walls onto which a projector in the ceiling casts images. Cameras in the corners pick up movement from sensors on the visors worn by each player. 

Those movements can be interpreted as interactive inputs, such as jumping on a specific spot in the room or touching a spot on a wall, as if the games are responding to button presses. 

The games are set up and run by an employee outside of the cube using an iPad or web interface, but they can also be run and monitored from an offsite location. 

How Do You Play?

Two to six players check in on an iPad, sign safety waivers, and enter the cube. Each player wears a different-colored visor that corresponds to their onscreen avatar, and the games last anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. An hour of gameplay costs about $30 to $35, depending on the location. The games are for ages 5 and up, with titles like Shaun the Sheep: Championsheeps and Temple of Coins catering to families.

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At a theater north of San Antonio in Cibolo, Texas, two Gameboxes are in operation within sight of a bowling alley and a full bar outside the movie screen areas. The motion tracking is not always perfect—sometimes presses on the wall didn't register as they would on an actual touchscreen. But at least in the case of Squid Game, the fast pace and smart use of timers and team play make for a very fun, pulse-quickening experience.

Some cities, such as Chicago, have as many as 11 game rooms in the same location. Future plans include cube versus cube tournaments and lots more games. 

What’s the Plan?

Dean doesn't lack for ambition. He wants Immersive Gamebox to be not just a fun diversion for people waiting to see a movie or killing time at the mall, but a huge entertainment platform with regular tie-ins to pop culture events like TV shows or movie releases. People, he hopes, will talk about the game experiences with their friends, anticipating each new title.

Immersive Gamebox is also creating educational content and looking at ways to use its system for things like job training. New sports and rhythm games are on the way, plus lots more licensed content, Dean says. 

The Gameboxes themselves take only about a day to assemble from what Dean describes as “essentially an Ikrs kit,” and because the sides are walls and not screens, they can withstand “boisterous teeangers or a British bachelor party.” 

In addition to operating its own locations with its own employees, Immersive Gamebox offers its tech as a franchise, requiring close to $50,000 in investment funds and about $360,000 for the hardware, per unit, according to the company's website, plus marketing, booking, and other fees. It also does some partnering with companies, who share revenues on the games. 

Dean says slowing down is not part of the plan. In five years, he says, “we should have a thousand sites; we should be in gyms, we should be in airports, we should be on cruise ships, we should be in WeWorks.” 

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