The Immersive Revolution:
How Immersive Entertainment is Driving the new Experience Economy
by Peter Tullin – Co-Founder, REMIX Summits
How are immersive experiences reshaping the arts and cultural sector?
A series of extended articles produced with support from the British Council
What are the opportunities and challenges for the cultural sector?
The cultural sector has always co-existed with commercial attractions, but recently the lines are blurring with creative entrepreneurs in the immersive sector seeking to provide more accessible stepping stones to artistic content and edutainment in response to rising consumer demand.
Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. But could it be that in the next 10 years, we will see changes in museums and galleries in the same way that services like Napster changed the face of the music industry or Netflix changed Film and Television? They are also breaking many of the rules of cultural institutions such as museums and galleries and becoming both a competitor and collaborator with this sector at the same time.
An example is L’Atelier des Lumières in Paris by Culturespaces. It boasts 2,000 square metres of immersive audio-visual experience of artists such as Gustav Klimt’s, featuring mural projections of images set to music by Wagner, Strauss and Beethoven powered by 140 projectors. Set in a former iron foundry, it attracted more than 1.2 million visitors in just eight months in 2018 – comparable to leading French museums – and has expanded to other locations such as Bordeaux and South Korea with further plans for the US and Mexico. Meanwhile, teamLab Inc.’s immersive playground of digital art has proven even more successful. Their Tokyo site ‘Borderless’ opened in 2018 and an incredible 2.3 million visitors from 160 countries descended upon the site in the first year, overtaking the Van Gogh Museum as the most visited single-artist museum according to the Guinness Book of World Records. They have also opened a second location in Shanghai, and have even announced a new site in Holland where they will go head to head with the Dutch master (and demonstrating how creative entrepreneurs have few reservations about moving into new markets to compete with the existing incumbents for the limited leisure time of audiences).
The growing number of creative entrepreneurs building these new experiences have the potential to disrupt the status quo in the same way that entrepreneurs in many other industries.
Shackled by convention
However, this challenge runs much deeper than just optimising exhibition design or marketing and distribution channels and immersive experiences offer both a challenge and an opportunity. With only a handful of notable exceptions, cultural institutions today are still shackled by an overload of convention. Too often, they do not innovate around the problems that historic assumptions produce because they never question these fundamental notions in the first place. The audience experience at a museum remains largely unchanged since Elias Ashmole founded the first public museum in 1683. Ditto for most galleries, libraries, performances and other cultural gatekeepers who have their own sacred cows (save for somewhat superficial layers of change). Yet how much have the needs and expectations of audiences changed in the intervening years?
It could be that some museums are deliberately choosing to position themselves at the forefront of a counter-trend to the immersive experience revolution; a familiar space that remains a constant for audiences that are experiencing destabilising change in so many other parts of their lives. It isn’t a problem if this is a deliberate choice and strategy (which may well work for some), but in far too many cases institutions find themselves there by accident rather than design.
Some cultural institutions have chosen to team up with key commercial players in the immersive entertainment space to co-create something together; combining their different expertise in new ways to produce something that neither would do alone.
The first example of this was actually back in 2015 when Punchdrunk Enrichment (Punchdrunk’s education wing) partnered with the National Maritime Museum in London (part of Royal Museums Greenwich).
“Visitor feedback tells us that immersive environments create the most memorable experiences […] We knew that we needed to think outside of our expertise and Punchdrunk are at the top of the game when it comes to immersive theatre”, Sarah Lockwood, Head of Learning and Interpretation, National Maritime Museum
Against Captain’s Orders was a completely new immersive and interactive dimension to the museum experience. During the day, it was an educational experience, operated for young people between 6-12 and in the evenings an adult version took place allowing it to appeal to the broader Punchdrunk audience.
“Starting in the twilight world of a museum collection store, the immersive experience was led by two curators (played by actors). Doorways led to other times and other worlds, and life jackets were donned as visitors became part of the motley crew of HMS Adventure. Harnessing the heroics of Grace Darling, the intuition of Captain Bligh and the intellect of Sir Francis Drake, audiences lived through their very own nautical adventure. The educational experience involved problem-solving, storytelling and moments of mild peril.”
