The Immersive Revolution:
How Immersive Entertainment is Driving the new Experience Economy
by Peter Tullin – Co-Founder, REMIX Summits
Clusters of immersive experiences: London
A series of extended articles produced with support from the British Council
The speed of development of the immersive entertainment industry can be seen in the development of immersive clusters. As part of the genesis of this project, REMIX partnered with the British Council to take a look at one of the most significant immersive hubs: London.
The new Broadway or West End?
Is the London immersive cluster an indicator of what might follow in other cities around the world if they tap into the immersive entertainment opportunity?
Over 40 immersive experiences (both permanent and temporary) that have taken place or been announced within the last 12-months (to April 2023) representing several hundred million of investment and audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. These include Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City, Peaky Blinders: The Rise, ABBA Voyage, Dr Who: Time Fracture, Frameless and The Light Room.
In a direct challenge to the existing status quo, eclipsing new theatres being built in London, there have been several announcements of privately funded permanent immersive performance and R&D spaces by multiple companies (already open and planned) including Secret Cinema, Immersive LDN (Immersive Everywhere), Lightroom and Labyrinth London. From the mapping exercise of the London cluster there are at least 15 venues that could be classed as permanent venues presenting immersive experiences (or marketed as with significant immersive elements). There is significant investment taking place in venues that utilise immersive technologies including the ABBA Voyage arena (part of a reported investment of £140 million) or the proposed MSG Sphere (the USD $2.2 billion 17,500-seat MSG Sphere at The Venetian in Las Vegas is only months away from opening).
This activity is contributing to the development of what could be described as a London immersive hub. If the growth continues at its current rate it has the potential to grow into an economic cluster in a similar way to the West End or Broadway. This is significant if we consider that the West End or Broadway are frequently cited as globally important arts and entertainment clusters which produce significant numbers of jobs and export IP. It is arguable that in cities such as London, Las Vegas or Tokyo that we are seeing the development of immersive hubs that could rival (and collaborate) these traditional hotspots.
Audiences for the major national museums and galleries in London have seen visitors return more slowly than other cities. This could be down to a multitude of factors including increased competition for strained consumer spending as a result of inflation, the impact on tourism from factors such as the Pandemic (these figures cover the last phase of pandemic restrictions) and Brexit that have impacted overall international tourism numbers. Further research is required but an element of this could also be as a result of competition from a growing number of immersive experience competitors that are tailor made for these changing audience tastes.
- Dig Deeper – REMIX Podcast – Louis Hartshorn, Joint CEO, Immersive Everywhere (Dr Who: Time Fracture, Peaky Blinders: The Rise, The Great Gatsby)
- Dig Deeper – REMIX Talk – Neil Connolly, Creative Director, Immersive Everywhere (Dr Who: Time Fracture, Peaky Blinders: The Rise, The Great Gatsby)
What is driving this growth and how can it be replicated elsewhere
The 2022 Immersive Economy Report estimated that the immersive technology sector alone was worth more than $1.4 billion. This figure is extracted from across multiple industry sectors such as Healthcare and Manufacturing, not just the creative industries that are the focus of this report. While immersive is a fragmented industry which is part of the challenge when developing strategies and support mechanisms, either way it appears to be in rude health. This is further evidenced that by the fact that in 2019 (the last time the report was undertaken) there were 1250 specialist immersive companies and this is now estimated to be 2106 in the 2022 Report
The Immersive Experience Network estimates that immersive entertainment is the fastest growing part of the creative industries sector in the UK. If this is true then that is significant as the creative industries sector contributed £109bn to the UK economy in 2021 and represent 5.6% of the economy. There are a number of elements that have contributed to the growth of the immersive cluster in London which are explored in this section.
Every cluster has its pioneers, Silicon Valley had Hewlett Packard, Xerox and Intel whose innovations laid the path for later players such as Apple and Google. The immersive cluster in London benefited from the presence of companies such as Shunt, Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema, the latter two of which have gone onto global fame. While they were not the very first organisations to offer an immersive experience their early works helped create an audience base for immersive works and started to bring the term to popular use (after a short dalliance with site specific theatre.
