Hollywood will likely get strapped into virtual reality at the arcades and multiplexes before it comes into the home.

That was the message from top practitioners of this new technology at the Home Media Expo in Beverly Hills last week.

Theaters need to reverse a slow decline in attendance, observed Diana Hawkins of Interactive Associates, “because more people are watching films at home. There should be family entertainment centers at the multiplex.”

Rides or games?

The question now, she added, was whether the attractions should be simulation rides or virtual reality games.

She warned that so-called immersion VR, with game players wearing helmets fitted with tiny screens containing computer-generated environments, are hampered by poor-quality graphics and don’t promote repeated play.

Simulation rides have higher attendance and are limited only by their software, which unfortunately stick to the familiar “shoot-’em-up” genre.

With either experience only a few minutes long, combining a number of games with merchandise and food is the strategy to pursue. “They can bring in more money than the rides,” Hawkins said.

That tactic is being pursued by Stan Kinsey’s Iwerks Entertainment in its Cinetropolis project. A deal with VR pioneers Evans & Sutherland will yield a simulation ride with very sophisticated imagery by year’s end.

The software problem is being addressed, said Gilman Louie, president of Spectrum HoloByte Inc., a company producing the VR-version of Paramount’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” for Edison Brothers Inc. In that project, his focus is on creating realistic environments in which a number of players interact.

Fantasyland

“You have to make people believe they’re in a separate place,” said Louie. “Right now, software is an afterthought, limited by computer hardware performance and designed by engineers.”

The studios’ own theme parks, in fact, may be waiting to see how these independent efforts fare.

Said Scott Billups, a VR consultant in Hollywood, “It’s still very early. The only people with viable prototypes that really make money is Iwerks” with its Cinetropolis. But, he cautions, it will be costly until there are enough units installed.

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