IPG Media Lab
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IPG Media Lab

The Future of Out-Of-Home Entertainment

New technologies and the rise of gaming culture are ushering in a new age of immersive experiences

Photo by Devon Rogers on Unsplash

Out-of-home entertainment is a major component of the leisure industry. Among all the attractions and establishments fall into this category, theme and amusement parks are no doubt the driving force. According to the latest stats from IAAPA, theme parks and amusement parks around the world are expected to entertain more than 1.15 billion people over the next four years and contribute to their local and national economies by generating $50.4 billion.

Beyond the parks, other businesses in out-of-home entertainment include zoos, museums, bowling alleys, escape rooms, as well as other sorts of themed entertainment options. Some would even consider cinema to be part of OOH entertainment. For the sake of focus, here we will mostly zoom in on the theme parks and other themed entertainment experiences where most innovations in this industry are taking place.

From Attractions to Immersion

Traditionally, theme parks and other OOH entertainment business build their on-site experiences around main attractions. In the case of theme parks, it’s usually the roller-coaster rides and ferris wheels. For zoos and museums, it’s the special exhibitions and performances. Customers line up for those attractions and wait for their turns, which means that wait time is a big factor shaping the customer experience for OOH entertainment businesses. This also perpetuates a paradoxical feedback loop — the more amazing an attraction is, the longer the line for it would be, thus diminishing the overall visitor experience. In addition, peripheral services such as dining and shopping are built to support the customer experience, but rarely incorporated as part of the experience itself.

Recently, however, this attraction-based model is slowly giving way to one that prioritizes immersive storytelling over standalone rides. Borrowing elements from video games and interactive theater, innovators in the theme park business are starting to push the envelope on what an out-of-home entertainment experience could be, and how it could be scaled. The more interesting and immersive this kind of world-building can achieve, the less of a nuisance waiting in lines would be, as any wait time would be simply time to soak up the surroundings and appreciate the details of the fictional world.

There’s no doubt that the state of the art in the theme park business today is what Disney is getting at with the newly opened Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area. Entering the village of Black Spire Outpost, visitors will have a chance to fully immerse themselves in the fantastical environment and feel like a character in the Star Wars universe. Surrounded by the sights, sounds, and populace of the Star Wars universe, you can ride the Millennium Falcon with your friends, build your own lightsaber, and soon, partake in an epic battle between the First Order and the Resistance. The area also features themed shops, restaurants, and entertainment offerings, and Disney is also building a fully immersive resort hotel to make lodging part of the experience as well.

Before Galaxy’s Edge, Universal Parks & Resorts also aimed at building an immersive experience with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With re-creation of key locations from the beloved franchise, visitors can immerse themselves in the fantastical world, buy customizable magic wands and wave them at certain installations in the area to activate “magic” effects, such as turning the pages of a book in a window display or opening a locked gate, all powered by IR reflection technology. With the recent release of the Harry Potter-themed AR mobile game, there is a real opportunity for Universal to update the park and incorporate the AR game into the on-site experience for renewed interests.

Beyond these two parks, there is also the Evermore Park in Utah, designed by former Walt Disney Imagineer Josh Shipley as an “old-world, Gothic-styled European village” for visitors to freely explore, interact with characters, and go on adventurous quests. Another successful example in this regard is the “Ghost Town Alive!” immersive experience at Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California, which thrusts guests headfirst into the exciting world of the Wild West. Regardless of the themes they choose, they are all essentially productized LARPing (live action role-playing) experiences with a dedicated site of high production value.

All these examples point to an industry moving towards more LARPing-like immersion, likely based on popular entertainment IP or fantasy genres for a built-in audience, with themed dining and retail options incorporated as part of the overall immersive experience, and foregoing of live “shows” on stages for actors that either freely interacts with visitors or act out a scripted narrative in the park. This is the current state of the art, and it’s working, so it’s logical to assume there will be greater investment in this direction.

