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Digital Out-of-home Entertainment Network Association Conference stresses Immersion, Engagement, and Creativity

By Philip Lelyveld

Representatives of all parts of the Digital Out-of-Home Entertainment (DOE) Industry met last week at the second annual DOE Network Association (DNA) Conference, held at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.  Many of the attendees are involved in pressing the limits of digital technology and physical design to greatly expand the storytelling and engagement possibilities of out-of-home venues.

The DOE industry defines itself as covering the professional theme park, educational and edutainment (museums, visitors centers, science centers), arcade, retail and mall advertising and enhancement, ‘exergaming’ (workout experiences), and other public pay-to-play, ticketed, and free entertainment experiences.  These experiences span the spectrum from fully real, physical equipment and spaces such as hands-on museum ‘sandbox’ exhibits, to fully virtual immersive gameplay.

Consultant Randy White of White Hutchinson Leisure gave some troubling statistics specific to the arcade industry.  While other forms of discretionary entertainment spending, such as movie attendance, has been holding relatively steady, 60% of arcade dollars have shifted to home entertainment and ‘stay-cations’ in the last five years.

BMI Gaming’s David Young said that one of the arcade industry’s responses has been to encourage and recognize innovation through an international design competition.  This year’s winner was Speed of Light; a vertical, button-based, two-player version of wack-a-mole with a lot of flashing lights.

Americans go to the movies on average 4 times per year.  But they eat out approximately 167 times per year.  Dining is a highly social experience.  The top 20% of income households account for 48% of out-of-home spending.  Mr. White recommended that arcades redesign their facilities to attract this upscale market with restaurants, wifi-equipped lounges, and games that allow for more group social and competitive activities.  One audience member noted that this would redefine the businesses that arcades compete with to include coffee shops, shared work spaces, hotel lobbies, and other social gathering spots.

Kevin Williams, the organizer of the DNA conference, spoke forcefully of the DOE industry’s need to embrace technology to a far greater degree than it has to date.  There is no reason, he argued, why devices could not recognize players when they return to a facility, coordinate communications as they interact with devices throughout the facility, and – if they opt-in – connect them with people who have similar interests and skill levels anywhere on the planet.  The technology already exists to offer experiences outside of the physical environment to patrons that could motivate them to return to the facilities.  The DOE industry can compete with rapidly improving home and personal entertainment options by offering attractive, safe locations to socialize, access high-end specialized devices, and have location-specific blended physical and virtual experiences.  It is critical, he added, that equipment be software-upgradeable so that experiences can be regularly refreshed.

One example of a business doing this is MagiQuest (http://magiquest.com), a Harry Potter-like world with home-play, clan-building, and location-based components.  Players can buy physical objects, like wands and capes, as well as virtual goods that aid in gameplay.  With 15 physical locations in the US and Japan, MagiQuest offers a unique, integrated on-site and virtual game and social experience.

The ETC’s Phil Lelyveld moderated a panel on 3D Interactive Entertainment Experiences in Public Places, which more accurately covered 3D, 4D, 5D, 6D, and 7D experiences.  3D is stereoscopic visuals.  4D adds motion and effects, while 5D includes a live performance component.  Interactivity in addition to all of the above is called 6D.  7D, as one vendor stated, is for customers who want more than 6D – Spinal Tap’s ‘the dial goes to 11.’

The immersive theatrical, walk-through, and cart-based experiences that the companies at this conference have developed match or exceed those found in the major theme parks.  In fact, many of these companies have been involved in developing attractions for those parks.  For example, Alterface developed an interactive 6D dark ride in Germany that, they claim, predates and is more complex than Toy Story Mania at Disney California Adventure.  Thinkwell Design’s installation at the Fernbank Nature Quest, Atlanta, Ga., makes very effective use of augmented reality and simulations in their educational experience design – including a scientifically accurate, interactive river simulation walkway with fish, plants, and turbulance.  (Watch a Fernbank video here: http://fernbankmuseum.org/naturequest/ )

3D projections onto building surfaces, ‘the other 3D,’ are increasingly in demand for both event programming and advertising.  Oscura Digital discussed their amazing projection over the Zayed Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world, in Abu Dhabi, UAE (Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfOyK_lxKbQ ,  story http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfOyK_lxKbQ ).  Pearl Media, which proudly self-brands itself as a ‘guerilla marketing firm,’ discussed how they always get permits, but do not always ask permission from the building owner when they install their temporary work.  They have developed real-time rendered 3D projections that crowds can interact with via tablet controllers.  Their projection onto a bagel store in Austin, TX during the SXSW conference increased bagel sales three-fold at the location.  Pearl Media also does very clever interactive storefront installations that capture pedestrians’ attention and imagination (see http://www.pearlmediaus.com/interactive.php )

To sustain and grow the DOE sector, and to compete with other experiences, a number of show developers framed their work in terms of preshow, show, and post-show components (See photo). In some locations, the preshow has become so engaging that patrons have to be encouraged to move on when the main attraction is ready for them.

The key presentations given at this conference will be edited and distributed as both a physical book and e-book.  Overall, the DNA conference was an interesting window into an industry that is using digital tools to create engaging storytelling, learning, and advertising experiences.  Their work can inform what the traditional entertainment and CE industry is planning.

The next meeting of the DNA will probably be held in San Francisco in the first half of 2013.  Go to http://www.thestingerreport.com/dna.html for more information.