As a side note, the accolade of first mover probably goes to Alien War which originally opened at the Arches in Glasgow before moving to the now defunct Trocadero Centre in London after securing investment to open a $1 million development which put audiences in a live action immersive and interactive adventure from the universe of the Alien movie franchise. It featured actors who put the audiences at the centre of the story which featured elaborate sets and real props from the movie. They were even able to secure the official rights from 20th Century Fox and even secured the involvement of Sigourney Weaver who was the lead actor. The experience operated for three years but they were so early that they (and the media) struggled to describe the experience settling for ‘Total Reality’ (Virtual Reality experiences were popular at the time including one at the Trocadero so this was a good counterpoint to that).
As the sector has matured it has also seen informal and formal networks spring up such as industry bodies the Immersive Experience Network as well as national government sponsored bodies such as Immerse UK, which is one of a series of Knowledge Transfer Networks set up by the UK’s national innovation agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Even the World Experience Organization started up in the UK in 2020. All of these organisations have developed research and advocacy, professional development and events.
Immersive entertainment is creating parallel and spin out opportunities for existing industries where the UK has a strength
Immersive is a sector that thrives off interdisciplinary collaboration, with immersive experiences often made up of multiple parts of the creative industries such as creative technology, theatre and the visual arts to name a few. The UK is ideally placed to benefit from this melting pot approach given its diversity of creative talent. The UK is renowned for a globally competitive creative industries sector which represents some of its most successful exports with strengths in film, television, music and games sectors to name a few. It also has a highly skilled and flexible creative workforce in creative technology areas such as VFX and Virtual Production. Immersive entertainment also generates additional employment for the workforce in these sectors in between projects (such as Film and Television production) as well as increased employment in total as the sector grows.
With immersive entertainment offering new avenues for exploiting IP there can also be quite direct connections. The new Game of Thrones Studio Tour in Belfast deploys several immersive elements but also utilises the sets and props created for the series.
Skills, Training and Development
Organisations such as the StoryFutures academy have sprung up offering dedicated business support and training with programs including an Accelerator.
Risk Funding, Investment and Exits
With this being a relatively new and immature sector, crucially, the UK has offered dedicated funding for experimentation in the sector such as the £39.3 million Audience of the Future program which was a UKRI Challenge Fund and supported the development of in-person, digital and hybrid R&D projects. Beneficiaries ranged from not-for-profit cultural organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to commercial players such as Aardman Animations (the creators of Wallace & Gromit).
Most recently, the UK Arts Councils and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have announced a new immersive technology production and skills programme for creatives called XRtists, a £6 million, 3-year programme to develop skills and funding opportunities in immersive content production across the UK’s cultural sector.
Just using the examples cited in this report alone, investment in the immersive entertainment sector globally runs into hundreds of millions of dollars and much of this is a recent phenomenon in the last 5-10 years. The UK also has an active investment climate in the tech startup and media and entertainment sectors and this has fed through to the immersive sector.
Some companies have benefited from seed funding from high net worth private individuals such as Wake the Tiger to help projects get off the ground. Other companies such as Secret Cinema have secured later stage Venture Capital funding to support growth such as their expansion into the US. For other immersive companies in growth phases loan financing has also proved a successful strategy. Immersive Gamebox secured over USD $20 million in venture loans in 2022 to bring new locations online and this approach means that if they are successful they can supercharge their growth but also repay some or all of this debt rather than it being converted into equity that would reduce the holdings of existing shareholders.
As we cover elsewhere Secret Cinema and Wake the Tiger also engaged their substantial and loyal audience base to secure additional investment using a leading crowd equity platform showing the diversity of investment options in this space.
Perhaps, most importantly for future investor appetite in immersive companies, in 2022 Secret Cinema secured an exit for these investors when the business was sold to US company TodayTix in a deal valued in excess of USD $100 million. Their UK shows such as the Empire Strikes Back and Back to the Future had been drawing in the region of 100,000 customers and its first US show (Stranger Things in partnership with Netflix and Fever) saw a jump to 300,000 attendees. Annual revenue (pre-pandemic) was reported as £15.2 million in 2019.
Regional activity is also growing quickly
While London has emerged as a hub for the immersive economy in the UK, outside of the capital there are also a number of flourishing immersive experiences (as well as immersive tech companies such as Charisma who offer ‘a plug-ʼnʼ-play platform for creating interactive stories with believable virtual characters’). Some of these experiences are being offered from established London players such as Secret Cinema (who like Punchdrunk before them) are launching experiences elsewhere in the UK such as their upcoming Dirty Dancing production in Birmingham.
Others such as Wake the Tiger in Bristol are home grown in the locations where they operate. This experience attraction was developed by the team behind the iconic Boomtown Festival this is an example of how producers of connected temporary creative activities (in this case a much loved immersive and experiential music and arts festival) are tapping into the immersive trend to develop new permanent experiences.This has both allowed them to engage with their existing community year round in a different way (Boomtown has grown from 1,500 attendees to 70,000 in 15 years) as well as unlock new audiences and revenue streams. The team describe Wake the Tiger as the ‘world’s first Amazement Park’ and they have developed a story driven fictional world for audiences to explore. The early thinking on the project started in 2015 but the inability to stage the Boomtown Festival during the global Covid-19 pandemic really lit the fire under the development as the team both needed to pivot their activities and had the bandwidth to deliver the project in these unique circumstances. The team funded the project through a mixture of private investment and also used crowd equity funding to leverage both support and engagement from their extensive community.
ClueddUp Games in Bedfordshire are another example, They specialise in app driven ‘immersive outdoor experiences’ with experiences either inspired by; or directly licensed from prominent IP and stories. Their experiences include the Beauty & The Beast Experience, Witchcraft & Wizardry and Alice In Wonderland. They now operate in 1500 locations in over 80 countries with 5 million customers across the 10,000 plus events they have delivered. They have also tapped into the corporate team building market with clients including Amazon, Google and Groupon. Social media has helped drive their incredible growth and they have over 300,000 Facebook Fans and 100,000+ Instagram Followers. Technology is essential to the experience and they have developed a highly engaging platform which has nearly 100,000 App reviews at over 4.5* across the App Store and Google Play.
List of London based immersive experiences
The list covers experiences that have taken place or been announced within the last 12-months of the report (May 2022 -23) and also includes London based immersive experience providers that have been operating for 12-months or more to reflect key contributors to the London immersive cluster. The list is not exhaustive given the number, diversity and scale of immersive experience in the city. This online report will be updated so additional suggestions can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Punchdrunk – ‘The Burnt City’ – this show takes place at the new Woolwich Works creative district where the company is now headquartered. Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More show continues to run in both New York and Shanghai.
- Swamp Motel – this London based company describe themselves as the first immersive powered creative studio and they produce immersive activations for brands which help fund a broad range of original standalone immersive experiences they have developed for the general public such as The Drop (which combines immersive theatre with an escape room experience) to interactive films (The Alter). They have multiple works running currently from online only (the Isklander trilogy) to a new experience called Saint Jude which is possibly the first AI driven immersive theatre show (powered by a company called Charisma) which The Guardian has called ‘delightfully disturbing’.
- Immersive Gamebox (multiple sites globally across countries including the US, UK, Canada, UAE and Germany) – this UK based immersive entertainment startup was founded by Will Dean, the man behind the well known Tough Mudder brand with its first location in London. This social gaming experience utilised tech such as motion tracking, projection mapping, touch screens and surround sound to offer both original games as well as games based on licensed IP such as Netflix’s Squid Game and popular children’s TV series Paw Patrol. [P]
- Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience is based on the iconic H.G. Wells and is produced by Layered Reality, and combines immersive theatre, VR, Augmented Reality, Holograms and other technology to tell the story of the Martian invasion of earth (accompanied by Jeff Wayne’s iconic score). [P]
- The Gunpowder Plot (Historic Royal Palaces/Tower of London) – this immersive experience is a collaboration between the heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces (which looks after the Tower of London) and Layered Reality (see above) and it explores the story of Guy Fawkes and the infamous Gunpowder Plot. [P]
- Outernet London – a £1 billion development that was a decade in gestation that is “the largest digital exhibition space in Europe” (Forbes) and referred to by property developers behind the project (The Consolidated Group) as “the world’s most advanced public building”. Located next to Tottenham Court Road station makes it subject to as many as 300,000 eyeballs every day. “AR, VR, AI and crypto compliant, its wraparound screens underpinned by Unreal Engine’s gaming engine are able to host everything from global live streaming to Web3-integrated retail concepts, which basically means putting the metaverse right on Oxford Street ” Forbes [P]
- Secret Cinema – Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy – in Autumn 2022 Secret Cinema produced an immersive version of the Blockbuster movie franchise
- Peaky Blinders: The Rise is the official immersive theatre show of the blockbuster television series and takes place in a former Stables in Camden. It was created by London based Immersive Everywhere who are experts in producing immersive productions from well known IP.
- Dr Who: Time Fracture (BBC & Immersive Everywhere) – It also took place at their permanent immersive venue, Immersive LDN. [P – show is not permanent but space is]
10 The Great Gatsby – another immersive theatre production by Immersive Everywhere which was the longest running immersive show in London until it closed recently (it will reopen shortly in New York). It also took place at their permanent immersive venue, Immersive LDN.
11 Abba Voyage – The content and technology has been developed by the likes of ILM – Industrial, Light & Magic & others. [P – classed as a permanent venue as dedicated space constructed but the duration of the show is dependent on continued box office success]
- Frameless – another new permanent London venue that shows immersive projections of art. [P]
- The Queens Ball, A Bridgerton Experience (Fever/Netflix) – an immersive experience based on the popular Netflix series.
- Van Gogh Alive (Grande Experiences) – this immersive projection experience exploring the life and works of Van Gogh has appeared in multiple locations around the world (and the UK) including London.
- Phantom Peak – describes itself as ‘the world’s First Fully-Immersive Open-World Adventure’ influenced by concepts such as Westworld. It has been created by The League of Adventure. Launched in 2022, the experience has just announced that its popularity means that it will expand by a further 30,000 sq ft. [P]
- Superblue London (Pace Gallery) – Superblue is a venue for new experiential art and has recently opened a permanent space in Miami as well as a temporary space in London (at Burlington Gardens at the Royal Academy of Arts) that has now closed. Pace Gallery and Superblue also have an office in London where some of the team are based.
- Stranger Things: The Experience (Fever/Netflix) – an immersive experience based on the popular Netflix series.
- Van Gogh, The Immersive Experience – produced by Exhibition Hub, this immersive projection experience is similar in approach to Van Gogh Alive and claims over 5 million global visitors.
- Darkfield – more information can be found on Darkfield elsewhere but this influential creative company has a focus on immersive and interactive audio with several shows based in shipping containers that have toured the globe including shows in London. They also tour across the globe with current and upcoming locations including Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Scotland.
- You Me Bum Bum Train – another highly influential London immersive pioneer specialising in one-to-one immersive experiences. They have not run a show for some time but their website remains live so they have been included.
- Lightroom – a new venue for artist-led immersive shows and is a joint venture between 59 Productions and the London Theatre Company (founded by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner formerly of the National Theatre). The first show David Hockney: Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away) has received widespread media attention. [P]
- Rematch – this clever experience recreates iconic sporting moments through immersive theatrical events.