Like successful interactive theater productions such as Sleep No More and Accomplice, the key to creating a great immersive theme park experience lies in giving the audience the freedom to explore the set, interact with the characters along with the illusion of control over a scripted narrative, lest everything comes to an end with no satisfying pay-off. Almost all narrative entertainment requires a willing suspension of disbelief, and nothing is more engaging than thinking that you have control over the outcome, however false and make-believe that may be.

The Impact of Gaming Culture

Beyond interactive theater, the illusion of control over narrative is also a common trait in video game design. Borrowing this key interactive design element from video games to real-life theme parks reflects the significant cultural force that gaming has become over the past decade. For many, the LAN gaming centers popping up across the U.S. has become a popular destination for out-of-home entertainment. The success of Pokemon Go and surging popularity of other real-word gaming experiences are redefining consumer expectations for out-of-home entertainment, freeing it from the mold of a tightly controlled environment in favor of a sense of interactivity.

Interactivity is a fundamental trait that separates video games from other scripted entertainment content, and how to successfully adapt it into a real-world environment is a delicate act of balancing control and freedom. Give the visitors too much freedom, then the whole narrative is bound to descend into non-coherent chaos; give too little, the experience feels restrictive and not as engaging and fun.

Various theme park operators are experimenting with new ways to add interactivity to rides and attractions to encourage audience participation. For example, BumpArcade gamifies bumper cars by projecting images on the floor that riders try to drive over to score points. Cavu and Framestore revealed an interactive roller coaster that could speed up, slow down, or turn depending on the actions of the riders. Granted, neither of these two interactive ride experiences includes a scripted narrative; nonetheless, they represent a step in the right direction to further gamify the theme-park experience and achieve personalization through interactivity.

Overlaying a flexible narrative over interactive experiences would be the next step for replicating the video game experience in the real world. An upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy attraction now under construction at Florida’s Epcot, for example, is designed to be a “storytelling coaster,” and will feature innovative ride vehicles that will pivot to optimally position passengers for show scenes. Over time, we expect to see more interactive attractions and experiences with narratives that support and enhance the overall immersion.

Emerging Formats Democratize Access

Wonderful as they may be, immersive experiences like Galaxy’s Edge are capital-heavy investments that are difficult to scale and expensive to attend. While pricing itself may be a crowd control mechanism to ensure the quality of the immersive experience, the fact remains that theme parks are costly destination to visit for many, and that limits the growth of the sector. Interestingly, technological innovations are enabling new out-of-home entertainment formats and democratizing consumer access.

Whether it’s the crop of VR gaming arcades popping up in China, or the interactive museums (such as Spyscape) and escape rooms opening across the globe, new formats like these serve as a way to bring immersive experiences to new locations, such as malls and cinemas, making them more accessible to a wider audience. Comparatively, the new formats tend to be less IP-driven, but often designed with a strong sense of immersion. Together, they are injecting a much-needed shot of revival into the out-of-home entertainment business.

One thing that is particularly noteworthy here is the gamification of retail spaces. The brick-and-mortar experience has been undergoing an incredible transformation that sees many stores pivot to brand experience centers that focuses on communicating brand narratives through immersive storytelling and experiences. Naturally, due to the aforementioned impact of a growing gaming culture, more and more retailers and stores are looking to gamify their in-store experience. As a result, malls and retail shops are increasingly becoming spaces for a quick escape into an immersive experience.

Target and Walmart, for example, both attempted to lure customers into stores by teaming up with Disney for the Star Wars Force Friday promotions, which enticed fans with a themed AR scavenger hunt activatable only inside select stores. In China, revived obsession with retro arcade games are driving stores to gamify luxury retail with things like claw machines that contain luxury makeup as rewards and branded lucky box machines that give out random product samples.

