The room is dark. On its floor sits a solitary soccer ball.
Suddenly, a glowing halo envelopes the ball. No matter where it’s kicked, the halo follows like sorcery. And then the walls light up, becoming giant screens. That’s when I realize this is no ordinary room. It’s a giant video game.
Imagine Guitar Hero . . . but instead of riffing chords, you kick the soccer ball—and you can kick it as hard as you like, right into the wall of pixels.
The demo I’m watching is but one of many possible apps built for DreamCube, an enticing new technology and brand that’s already signed deals with the NBA as well as with the Manchester United soccer club. It’s not sci-fi; it’s a real product. A total of 16 DreamCubes are already set up at Manchester United fan centers across China.
The DreamCube is basically a 256-square-foot virtual reality room. It’s something of an oversize interactive cubicle: You step inside, and you’re in VR—no headset required.
It’s powered by a complex set of motion-tracking cameras and projection mapping hardware. Instead of placing you into a VR headset, this system can move pixels around the DreamCube at 240 frames per second (which is four to eight times the visual smoothness offered by modern-day video game consoles).
It all adds up to a modular, virtual reality box that can be dropped into almost any environment that’s in need of a little interactive entertainment, ranging from giant arenas to small bars. But perhaps the most important aspect of the DreamCube is that it’s only three-sided. The back wall is intentionally left open so that players can watch one another and swap in and out to take turns for a social experience.
“It’s kind of like a mixture of Topgolf, bowling, and karaoke,” says Jake Barton, a co-owner of DreamCube who developed the technology at his firm Local Projects in conjunction with Harves Global Entertainment and the MTM collective. “We’re also using a lot of VR conventions, but in a way that’s communal but not isolating. It’s a big investment into physical space, and a [mixed reality] platform that doesn’t involve cutting your senses off.”
Building the dream
To be fair, many of the core ideas in the DreamCube have been lurking on the fringes of virtual reality R&D for nearly 30 years. In 1992, researchers at the University of Illinois developed the CAVE (which stands for cave automatic immersive environment), ostensibly a bespoke DreamCube with a similar setup of three glowing walls and an interactive floor. In the mid-aughts, Microsoft created a system called Kinect, which could track human bodies in 3D space. Then in 2014, Microsoft Research built the IllumiRoom atop some of that Kinect hardware. The IllumiRoom used projectors to transform any space into a giant, interactive screen.
These approaches were mostly abandoned. Aside from a few companies that are building giant, interactive entertainment spaces—like Illuminarium—personal electronics have become the name of the game for interactive realities. Today, the HTC Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Quest present a world of VR you wear in a headset, and Microsoft’s HoloLens is a set of glasses that can put holograms into your own environment.
Something was lost in this translation. Early digital reality experiments like the CAVE imagined your physical space as the anchor. Our physical environments are comfortable and social by nature, whereas headsets are essentially the opposite. And even while these headsets are technical marvels, receiving decent adoption from an enthusiast crowd, Barton still wonders if our physical environments are the key to VR.
“There’s no such thing as a VR blockbuster,” Barton points out. “If the pandemic can’t create that for VR, what the heck is going to? There’s clearly something [bad] about being alone and isolated. Even [sitting] alone in a room, your senses are occluded [by a headset].”
Barton understands the importance of immersive space more than most people. At Local Projects (which was Fast Company’s 2021 Design Company of the Year), Barton has spearheaded projects like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which mixed physical artifacts from 9/11 with all sorts of sounds and visualizations to contextualize the tragedy. More recently, Local Projects led the development of Planet Word, a museum full of magical opportunities, such as the ability to place a paper book onto a table only to have it come to life and tell its own story.
The DreamCube is a way to scale the bespoke interactive experiences that Local Projects developed largely for museums into a mass-produced, self-contained pod that can be dropped almost anywhere. The design of the cube itself is an important point. The technology is all squeezed into the ceiling, while the walls are just ordinary walls. It’s a stark contrast to large-scale spaces like the $30 million Illuminarium, which require a massive retail footprint. Meanwhile, a DreamCube can fit inside most standard buildings (and it’s actually designed to squeeze perfectly into China’s modern building code).
For now, DreamCube has signed two powerhouse franchises in sports—the NBA and Manchester United. The Manchester United experience includes the aforementioned Guitar Hero soccer game. The NBA experience is yet to be revealed. While the company has a footprint already in China, it’s eyeing the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for expansion.
“The immediate [potential] is fan activations and short-term experiences,” says Francis Person, CEO of DreamCube Innovations. “But this also goes to trends we’ve seen accelerated by COVID. . . . There’s a need for malls and arenas to have properties that are communal, where people go out to shop and spend time.”
So in the short term, DreamCube will entice partners in live entertainment, like sports and music, filling unused corners of stadiums with another draw aside from the main event itself. And in places like China, DreamCube will be a way for fans who live abroad to get a small taste of their favorite sports. But longer term, Barton and Person imagine that DreamCube could scale, getting more and more apps (created in-house or licensed by third parties). While it’s high-tech, the actual social experience of DreamCube would feel a lot like karaoke or bowling does today. People could watch one another play, then step up and take their turn.
“In any neighborhood suburb, you could throw this in [a bar]. On an NFL Sunday, you could track players, you could have a matrix with different games going on,” Person says. “You could imagine this tied to fantasy sports . . . [but] you could be watching Jay-Z live in Brooklyn, too! There’s infinite capabilities.”