Key companies represented at the DNA conference include;

Simiosys (http://www.simiosys.com , Chris Stapleton)

New Models of Ineractivity in Movie Theaters

Timeplay Entertainment  ( http://timeplay.com , John Race)

Vortex Immersion Media (http://www.vorteximmersion.com , Ed Lantz)

Maximizing Social Media

Snibbe Interactive (http://www.snibbeinteractive.com , Graham Plumb)

Augmented Reality’s Next Stage in Leisure Facilities

Thinkwell Design (http://www.thinkwellgroup.com , Craig Hanna)

Ogmento (http://www.ogmento.com/team , Brian Selzer)

3D Interactive Entertainment Experiences in Public Places

Triotech (http://www.trio-tech.com , Ernest Yale)

Super 78 Studio (http://www.super78.com , Brent Young)

Mediamation (http://www.mediamation.com , Dan Jamele)

Alterface (http://www.alterface.com/en/home/ , Benoit Cornet)

3D Interactive Marketing in Public Places

Obscura Digital (http://obscuradigital.com , Barry Threw)

Pearl Media (http://www.pearlmediaus.com , Joshua Cohen)

What About Content?

Loren Nielsen, president and co-founder of Entertainment Technology Consultants, addressed 3D content during HPA’s 3D Super Session.

On genres, she suggested that animation”must be” 3D, and now horror is taking off. “It’s a natural,” she said, “because the box office has been so much bigger for 3D with horror. Maybe this only applies to horror films that are $15 million and above. But some horror films are being made for $5 million. … Foreign distributors are willing to pay more for 3D.”

What has the industry learned from “Avatar?” Nielsen suggested: “If you are going to make a tentpole, you better consider 3D and certainly release in the 3D format. Most of that has to do with box office. If you can get an extra $3-$4 for a ticket, you are going to get an uptick of 15% on your revenues.”

She concluded:

–We have a creative demand that is pushing 3D.

–Deployment of the hardware and content is driven by the premium revenue.

–There will be more 3D, and audiences are willing to paying more for it.

–Expect premium pricing for 3D channels.

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Studio Technology Leaders Dinner 2017

The Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California held its 2017 Studio Technology Leaders Dinner at NeueHouse in Hollywood. Sponsored by Western Digital, HGST and Equinix, the event honored former Sony Pictures CTO Spencer Stephens with the Bob Lambert Technology Leadership Award. The evening featured a panel of studio execs discussing new directions in film production, and a screening of “Wonder Buffalo,” the third R&D short produced under the auspices of ETC@USC’s Project Cloud to explore and test next-generation production processes. 

“Wonder Buffalo,” a coming-of-age story, was made possible through ETC’s 2016 Technology Award to filmmaker Christine Berg, who wrote the script with Simon Shterenberg.

The duo developed the project at the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project, with the support of Disney/ABC Television Group, Warner Bros., NAGRA Kudelski Group, Technicolor, 8i, Realtra, Equinix, Sony Electronics, Amazon Web Services, the Creative Visions Foundation, The World Building Institute and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. It was also executive produced by Erik Weaver, HGST global director of M&E strategy and market development and former head of ETC’s Project Cloud.

ETC executive director Ken Williams noted that the short tested not only cloud production and post production technologies, but was also processed entirely in HDR, and tested volumetric capture, photogrammetry, ambianic sound and interactivity, via a room-scale virtual reality component. “Wonder Buffalo” was shown at Sundance and invited to SXSW.

Williams (below left) presented the Bob Lambert Technology Leadership award to Spencer Stephens (below right), whose early career involved data communications and photography.
ETC_Williams_Stephens_AwardStephens joined Disney TV Animation in 1997, as the company transitioned from traditional to digital production. He later joined Chris Cookson’s Technology Operations at Warner Bros., ultimately building the 4K production capability for Warner’s Motion Picture Imaging post house, which he then ran. He followed Cookson to Sony Pictures where he became CTO. He’s left Sony, but is not retired.

Walden Pond chief executive Wendy Aylsworth, a previous Bob Lambert Technology Leadership awardee; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment senior vice president Richard Berger; and former Sony Pictures Technology president Chris Cookson all spoke about Stephens’ achievements.

“If I’m in a crisis, I want Spencer by my side,” said Berger. “The scope of his knowledge knows no bounds.”

Stephens thanked Williams, the ETC board and Dean Elizabeth Daley of the USC School of Cinematic Arts for the award, and Cookson for hiring him twice. He also recalled his close connection with Lambert, who recommended him for the Disney job and then introduced him to Cookson.

Last, ETC hosted a panel of studio executives, including 20th Century Fox CTO Hanno Basse, Sony Pictures Entertainment CTO Don Eklund, Paramount Pictures EVP Anthony Guarino, Warner Bros. Technology EVP Justin Herz, Walt Disney Studios CTO Jamie Voris and Universal Pictures CTO Michael Wise. Moderated by Williams, the panel addressed pain points in the production process, significant opportunities opened up by technology, and how studios are handling change.

Panelists described the challenges of handling thousands of VFX shots from multiple cameras with differing resolutions, color spaces and formats, and putting it all together under increasingly tight deadlines. They noted that “Wonder Buffalo” has helped to shine a light on the issues, which also include the sheer size of files and massive number of deliverables. They also identified security as a “huge issue.”

New technologies have produced automated workflows and enhanced global creative collaboration, as well as significantly accelerated real-time rendering. Panelists noted that physical media isn’t going away any time soon, and that consumers are the big winners in an era in which there are so many platforms and distribution is not getting in the way of finding and enjoying content.

They also underlined that the studios have gone through many technology changes over the decades and that their resilience in managing change bodes well for the future, even as viewers redefine entertainment.

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