Virtual reality, for all its hype and hope, hasn’t exactly taken the entertainment world by storm. Now a new venture is looking to deliver on VR’s promise of virtually transporting you to another time and place — but without the awkward headset, so you can have a shared, communal experience.
The company, Illuminarium Experiences, is promising to deliver breathtaking cinematic walk-through exhibits, featuring 4K video on gigantic screens, state-of-the-art spatial sound systems, haptic flooring, interactive features (e.g., “dust” might kick up as you walk by), and even “authentic scents” that will let you get a whiff of your virtual surroundings.
On July 1, Illuminarium (illuminarium.com) is set to open its first location in Atlanta, on the city’s BeltLine. The first “experience” that will be available to the public will be “Wild,” a virtual safari taking you to Africa through cinematic content shot by production firm RadicalMedia. Tickets start at $35 apiece, which will give you about an hour to walk through the experience in an 8,000-square-foot room (the same way you would walk through a museum). For the $50-per-person “all-inclusive” ticket, customers will get a Wild Safari Guidebook, a $10 voucher for the Illuminarium Café or gift shop, and flexible entry time.
“We are uniquely set up to take people to places they may never imagine being able to go,” says RadicalMedia CEO Jon Kamen. His media company shot the performances of “Hamilton” that became the film released in 2020 on Disney Plus, in addition to numerous other TV, film, digital and experiential productions.
Kamen has delved into VR productions in the past. But as a viewer he always found the technology cumbersome and the overall experience disappointing. With Illuminarium, he says, “I wanted to pursue something that is more of a communal experience. It’s VR without goggles.”
To form Illuminarium Experiences, Kamen and RadicalMedia teamed up with production designer and architect David Rockwell, the Tony winner who created sets for the 2021 Oscars, and his Rockwell Group firm. They then connected with investor Alan Greenberg, who is the co-founder of Avenues: The World School, Greenberg News Networks, Travel Holdings and former publisher of Esquire magazine, to head the company as CEO.
The Illuminarium partners have landed $100 million in initial funding, with a significant investment from Eldridge, the holding company headed by Todd Boehly. (Disclosure: Eldridge owns MRC, which last year formed a joint venture with PMC that brings together Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Vibe and Music Business Worldwide.)
Illuminarium’s immersive content will be original productions from RadicalMedia. The “Wild” safari spectacle cost about $10 million, according to Greenberg. The RadicalMedia crew used custom camera arrays that provide a 240-degree native field of view, shot on location to showcase animals in their native habitats across South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania.
Next up: “Spacewalk,” billed by the company as “a mind-blowing journey through our Solar System,” letting visitors stroll across Moon and Mars. A third experience the partners are contemplating would take visitors into the depths of the world’s oceans.
Greenberg, Illuminarium’s CEO, dismisses any comparisons between its experience spaces and movie theaters.
“It’s not a movie,” he maintains. “You’re going to be able to walk on the surface of the Moon!”
Meanwhile, a core piece of the company’s business model is to promote its locations as nightlife destinations: Illuminarium After Dark, designed and developed by the LAB at Rockwell Group, will be a bar scene like no other, Greenberg promises — letting visitors experience different virtual settings, from a Tokyo city street to fantastical dreamscapes. Illuminarium spaces also will be available to rent out for private events, per Greenberg.
To staff its retail locations, the company’s operational partner is Legends, which manages operations at more than 150 sports arenas, attractions, experiences and other venues worldwide.
The Illuminarium partners have aggressive plans to roll out its locations around the world. Following Atlanta, the company plans to open open locations in Las Vegas at AREA 15 in January 2022 and in Miami, at Mana in the Wynwood Arts District, in spring 2022. Other North American locations under consideration are New York, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles and Austin.
“As we expand internationally, we have to be aware of what translates culturally,” Kamen notes.
In the Illuminarium experiences, visitors are completely surrounded by a massive canvas — 350 feet in length and 22 feet high. Some of the company’s tech vendors include Panasonic, the exclusive visual provider of native 4K projectors, displays and camera solutions; Holoplot, which is providing proprietary beamforming and wavefield synthesis technology with the ability to localize and isolate sound across the Illuminarium venue so visitors receive individualized sound experiences based on where they are standing; Ouster, which is providing its OS0 ultra-wide-view lidar sensor to be responsive to guests’ movements (e.g. if someone waves their hand or moves their foot); and Powersoft, which provides a haptic infrasound floor that produces realistic sensations for visitors, such as the ground-shaking feel of an elephant stomp or the low-end frequency of a lion’s roar.
Kamen admits to some trepidation as the July 1 opening of the Illuminarium in Atlanta approaches. “If you build it, will they come?” he asks rhetorically.
The pandemic added a layer of complexity to construction for the Illuminarium locations as well as travel. “But we might we unbelievably lucky to have always planned to open July 1, 2021,” Kamen says with a laugh. “We could be benefitting from people dying to get out and do something.”
Watch a virtual “fly through” of the Illuminarium Atlanta (or at this link):