Moreover, new entrants in out-of-home entertainment are also experimenting with new themes beyond popular IPs and conventional genres in order to appeal to a wider set of consumers. Whether it is darker, adult-oriented themes (horror, witchcraft, etc.), education-oriented exhibitions, or the themed resorts designed to transport visitors into somewhere far far away, such as OCT East Shenzhen, a famous “Swiss mountain” themed park and resort in southern China, they are all expanding what we think of themed outdoor entertainment with smaller niche formats and bringing in new consumers.

Future Value Drivers

Today, many theme parks and OOH entertainment operators are mostly focused on leveraging mobile apps to solve the key pain points in the consumer experience. Whether it is a fast-pass ticketing reservations for rides, or providing people waiting in line with games and activities to kill time, these are quickly becoming table stakes for stake owners in the space.

Looking beyond mobile, there is a myriad of technological innovations that are poised to become new value drivers for the OOH entertainment business, Broadly, they can be organized into three key categories:

  1. Entertainment (VR/AR, multi-sensory)
  2. Authentication (micro-location, wearables)
  3. Infrastructure (IoT, AR, wearables, robotics, on-demand services)

The first two categories are fairly self-evident. For entertainment, VR and AR are bringing a whole new level of interactivity and immersion to the storytelling and visual spectacles. The Battle for Cedar Point experience, for example, uses a companion AR app to add narratives to a roller-coaster park. Many rides already are starting to blend the use of screens and physical sets. In the future, AR and VR headsets will be great substitutes to screens, with multi-sensory technology adding new dimensions to the immersive experience. In terms of authentication, developments in micro-location, especially indoor mapping and location services, will nicely dovetail with the growing adoption of wearable devices to make biometric-based identity authentication a reality in the near future, thus significantly simplifying the on-site experience for theme parks.

Things get even more interesting when it comes to infrastructure, where a confluence of emerging technologies such as wearables, IoT connectivity, AR, robotics will unlock new ways to design how themed entertainment operates. For example, AR, beyond its clear entertainment value, is also a great tool for navigation. Today, that is based on mobile, as Legoland Denmark is developing an AR-powered wayfinding app to help visitors to navigate the park. Tomorrow, it may just become part of a larger AR navigation system built for AR glasses and incorporated with live updates on wait times and other useful information. Similarly, incorporating on-demand services, such as Uber and Seamless, into the theme park experience would be an interesting way to leverage existing consumer behavior to modularize and outsource some of on-site services.

IoT connectivity will also give theme park operators valuable data to better understand their customers. For example, Universal Parks recently announced it will use a LoRaWAN-based wireless platform from its MachineQ IoT service to connect sensors around the theme park that monitor factors including temperature, energy use, and asset location in order to give operations managers more data and improve the efficiency of the park on a day-to-day basis. Similar to how IoT network is a key part of building the smart cities of tomorrow, they will also be very useful to stake owners in OOH entertainment to implement at a smaller scale.

Robotics represents an intriguing promise of automation that could reduce or even replace the human staff that fuels the OOH entertainment businesses today. Disney’s imagineering team are already making significant progress on developing animatronics that could soon replace human stunt performers, and recent advancements in enterprise-oriented robots also mean a lot of the backend operations could be automated. On the consumer side, things are a bit trickier. Theoretically, in the not-so-distant future, robots may replace human guides, ushers, and servers. While this could bring new dimensions to the on-site experience, it could also risk breaking the suspension of disbelief necessary for immersion. Thus, its potential value in OOH entertainment will depend as much as the execution as on consumer sentiments towards robots by then.

Last but definitely not the least, the rise of super bundles provide a unique way for media conglomerates like Disney and Universal to build upon their media content bundles and include their theme park experiences. Imagining subscribing to Disney+ for an annual membership comes with a sizeable discount to one of the Disney theme parks or resorts — things like that are unique to media companies because of the advantages of their IPs provide, and many other media companies may start to license out their star IPs to theme park operators for a joint venture. While beloved IPs can be a powerful draw, and bundling OOH entertainment with home entertainment subscriptions would provide an even stronger incentive for consumers.

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab