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  • 03.23.17

Can A Location-Based VR Startup Help Revive Shopping Malls and Cinemas?

Founded by veterans of ILM, Disney, EA, and other media giants, Nomadic plans on building rich experiences that can be refreshed regularly.

Can A Location-Based VR Startup Help Revive Shopping Malls and Cinemas?
Images: courtesy of Nomadic

I’m standing on top of a building, desperate to cross a wide gap to another rooftop (so I can thwart evil) and to do so, I have to make my way gingerly over a narrow and extremely rickety plank. It’s a long fall on either side.

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This is scary stuff. In the back of my mind, I know there’s no danger at all. After all, I’m really just playing in virtual reality, and that plank (or at least the long fall) is purely digital. But while I know this intellectually, my brain is screaming at me to forget my evil-thwarting plans and stay on solid ground.

This is the mark of a good VR experience–a true belief that the virtual is real, even when you know for a fact it’s not. And here, it’s at the heart of a new business that its creators think could help revitalize moribund shopping centers and cinemas.

Welcome to Nomadic, a new location-based VR experience company that’s launching today. Built around a system of “modular environments,” essentially quick-to-install physical components like walls, doors, cabinets, and, yes, planks, that can be set up or torn down in just hours, and rich, prop-filled, story-driven virtual content, Nomadic is “the Ikea flat pack of VR,” says CEO Doug Griffin.

San Rafael, California-based Nomadic, like others in the location-based VR industry, including The Void and Zero Latency, is capitalizing on the growing buzz around virtual reality–a business that is expected to grow to $38 billion by 2026. But where owners of consumer systems like the high-end Oculus Rift or Samsung’s mobile Gear VR have limited physical movement, if any at all, systems like Nomadic’s allow for sprawling experiences inside spaces as big as warehouses that give users a sense of walking around cityscapes, interacting with physical objects like guns, doors, drawers, and more.

In the demo I saw, I was tasked with taking on a powerful villain intent on destroying society. I had to cross that plank–I succeeded, despite my trepidation–grab a gun out of a drawer, shoot a bunch of attacking drones out of the air, open a door, wave out of a window, and more. It felt realistic, up to and including the big red lever I had to pull to set off a (virtual) electro-magnetic pulse that would finally defeat the villain.

Nomadic’s special sauce is based on its founders’ years of experience at top-tier entertainment companies like Industrial Light & Magic, Disney, Electronic Arts, and others. Indeed, the backpack and headset I donned were covered in motion-capture sensors that made it possible for the system to know exactly where I was and how I was moving, much like those that are used to record and translate actors’ movement in visual-effects-heavy movies. And that’s how—as I walked around the warehouse space below the company’s headquarters where the demo was set up, physical prop gun in hand—it was able to track me with admirable precision.

While the technology behind Nomadic was without question cool—and the experience quite compelling—what may be more interesting is the company’s strategic plan, which is centered around developing partnerships with the owners of retail and cinema spaces who are eager for fresh content that can keep customers coming back again and again, ideally with the whole family in tow.

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“We’re creating experiences that blur the line between virtual and reality,” says Griffin. “We want to be able to bring this to communities…really get it to where people can go to it. You don’t have to fly to an amusement park.”

The model doesn’t work if the content gets stale. You have to have constantly-changing experiences–only then will customers return on a regular basis. And that’s why Nomadic decided on its modular approach, which allows partners to pull all the components out of boxes, install them on specially designed floors and walls, and make it different every time.

“You bring in our kit of components, [set it up] and turn on the lights,” says head of growth Kalon Gutierrez. “It becomes a virtual environment.”

Those environments are likely to be 40-foot by 60-foot spaces, and the experiences will last up to 15 minutes, either for individuals or multiple players. In the future, Nomadic hopes that some of its many different forms of content will be tied to motion pictures and may even be installed alongside the very theaters showing them.

In the last few years, as people have turned more and more to their mobile devices for just about everything, from watching movies to shopping, malls have struggled. Sales at shopping malls are down 0.8% per year since 2012, according to IBISWorld, and are expected to drop 2.5% this year, and an average of 1.7% every year through 2022. And why? “Falling mall foot traffic due to the rise of e-commerce kept the industry’s decline steady” over the last five years, IBISWorld wrote in a recent industry report.

Nomadic knows full well that the mall industry has been struggling and is betting that owners of such venues are desperate for new kinds of businesses to bring in, and keep, would-be customers. And there’s some evidence the company is right.

“Consumers are looking for more than just shopping when they go to their local mall or shopping center,” says Stephanie Cegielski, a vice president and spokesperson at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “They want experience. This can mean dining, entertainment, or even a virtual reality experience.”

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A big part of Nomadic’s plan is that it would refresh the content it makes available to its partners frequently, perhaps every 90 days. That is key to its success, the company believes, as well as to its partners’ interest.

“Offering new content every 90 days [would keep] the customer engaged,” says Cegielski. “They will return to see the new experience, which means they will likely do other ancillary activities such as shop or dine. It is beneficial to retailers and property owners.”

To be sure, it’s only beneficial if it’s good, and if it’s priced correctly. So is what Nomadic’s built compelling?

I think it is. As noted above, it imparts a strong sense of connection between what you see while wearing the VR headset and what you encounter in the physical space around you. Moreover, you feel safe physically walking around in an unfamiliar environment because, for example, when you see a door in front of you and know you’re supposed to reach out and turn the knob to open it, that handle is precisely where your eyes tell you it should be.

This, of course, is what makes walking that plank frightening. I’ve been through countless VR demos before, so I was very much aware that there was no danger in walking across it. Yet my brain screamed at me not to do so. Will this deter people with less VR experience? Perhaps, but Nomadic thought of that, building in a backup narrative just in case someone won’t walk across.

In the early going after launch, Nomadic, which has only six full-time staff right now, is going to create some of the content in-house, and lean on partners to create more. Over time, the company imagines a variety of experiences ranging from all-original content such as a Journey To The Center Of The Earth-esque adventure or perhaps escape-room challenges. It’s also hoping to ink deals to build experiences around existing movies, games, and toys.

As for pricing, Nomadic isn’t yet saying exactly how much it’ll charge. But it does seem like the startup wants to keep the cost to roughly the same as a movie ticket. That would be a key to ensuring a Nomadic experience is affordable, especially when you consider an entire family wanting to try it out.

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That pricing would also set it apart from what it costs to go through The Void’s one U.S.-based experience, Ghostbusters: Dimension, at Madame Tussaud’s in New York. That, technically, is just $20, but you also have to buy a $29 ticket to the wax museum itself. For a family of four, that would be a hefty cost.

It’s way too early to tell if Nomadic has a future. The company got off the ground with $1 million from family and friends, and recently raised an undisclosed amount of venture capital. It plans on hiring up quickly, and hopes that customers will be able to start going through its experiences sometime in the fourth quarter of this year.

The biggest hurdle to its success, says Laurie Beja Miller, a longtime retail industry consultant who is now a Nomadic advisor, is getting people to try it out for the first time.

“People have very varying degrees of experience and understanding of what virtual reality is, and what they can expect,” Miller says. “I couldn’t wait to do it again, to see if I was going to walk across the plank without freaking out. I just froze. I love that.”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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