Declare your independence from the ordinary

The most popular FEC attractions include bumper cars, laser tag, mini golf and axe throwing.

Happy Independence Day

Does your FEC attraction mix look something like this?

Arcade & redemption center, laser tag, bowling, bumper cars. Maybe you’ve added axe throwing recently or an escape room or two.

Congratulations. You have the same attractions mix as every other family entertainment center.

 Our industry has become commoditized. Same games, same prizes, same attractions.

But customers don’t want more of the same.

They want DIFFERENT. 

But to paraphrase Forrest Gump:

“Different is as different does.” 

  • Different requires vision – you have to see what others won’t.
  • It takes courage – being different doesn’t feel safe.
  • And it takes leadership – it’s blazing a trail, not traveling the well-worn path.

A Career of Firsts

I’ve been in this industry since the mid-1980s and have been involved in many firsts.

Laser Storm's X-MEN Danger Room, the world's first IP-based laser tag. IAAPA 1997. Left to Right: Cyclops, Eric Schwartzman, Bob Cooney, Bill Bauerle, Unknown, Wolverine, John McNutt, Mike Kessler, Storm

I built some of the first laser tag arenas, including the first with licensed IP. I helped launch the first VR arcade system (and the second). I helped build the first downloading jukebox network and one of the first tablet-based gaming systems, Buffalo Wild Wings. I helped bring to market several of the most successful VR systems for LBE in the last decade. I’m sure there are others that I’ve forgotten about.

I write that not to brag. It’s to explain that I see things differently than most people.

And right now, I see an opportunity that I believe could transform the location-based entertainment industry.

I call it the Downloadable FEC.

The Downloadable FEC - Image by DallE 3, prompted by Kylie Savage

Over the last few years, I’ve traveled over a million miles, experiencing virtual reality in dozens of countries. I’ve tried hundreds of different experiences. That variety gives me a perspective few others do. I have a different idea of what’s possible based on what I have seen. 

I believe we are entering the era of the purely virtual, multi-attraction entertainment center. A business where the experiences are mostly software-based, delivered through immersive technology. Virtual and mixed reality, projection, and body tracking technology enable an almost limitless variety of experiences. From intense first-person shooters and family-friendly escape rooms to walk-through immersive art installations and engaging edutainment experiences that appeal to every age group and demographic.

These experiences are now affordable to create, scalable to deploy, and, here’s the key, inexpensive and easy to operate. This just was not true two years ago. But it is today.

Profitable Business Models

If you’ve followed me since I started covering the VR market in 2016, you’ll know I am all about the business model. Sure, the experience is important, but if the business doesn’t make money, then nothing else matters. For years, the VR arcade business has been marginal at best. There have been several challenges:

  1. The throughput was limited based on the space required
  2. The technology was expensive and complicated
  3. The equipment was fragile and prone to failure
  4. The employee-to-customer ratio was too high

These three factors meant that CAPEX and OPEX were too high, leading to marginal operating margins and ROI.

Virtual Rabbids offers amazing ROI for a VR product.

The one truly bright spot has been VR simulators. On a revenue per-square-foot basis, rides like Virtual Rabbids from LAI Games and King Kong from Raw Thrills could generate $1000 per square foot per year with no labor cost. Maintenance costs are high, but when you compare replacing headset cables and facemasks with restocking plush cranes, it is immaterial. This is why thousands of these machines are in operation worldwide.

Revenue / Square Foot – Labor = Profit

In April, I traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to check out a new company I’d heard about called Unirv.se. They told me they could accommodate 30 people in a 1000-square-foot space at a time. I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to believe anything anyone tells me. Even if you have one piece of the puzzle, you also need the others: quality engaging content, reliable tech, low operating costs, etc. The Virtual Barca Tour at Camp Nou

While in Barcelona, I went to Camp Nou, the home of the Barcelona Football Club. Univr.se installed a system there in 2022, where, for two years, hundreds of thousands of guests have gone through a 10-minute immersive experience. Fans get to become their favorite Barca legend and experience highlights of the greatest players in the virtual locker room. They are then flown over a digital twin of the stadium, miniaturized, and set down on the pitch as a player kicks a ball over their head. Fans streamed through the attractions, and everyone left with a smile on their face.

We moved on to the Tutankhamen exhibit, where we donned headsets and traveled to an archeological dig in Egypt, where the great explorers uncovered the secrets of the boy king’s tomb.

The Great Library of Tomorrow Immersive Experience by Tomorrowland

We then went to the Great Library of Tomorrow, an immersive experience by the Tomorrowland Music Festival. We pulled books off virtual shelves, each launching a virtual immersive video of a past performance. We wandered through a psychedelic forest where mushrooms were percussion instruments. Our group of 30 people spent a half hour immersed in an interactive environment filled with wonder and awe.