- Beams London Centre for New Culture – this huge new 55,000 sq ft space is made up of interconnecting environments with a mission to ‘explore the boundaries between art and technology, working with light, atmospherics, sound, and experimental digital media’ and is highly experiential. [P]
- Otherworld VR Arcade – VR experiences have popped up around the world and this one has no less than three spaces in London with a further location in Birmingham and others about to open elsewhere in the UK. While many VR experiences focus on gaming. Otherworld takes a different path and offers participants a chance to ‘travel together to a boundless world of natural beauty: the perfect antidote to the chaos of urban living’. There are game elements within the experience but it is a story first experience. [P]
- CluedUpp Games – this company is covered in detail elsewhere in the report and offers multiple immersive and interactive IRL game based experiences in London
- Les Enfants Terribles – are producers of immersive theatre shows including the Olivier nominated Alice’s Adventures Underground which will return to London in November 2023.
- Labyrinth – this immersive space in Waterloo has been developed by a newly formed immersive company by a team including the Creative Directors of Les Enfants Terribles. It is yet another permanent immersive venue and includes an immersive restaurant and bar and will shortly host Alice’s Adventures Underground. [P]
- MSG Sphere (by the Madison Square Garden entertainment company) – this 21,500-capacity immersive spherical arena has been announced for a site in the former Olympic Park in London (where ABBA Voyage currently resides). The USD $2.2 billion 17,500-seat MSG Sphere at The Venetian in Las Vegas is only months away from opening. [P]
- BBC Earth Experience – opened in March 2023 and utilises cutting edge screen and audio technology, to provide visitors with an ‘immersive journey’ through the natural world where they will ‘explore the extraordinary diversity of seven unique continents on the most epic scale’. The experience features narration from David Attenborough,
- The Paddington Bear Experience – developed by Immersive Octopus this is a new 26,000 sq ft immersive experience based around the much loved Children’s story by Michael Bond.
- ‘The Murdér Express Part Deux’ – an immersive dining experience designed by Funicular Productions
- Guys & Dolls, Bridge Theatre (London Theatre Company) – this immersive take on the musical transforms the Bridge Theatre (operated by the London Theatre Company who are also a partner in another immersive venture, Lightroom).
- Park Row/Monarch Theatre – fine dining meets immersive theatre and tech, described as “arguably the boldest restaurant concept London has seen” by the Evening Standard. Experiences include an immersive dining experience.based on the DC universe’s most iconic heroes and villains.
- Museum of Shakespeare – this recently announced project which will be an immersive museum experience dedicated to the Bard on the site of the former Curtain Theatre is an intriguing collaboration between experiential duo Bompass and Parr, Historic England and Museum of London Archaeology. According to The Guardian, it will use “the latest AI technology will allow theatre lovers to walk across the Elizabethan stage where Shakespeare performed as an actor and that may have staged the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V.” [P]
- Dalí Cybernetics: The Immersive Experience – also produced by Exhibition Hub this is another immersive projection experience showing in London.
- Dopamine Land: A Multisensory Experience – inspired by the success of experiences such as the Museum of Ice Cream it is described by the creators as “a multisensory experience that combines media, technology and play in one place.”
- Faulty Towers The Dining Experience – produced by Interactive Theatre International who offer an immersive dining experience inspired by the iconic comedy series at the President Hotel (as well as other locations both in the UK and elsewhere in the world).
- Wonder of Friendship (Disney) – 1,000 square metres of installations (in a former brutalist office block) based around a number of key Disney properties.
- Sherlock: The Official Live Game – officially licensed immersive escape room experience based on the popular TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch
- Arkham – a new live immersive experience inspired by DC’s Batman
- The Crystal Maze Live Experience – immerses guests in a live recreation of the classic TV series produced by Little Lion Entertainment which claims to be the UK’s largest immersive theatre company (over 250 staff and 1 million guests to date)
- The Crypt – this is another new dedicated immersive theatre venue operated by Parabolic Theatre in the heart of London’s East End. The current show CRYPT is ‘an atmospheric and mysterious underground space showcasing established and emerging companies all making innovative immersive work’. [P]
Clusters of immersive experiences: London
A series of extended articles produced with support from the British Council
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