Disney’s Virtual World puts new spin on VR

Virtual reality, or some semblance of it, got a big boost last night with the opening of a new venue by Tim Disney’s Virtual World Entertainment.

The company unveiled a new venture, Virtual World, in a main-street storefront in Walnut Creek, promising the latest experience in interactive game-playing.

“We’ve created the world’s first digital theme park,” said Andy Messing, CEO of Burbank-based VWE.

VWE is the first to market in the new hot market, called location-based entertainment. LBEs rely on facilities that provide broad offerings for repeated experience, like a theme park, but in urban centers. That makes them easier to get to for the evening, unlike suburban attractions such as Disney World.

“It’s moving the attraction to where the people are,” said theme park consultant Ray Braun of Economic Resources Associates.

According to Braun, the $ 4 billion theme park industry is looking to expand into new areas and is closely watching VWE’s progress.

The difference, however, is the elaborate theme concocted for the game by Disney, Messing and partners Charles Fink, Jordan Weisman and Ross Babcock.

The adventure begins with the company’s fictional Virtual Geographic League, founded by inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla in 1895 and devoted to exploring alternative universes. The League has a 100-page book detailing its history and is the basis for merchandising tie-ins and plans for possible feature and TV projects. A first-look deal with a studio reportedly is in the works.

“Telling the story is as unique as the technology,” said Fink, a former Disney vice president and a VWE exec VP. “Anyone can do the technology with money, but we have the story.”

Players enter a reception area that hints of the 1880s and choose one of two games. A six-minute-long pre-show, starring Judge Reinhold, Joan Severance and Weird Al Yankovic, sets up the action. In them, it’s explained that the player, now a member of the League, is entering a pod as a “pilot” to do battle in the future.

What defines the 10-minute VWE experience as virtual reality is that it appears to involve almost all of the senses. Once in a pod, the player’s actions are connected to others by personal computers that control graphics and sound. Twelve speakers blast out sound effects, as large mechanical warriors battle it out on a computer-generated landscape. Images appear to whirl and shift in real time, making the scene very realistic.

When the game is over, players review their game on a high-powered Macintosh, watching how each did as the simulated combat is replayed.

Rather than stick with BattleTech, a shoot-’em-up, VWE has added Red Planet, where players race hovercrafts. Another software program, “Hull Pressure,” is in the works; it will promote team-work rather than combat.

The new titles are aimed at broadening VWE’s demographics beyond typical young males.

The company “is trying very hard to create gender-independent environments that support women,” said John Latta, head of 4th Wave, a VR industry consultant in Alexandria, Va. “They’ll broaden the participation.”

Latta expects the VR industry to grow from $ 110 million in 1993 to $ 504 million worldwide by 1997.

All the games are written by programmers in VWE’s Chicago office. Since BattleTech opened three years ago, 350,000 tickets have been sold, with some visitors playing more than 2,000 times.

At $ 8 for 25 minutes, and with pods, analysts suspect VWE can be profitable fairly quickly.

VWE expects to roll out more sites in 1994, including L.A., San Francisco, New York and Japan.

“We’re pursuing it as quickly as real estate companies will allow,” said Disney, who is the son of Roy Disney Jr. He expects to ink a deal with a movie theater chain soon.

VWE was founded by Weisman & Babcock in 1987, who rolled out the BattleTech Center in 1990. Another site in Yokohama run by a licensee opened last August, selling 30,000 tickets in the first month. The plan is to debut another 50 in Japan over five years.

Disney, Fink and Messing, former investment director of Roy Disney’s Shamrock Holdings, bought controlling interest in VWE in December for $ 10 million-$ 15 million.