The first IMAX VR arcade is a huge hit—and I can see why

Adario Strange

Virtual reality may have just got the shot of confidence it needed to break into the mainstream. 

On Friday, IMAX held its latest earnings conference call and it came with an unexpected bit of news: the company's virtual reality arcade experiment in Los Angeles has been a success.

Of course, for anyone who has visited the facility, as I did last week, the news is hardly a surprise. 

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"Our LA facility, which has been opened for roughly 3 months now, has seen over 20,000 unique visitors," said IMAX CEO Richard Lewis Gelfond during the earnings call. "From a revenue standpoint, the center is pacing at roughly $15,000 a week over the last month or so, including our highest grossing week to date, this past week, and continues to exceed expectations."

Image: Mashable, Adario Strange

That tracks with what I heard from workers at the facility when I made an unscheduled visit on a Thursday afternoon. According to one IMAX VR attendant, the facility hit its three month goal (which may be different from the numbers stated in the earnings call) in just one month. 

At the time, such bullish talk wasn't hard to believe because we kept getting interrupted by the constant flow of consumer traffic coming in off the street. Real, non-techie families and couples were coming in to buy a ticket to a VR experience ($7-$10), and it was like watching the dawn of a new entertainment era. 

A VR safety video in the lobby of the IMAX VR facility.

IMAX had already planned on rolling out additional VR locations in New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, China and Manchester, UK. But based on the new numbers, the company has also announced plans for an additional facility in Tokyo, one of the leading cities experiencing a rise in the installation of large, well-equipped VR arcades. 

"[IMAX] will continue to use these sites as pilots to ultimately determine the longer-term opportunity at hand, but we're definitely encouraged by the initial results from our LA facility," said Gelfond. 

Germaphobes rest easy, IMAX VR cleans the VR headsets after every use. I checked, it's true.

Located just across the street from L.A.'s shopping mecca known as The Grove, the IMAX VR facility is indistinguishable from a normal movie theater when you enter the lobby. In fact, even things as simple as buying a ticket and making a VR experience selection are about as easy as it is at a normal IMAX theater. 

An IMAX VR employee sets up a new user in one of their VR "pods."

Image: mashable, Adario strange

The difference comes when you enter the inner VR facility, which is equipped with both HTC Vive headsets, the StarVR headset, and the SubPac audio vest (providing a kind of haptic feedback enhancement for the experiences). Each pod (what they call the large, room-sized spaces that house each experience) comes with a person to help you put on the VR gear and explain how everything works. 

The entire experience was incredibly smooth and well run, as though they've been doing this for years. The other surprise was getting to see what kind of people had come to engage in VR. During my visit I saw two couples on dates, two families (both playing games together) and several individuals completely immersed in their respective experiences. 

A handy VR experience ratings system to keep you from getting too intense on your first try.

Image: Mashable, Adario Strange

One particularly popular experience was the John Wick Chronicles, the virtual version of the Keanu Reeves hit shoot 'em up movie franchise. Since it was sold out throughout the day at IMAX VR, I managed to get a chance to play it at the offices of Starbreeze Studios (the company behind the StarVR headset used during the experience) thanks to its director of global VR, Brooks Brown. Let's just say by the time I took the StarVR headset off I was sweating and my muscles were aching, and I didn't want to stop playing. It's definitely worth the trip to IMAX VR if it comes to your city.  

Will these earnings numbers from IMAX and its plans to roll out new facilities mean that location-based VR will be the thing that pushes the platform into the mainstream? 

We'll probably need at least another 24 months to find out. But in the meantime, I'm willing to bet IMAX's track record means its upcoming VR experiences, including Justice League and Aquaman, will probably be worth checking out as well.

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