by Joe Kleiman
In July, 2021, Panasonic hosted an online expert panel on the future of immersive entertainment. Participating on behalf of the company were Ron Martin, Vice President and Director of Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory (PHL), and Joe Conover, Strategic Manager at Panasonic Entertainment Solutions. Brian Allen, Executive Vice President of Technology and Content at Illuminarium Experiences, whose first facility opened in July in Atlanta with a second coming soon to AREA15 in Las Vegas (home of Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart), and Hana S. Kim, a production and scenic designer for live theater and public art who often incorporates projected imagery into her sets, represented Panasonic’s partner base. Moderating the panel was Brent Bushnell, co-founder of Two Bit Circus, the downtown Los Angeles micro-amusement park that features a number of virtual reality activities and other interactive media-based attractions.
Panasonic projects that have been highlighted in the pages of InPark Magazine and on our website range from SEGA/BBC Earth’s Orbi nature park in Osaka, Japan to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Walt Disney World.
As the panel began, one of the first topics discussed was the impact on the way immersion is now approached because of the closures and lock-ins of 2020. Bushnell pointed out that “coming out of the pandemic, people are demanding immersive experiences.” Conover expanded on that thought, sharing the industry’s reaction: “There’s been much more creativity over the last year. It’s given people more time to reflect and think out of the box.”
Allen explained that “Immersive storytelling has given a number of dimensions to other forms of storytelling. From video and sound to there being no box, you can now do what you want. We can get rid of all previously known rules, have no more frame.”
Illuminarium Experiences – combining tech in new ways
Illuminarium Experiences, in addition to high-end digital projection, utilizes other state-of-the-art technologies in addition to high-end digital projection. These include haptic feedback in the floor, LIDAR tracking of guests, and spatial audio, one of the first times these technologies have been combined in an attraction.
As a partner with Illuminarium, Panasonic shares its latest advances with Allen and his team. Conover showed a video of one these technological advances during the online presentation – high speed motion tracking coupled with high frame rate projection, which eliminates lag time between the action of a live person and his or her corresponding image on the screen. The technology has the potential to impact experiences as varies as digital puppetry and interactive dark rides by making the reaction on screen appear instantaneous.
Individual vs communal experiences
Another topic of discussion involved the balance of individual virtual experiences with a communal experience. One area of concern was whether it’s possible in VR to have both. According to Conover, “Immersive environments are different than VR because you’re not locked into a singularity with a lack of shared emotion.”
“We wanted Illuminarium to be a communal experience at heart,” said Allen. “We asked ourselves how to design a space or canvas for this experience and how will people move through that space. We call it ‘VR without goggles,’ and there’s a shared audio and haptic experience as part of it. It’s also designed so guests can experience personal narratives at points, then regroup for a larger group experience.”
Hana Kim – interweaving layers
Hana Kim’s work involves quite a bit of projection mapping for live performance and art installations. “I’m always thinking about how to make a collective experience. Live entertainment and theater are perfect for this. They have an open point of view, so we’re experiencing it with the collective mind, but in a way where everyone picks up something differently.”
Kim showcased slides of her production design for Sweet Land, an opera about colonization produced by The Industry. Sweet Land played in Los Angeles State Historic Park from February 29 – March 22, 2020. Kim projected sayings and moving images onto several newly fabricated and existing surfaces, including historic Broadway Bridge over the Gold Line light rail tracks (with the trains often passing as background scenery). “I do a lot of projection mapping on historic buildings. Being able to blend something over history and our life is quite fascinating.” This fascination with blending elements has created an interest in the possibility of overlaying augmented reality on top of projection mapping. “I love where AR will be within five years,” she says. “I’m interested in seeing how different devices and projection can be incorporated.”
Audience immersion and interaction
Panasonic’s Martin commented on the design of the Illuminarium and on Kim’s unique use of projection. “There’s been a shift over the past three years in audience expectations,” he said. “We’re no longer creating experiences from the view of a camera. Now, it’s from the view of the guest. Letting the guests explore and do what they want creates challenges. It forces the entire industry to reevaluate and find new ways to approach storytelling.”
According to Kim, this new paradigm of guest involvement in the story has already been happening in the live theater community in a less technologically advanced manner. She gave two examples. The first, another production by The Industry, was Hopscotch, which played in Los Angeles from October 31- November 22. This opera was divided into 36 chapters. The audience experienced eight of the chapters on any given night over one of three routes. These would be experienced in a limo with cast on board. Once dropped off at an unannounced location, they would experience part of the production on a set, featuring additional cast, after which they would then enter a different vehicle to experience the next chapter and next set piece. Interstitial animations available online tied the chapters together. Because the audience could start at any chapter and go either way on the route, a high degree of variability was built into the production.
“There was also a little, tiny show called Rich Kids – A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran at The Public Theater [New York, from January 7-17, 2021], which utilized an Instagram feed within different aspects of the show [a fake account was created on Instagram which followed the adventures of the protagonists. Audience members could follow along on their phones during the show and post comments to and tag the account]. These are examples of creating an immersive experience in a not so immersive situation.”
The world should look different
In the mid-1990s, Panasonic purchased MCA and its film, television and theme park division, Universal Studios. An effort, led by Martin, to digitize the operations of the studio evolved into what today is the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory. At PHL, Panasonic works closely with directors of photography and filmmakers on developing and mastering the latest image technologies, including 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR) color. For the past decade, PHL and Panasonic have also had a leading role in working with themed entertainment designers on state-of-the art media-based attractions.
Martin explained to InPark in 2018: “We take the technology core and infuse it with a creative effort to make imaging different. What better place to do that than in the physical environments of themed entertainment?”
Looking into the future, Martin shared that one of the emerging technologies to keep an eye on will be true holographic imaging. “Everything around that technology will take on a whole new level of meaning. It can be pure entertainment, or it can be engagement on a level we’ve never seen before. We’re still in a very early stage of development.”
Bushnell asked Martin to offer the closing thoughts to the event. “For me, the real joy of all this is seeing the faces of people who come out of these experiences,” he said. “I go right back to that quote from Steven Spielberg, who taught me: ‘The world should look different when you finish this story.’ I’m looking forward to the next generation of people to come out of your experiences and say, ‘The world is better.’”