After the tour, we returned to the Univr.se HQ, where they showed us some new experiences in development. The first was Dracula’s Castle, a 20-minute horror walk-through experience that sparked my imagination of what’s possible with a high-volume immersive haunted house attraction for Halloween. Then we stepped into their latest project, Fairy Tales.

We were transported into a fantasy land, becoming kids searching for our grandmother, who left us clues about her disappearance. We explored underwater in the lost city of Atlantis, rode a magic carpet with Aladdin, and flew over the city in a hot-air balloon, which felt straight out of the Pixar movie Up.

Cracking the Code

I’ve done a lot of VR. I’ve had my emotional strings tugged and pulled. I’ve felt the visceral fear of having Zombies get in my face in Australia. I felt awe and wonder during Dreamscape’s Alien Zoo in LA. I experienced childlike joy playing Toyland from Backlight in Paris. But in the end, I knew the business case for each was challenging.

This was the first time in 8 years of traveling the world experiencing VR that I felt a company had cracked the code.

  • The experience was compelling and engaging.
  • It was highly accessible.
  • It was easy and efficient to operate.
  • And it was inexpensive to deploy.

The Future of Hollywood?

I saw a future where, instead of sitting in a theater for 90 minutes watching a story, people could explore environments as the story played out around them. Univr.se calls it “Story Living.” Could it be the future of Hollywood? Would audiences pay $25, $50, or even $100 for their favorite movies delivered in an immersive and interactive story-driven experience? Research suggests they would.

The base unit economics of the Univr.se model blow away the economics of a standard theater auditorium.

Unit Economics of Univr.se vs Movie Theater

And the cost of building a free roam space is a fraction of an auditorium. I’ve spoken to several movie studios about this concept, and they are interested. With more and more movies using virtual production, building scenes using game engines like Unreal, the motion picture and TV series production pipeline could integrate immersive storylines, releasing these experiences either prior to or in conjunction with the theatrical window.

The Economics of the FEC Have Changed

As more theaters become multi-attraction venues, the line between a multiplex theater and a family entertainment center are blurring. Companies like B&B Theaters, Cynergy, and EVO are building large FECs anchored by movie theaters. Just like almost every other form of location-based entertainment, theaters are finding it more profitable to become multi-attraction centers.

Cost of building a new FEC is up 36% since 2020

But the cost of building those venues is skyrocketing. White Hutchinson reports the cost of non-residential construction is up 36% in the last four years. And interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades. To compete, the biggest FECs are now costing tens of millions to build and are getting bigger every year.

The Downloadable FEC Flips the Financial Script

The downloadable FEC can be built for a fraction of the cost of a multi-attraction entertainment center. It offers flexibility of a multiplex, with the variety of experiences only software can offer. When a big movie is released now, thanks to digital projection, theater owners can program it on every screen to handle the peak demand. A downloadable FEC offers the same scalability.

But when that movie runs its course, theaters are still theaters, and the supply of content is limited. A downloadable FEC holds the promise of unlimited variety and supply of experiences. No blockbuster Hollywood releases this month? No problem, bring in the newest cultural experience for school groups during the week, and run games on the weekends. The combinations to appeal to a massive cross-section of the population are unlimited. 

Building the Ecosystem

  • The key to building this future is pulling together the ecosystem. All of the required players exist in the space today.
  • Locations: from malls reinventing themselves to cinemas with excess capacity
  • Operators: from LBE operators to multi-unit franchise owners
  • Distributors: From resellers like Fever to VR platforms like Synthesis VR or Springboard
  • Content studios: From movie studios like Sony to game studios like Ubisoft
  • Tech solutions: VR companies like HTC and Pico to turnkey solution providers like Private Label VR
  • Investors: From private equity like Redbird Capital to content financing like City Lights.

By defining and bringing together the ecosystem we can foster the relationships necessary to make the vision a reality. In the meantime, we can start today. The technology is readily available and affordable. Existing LBE business can start with a downloadable attraction in a little over 1000 square feet.

The Park Playground is one of the first Downloadable FECs

The Park Playground has build successful centers generating high six-figure revenue in around 4,000 square feet. And soon we will be announcing our first 20K square foot beta test center.

Declare Your Independance

If you’re ready to declare your independence, then join me in Dallas on August 6th as we bring the ecosystem together. You’ll be able to demonstrate the Univr.se system, learn how Synthesis VR’s distribution and management platform can help manage a downloadable FEC, and talk to developers and operators about how to get involved.  

If you’re ready to declare your independence from the same, this event is for you. You can get your tickets at this link. Attendance is limited to 50 people, so don’t wait until tomorrow. Secure your ticket to the future today.

The Downloadable FEC Event August 6th

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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