Between 8 to 10 performances took place each day lasting about 50 minutes for up to 40 participants. Against Captain’s Orders was experienced by 31,533 visitors, including nearly 8000 schoolchildren. The project received Arts Council England funding and was based on a break-even business model. The National Maritime Museum broke their box office records for pre-sales, selling 6,000 tickets before the show even opened (arguably this was down to the star power of Punchdrunk rather than the museum).
To back up that argument that immersive could be a key to helping draw in new audiences (and entice back existing audience to experience a museum in a new way), Mike Sarna, the Director of Collections and Public at Royal Museums Greenwich said the following about the goals of the project: “When you go through a museum you sort of know what you are going to get, along that museum shuffle we want to wake visitors up and give them little surprises (of course always based on facts).”
Another more recent example is Historic Royal Palaces have collaborated with Layered Reality who are behind the long running immersive production of Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience in London.
Together they developed The Gunpowder Plot at the Tower of London which is an immersive, interactive into the infamous and ill-fated attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The experience is set in The Tower Vaults, a 20,000 sq ft space and UNESCO World Heritage last accessible to the public two decades ago, It has a real historical connection to the story as it is where much of the prelude to the Gunpowder Plot took place.
It is a multi-sensory journey which utilised several immersive technologies and techniques including live theatrical performance; Virtual Reality, Motion Simulators, Ambisonics (three-dimensional 360-degree audio) and physical sensations including smells, temperature and taste. There are also two themed bars onsite to generate additional revenue. This follows the model established by Layered Reality for War of the Worlds where one is part of the experience and the other is a standalone venue open to anyone (an aptly named pub, The Crown and Barrel). By partnering with Layered Reality this has also created a regular evening experience and hospitality offer that was previously not offered at The Tower of London, extending their opening hours.
- Dig Deeper – REMIX Talk – Hannah Price, Creative Director, Layered Reality (The Gunpowder Plot, Tower of London & War of the Worlds)
Immersive means back of house can be front of house and can completely change the way cultural spaces are used
One of the opportunities of embracing immersive entertainment is the ability to rethink the use of conventional cultural infrastructure. This could be to utilise redundant spaces such (as in the case of Gunpowder Immersive at the Tower of London which takes place in a series of converted former shops and fast food restaurants). It could be spaces normally off limits to the public that could be used for more than one purpose. Against Captain’s Orders was staged in hidden back of house space at the National Maritime Museum. More and more cultural organisations are recognising that immersive can help activate underutilised spaces. Another great example is the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne which received widespread acclaim for its first immersive theatre production ‘Because the Night’ which was also a big hit at the box office. This show transformed the theatre into the fictional world of Elsinore and takes over most of the venue including multiple spaces never before accessible to the general public. Immersive provides cultural organisations with an opportunity to reimagine their venues as a new canvas of possibilities. Some immersive experiences are also bringing dual purpose to more conventional cultural spaces such as a reconfiguration of the stage to incorporate audience interaction in the case of Guys & Dolls at The Bridge Theatre in London. The immersive trend is here to stay so cultural organisations may also wish to consider this opportunity in relation to new developments or making existing assets dual purpose.
Telling stories in new ways through original immersive experiences
Some institutions are beginning to see the opportunities in this space and rather than simply replicating what is out there (a strategy that is probably doomed to fail), they are innovating by tapping into their own collections, spaces and content to produce something unique. Doe example, Melbourne Museum (part of Museums Victoria) produced their first immersive experience Tyama with support from S1T2 [Disclaimer: the author is a board member of Museums Victoria so this is just to recognise that I’m 100% conflicted (but it’s a great project so I’m going to mention it anyway!)]. The experience is an interactive multi-sensory experience of nature (going beyond many of the passive immersive experiences that are the norm) but crucially integrates objects from the museum’s collection, content produced by the organisations scientists as well as indigenous storytelling and perspectives about the natural world which are particularly relevant as we seek to take care of country and tackle the climate emergency. The Age describes it as “First Peoples storytelling meets Fortnite tech in an immersive museum exhibition.” Another important aspect about this project is that Museums Victoria have made an investment in permanent infrastructure (both hardware and software) giving them the flexibility to create future shows and providing another way to utilise existing space as discussed earlier. This includes AV (80 speakers and 47 projectors) and a software system that utilises Unreal Engine (normally used to power games such as Fortnite) all installed in the museum’s touring hall space which can be activated when it is empty.
If immersive is here to stay then the toolkits and skills of 21st century museums need to evolve because this may become a core element of experience and exhibition design.
- Dig Deeper – REMIX Talk – Miriam Capper, Experience Developer, Museums Victoria (Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks & Immigration Museum)
Commercial touring models
Others have directly imported existing immersive experiences in the same way they might book a touring exhibition (these mostly operate on a profit share or fee based model).
The LUME in Melbourne (developed by Grande Experiences and mentioned elsewhere in this report) has been incredibly successful. It achieved around 700,000 paying visitors in the first year to its immersive projection experience Van Gogh (generating around $27 million). This saw it rival the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) in annual ticket sales (despite charging nearly twice the price) which is the most visited gallery in Australia (and one of the Top 20 in the world). These impressive numbers have intrigued some cultural organisations especially when you consider Grande Experiences broader track record. They have developed their immersive experiences activity on the back of a successful touring exhibitions business. 20 million people around the world have seen a Grande Experiences show over the past 15 years (in 175 cities and 33 languages and counting).
They recently struck up a partnership with Newfields/Indianapolis Museum of Art to bring The LUME to a 30,000 sq ft space in the museum (covering an entire floor, representing the largest exhibition in the institution’s history). The investment appears to be paying off so far with over 108,000 tickets sold in the first three months which the institution states will put it on track to be one of their most successful ever.
Sometimes immersive experience producers deploy multiple models to respond to different opportunities. Grande Experiences operate their own permanent and touring immersive projection experiences using in-house shows. However, to help develop new content or gain access to the content of others (and their audiences) they also co-create immersive experiences with cultural institutions (in a similar way to some of the earlier examples). They have recently partnered the National Gallery of Australia to develop Connection which ‘used cutting-edge visual, audio and aroma technologies to transform original artworks from First Nations artists’ into an immersive experience. Their most recent partnership with The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida has led to the creation of Dalí Alive, which is a new touring show.
How can we engineer new collaborations with the cultural sector to unlock new immersive experiences?
Innovative collaborations between experience developers and cultural institutions such as these could hold the key to developing new forms of cultural and creative experiences. The growing number of experience designers from multiple industries that have the potential to disrupt the status quo.
There are a multitude of opportunities for co-creation and collaboration with creative entrepreneurs to develop new experiences. However, we need to do more than just scout for the best collaborators; we need to be brave enough to hand them the keys. For example, REMIX recently developed a new experience strategy for State Library Victoria in Melbourne, one of the world’s most visited libraries with over two million annual visitors (more than the British Library or Library of Congress). One initiative within this strategy is Alchemy, designed to develop incredible new experiences through collaborations with leading local creative entrepreneurs and experience designers across Victoria. A key objective was to also develop business models and long-term partnerships that would make these sustainable rather than one-off projects. Ideas supported included gamifying the library by one of Australia’s leading escape room designers, immersive storytelling encounters through an Augmented Reality game and engaging new audiences through experiential dining and tours formats. 14 amazing experience designers and creative entrepreneurs were selected in total sharing $240,000 to develop new experiences. The success of Alchemy has led to a second edition under the moniker of the Experience Lab which is being rolled out with Melbourne’s Fed Square in Melbourne as to develop new experiences for their 20th anniversary.
Cultural institutions can play a vital role in building the immersive economy and it also has the potential to support their own metamorphosis. As another example, REMIX collaborated with ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) to develop a concept called ACMI X, the first co-working space in a museum in Australia. Some of the creative enterprises that took up residence also helped provide a new creative engine for ACMI that has influenced the organisation’s public programming. One original ACMI X tenant Grumpy Sailor developed the award winning immersive Mad Hatter’s Tea Party which is now touring the globe as part of ACMI’s Wonderland exhibition.
As a Co-Founder of REMIX, a series of global summits in cities such as New York, London and Sydney that explore the future of the creative industries I get to see many of the changemakers reshaping the creative landscape at close quarters. Many more will emerge over the next few years to tap into some of the trends I have identified in this article and this is a great thing for the creative economy. The leaders of our cultural organisations need to look outside of the sector to understand the transformational potential of these trends and to identify and collaborate with creative entrepreneurs for mutual benefit.
Creative entrepreneurs are also changing the business models of culture
In essence they have seen the success of experiential art installations in locations such as the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern and have aggregated a number of these into a single location (minus the rest of the gallery).
Perhaps its most significant innovation is that it is attempting to change the gallery business model by building a new platform for artists where they share the box office income rather than the traditional fee based deal structure.
Superblue has opened its first location in Miami, located in a vast unused industrial building in the city’s Allapattah neighbourhood, the space transforms 50,000 sq ft into an immersive installation space, kicking off an inaugural programme with large-scale works from artists including Es Devlin, James Turrell and teamLab.
They have plans for a series of spaces around the world and a pop-up recently took place in London. Time will tell whether this concept will scale (the Miami site apparently suffered from cost overruns) but it is certainly one to watch.
Artists are also simply producing their own immersive experiences and selling tickets directly to audiences and bypassing the gallery system
The idea of artist as brand is not new and the likes of Damien Hirst and Banksy have long had start power where they could release works direct to an audience or in the case of Banksy product direct to public events and experiential installations such as Dismaland.
Dismaland ran from 21 August – 27 September 2015 in the British seaside resort town Weston super-Mare. It attracted an impressive 150,000 visitors (selling 4,000 tickets a day online plus 500 in-person that were sold each day). Artnet reported that it generated USD$30 million of economic benefit to Weston super-Mare. Dismaland featured 60 artists alongside Banksy and was estimated that an extra 50,000 nights were sold in the town’s hotels versus previous year. Tickets, were priced at just £3 but with millions (including celebrities such as Brad Pitt) hoping to secure admission to the temporary exhibition, the Dismaland website crashed”
Australian Street artist Rone is an example of an artist that is using this strategy. He has built a brand with immersion at the core of his creative and commercial proposition and he has developed several highly successful ticketed experiential art installations (with a particular focus on heritage spaces). His installation Empire sold-out with 22,000 visitors in just two months. His most recent exhibition Time at Flinders Street Station was close to selling out the entire 6-month run.
Suppliers are both collaborators and competitors
Numerous creative agencies and experience design companies are piling into the immersive entertainment industry with varying degrees of success. An example is the Moment Factory, a Canadian company based in Montreal with secondary locations in Paris, New York, Tokyo and Singapore. The studio has created over 550 projects globally since 2001 including for numerous heritage sites, cultural organisations and brands. Their multidisciplinary team of over 400 talents combines specialisations in video, lighting, architecture, storytelling, sound and special effects. While they continue to do client facing work they have realised that immersive technology combined with the creativity of their team means they are also in a position to develop their own experiences. Their philosophy as a company across all of their work is to develop a multi-disciplinary ecosystem where artists can strive, collaborate, and evolve. The era of the internet and social media means that it takes very little time to develop a brand now and if the experience that sits behind this is actually any good then you can cut out the middle man (in this case a cultural institution). Today you can set up a professional website on Squarespace, build an eCommerce platform on Amazon Web Services, and advertise to hundreds of millions of people through Facebook and YouTube – all in the space of a few days. It means new brands can spring up from nowhere to take advantage of a gap in the market and before you even know they’re a threat, take a healthy chunk out of an existing player. Brand is everything in the experience economy and it is becoming more important. 84% of the market cap of companies listed on the S&P 500 can be attributed to intangible assets like brand. 30 years ago, it accounted for just 32%
The Moment Factory has entered the direct to consumer space by developing the Lumina brand as a standalone experience concept. This has been running successfully now for a number of years alongside their other client facing work. Astra Lumina at Anakeesta is the 17th experience in the Lumina Enchanted Night Walk series by Moment Factory
Narrative premise is that “we’re always told to reach for the stars, but what if the stars could reach for us?” Promises guests “encounters of lighting, projection and sound, and connect with the stars before they return to the sky above.”
A Lumina experience is inspired by the cultural heritage or natural beauty of a site meaning that it can evolve and adapt according to this also to provide variety for audiences.
Other sectors are being impacted by the immersive revolution in the same way it is disrupting culture
Media giants such as Netflix and Disney have also recently entered this space launching immersive experiences connected to IP such as Stranger Things, Bridgerton and Star Wars. For Netflix, this includes the Stranger Things Experience and Bridgerton Ball. Netflix have also experimented in using technology to provide a more immersive experience such as the show Bandersnatch, part of the Black Mirror series which gives the audience some control of the outcome in a similar way to the Choose your own Adventure series of books.
SKY and HBO completely blurred the lines between TV and immersive content by partnering with leading immersive entertainment company Punchdrunk to develop an immersive component of their series The Third Day. Punchdrunk Founder Felix Barrett describes it as “a TV show and a world you can enter, giving viewers the chance to live and breathe the narrative.”
Hospitality is no different. The Lost Distillery has reinvented a genre and is part distillery tour but also an immersive experience combined with a Speakeasy and influences from Cirque du Soleil. It has been described as the “Disneyland of Liquor” (WIRED) and consists of a myriad of dreamscape tasting rooms under the taglines Science, Innovation, Art. The first location opened up in LA and the second venue has recently opened in Las Vegas at the immersive smorgasbord that is Area 15. This second larger venue is a full blown immersive show (with 44 acrobats and performers). Most guests stay for 1.5 – 2 hours but you can stay longer
And prices start from USD $59 including Rum tastings. The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea dining room offers a 16 course fine dining experience for $295 per person which can sell out months in advance.
Another location experiencing success is Phantom Peak in London, an immersive food, drink and entertainment destination developed by the League of Adventure. Describing itself as “the World’s First Fully-Immersive Open-World Adventure” it is a fully-realised steampunk mining town spread over 30,000 sq ft, indoor and outdoor. Phantom Peak’ Trails triggers quests via your phone leading to conversations with the town’s cast of characters through a series of missions. There are numerous F&B and retail options to increase dwell time and revenue per head. It offers both daytime and evening admission with ticket prices of £35 – £45 (weekday/weekend) with various additional premium packages. They have not published any attendance figures but it’s appeal is indicated by 4.8* Google reviews. This is further bolstered by an announcement that Phantom Peak is to double in size and add further layers and depth to the immersive experience (less than 12-months after opening in August 2022).
The retail sector is also being influenced by immersive. Experiential retail is not a new concept but some players are dialling this up a notch and experiential arts and culture are playing a role. Starting with a Four-story, 14,000 sq ft store in New York and now a second store in Miami, Showfields describes itself as the “most interesting store in the world”. Their philosophy is to challenge the retail status quo through merging Art and Commerce to reimagine the shopping experience through using immersive experiences, great service and discovery. An example of this is the giant tentacles that recently emerged from the windows of their Miami store by the artists Filthy Luker and Pedro Estrellas. The House of Showfields is another installation; a 30-minute sensory theatre production that gives customers a chance to immerse themselves in the store’s featured brands.
Showfields reimagines retail using the principle of C-Commerce which they define as curation, content, commerce, convenience and connection with the customer at the centre. Through an artful lens, bringing artists, brands, events and experiences together to bring the magic of discovery to customers (particularly for online brands that gave no physical touch point normally. The concept has grabbed a lot of headlines and is a favourite of retail trend forecasters helping it secure $US9 million in seed funding and is definitely one to watch.
How are immersive experiences reshaping the arts and cultural sector?
A series of extended articles produced with support from the British Council
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