The people-drawing power of VR

Less than a handful of years ago, Shiraz Akmal was overseeing business and product development for virtual reality projects at DreamWorks Animation. But the 45-year-old entrepreneur has since taken that DreamWorks experience and reshaped it with a very personal mission that he says could help revitalize America’s malls. Three years ago, Akmal co-founded Spaces Inc., a VR specialty company with a laser focus on building the next generation of attractions for retail locations.

In August, Spaces opened its first retail VR facility in a former Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews restaurant location at the revamped Irvine Spectrum shopping center in Irvine, Calif. The company’s first multi-sensory VR center opened with “Terminator Salvation: Fight for the Future.” A second VR facility in partnership with Sega opened in October in Tokyo; a third location is planned in the lobby of Cinemark’s Century 20 Theater at the Westfield Oakridge Mall in San Jose, Calif.

Does virtual reality offer hope for the uncertain future of America’s malls? Akmal thinks so, and he discussed the company’s growth plans and his take on the future of VR with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz.

What’s the situation with many American malls?

There is a transformation of the world that we are living through every day. Everything you want can be purchased from your mobile device, so consumers aren’t leaving their homes. That means businesses all have to ask themselves: What can I do to give people a reason to leave their homes and come to my location?

Do you believe virtual reality can fix that problem?

Technology alone can’t fix the problem. VR is just a technology. The reason you go out to do something is because it’s something you can’t do — or can’t experience — at home. We use VR to create the most immersive, location-based experience that can only be done outside the home. It requires leaving home to be with family and friends in a large space and experience an amazing attraction the likes of which you’d only see in a theme park. We give people a reason to leave home.

You have said that Spaces transforms physical space into a digital playground. What do you mean by that?

Well, our phones are digital and have an unlimited number of apps. We essentially do the same thing with physical space. With VR, we transform it from a fixed thing that can’t change into something that can change.
We can change content. Every customer can have a different experience if we choose. Our aim is to let people go anywhere and do anything. We have reimagined what a physical location can be by unlocking its potential to be completely dynamic and changeable.

Everything from flashy video arcades to trendy frozen yogurt bars to high-end health clubs and spas were supposed to transform malls. What happened?

Retailers are the first to say that going to the mall needs to transform to be more experiential. Spaces is simply providing really interesting products that push the boundaries on what it means to be experiential. Keep in mind, we are an entertainment company that is one-third video game developers, one-third theme park designers and one-third film and visual effects storytellers.

We are taking the theme park experience and reimagining it in a smaller footprint that we hope to put in malls across America. It’s not about VR. It’s about providing the most experiential thing that you can offer guests and visitors.

What’s special about the VR at Spaces?

For one thing, as soon as you — the customer — walk in, we make a digital copy of your face — a 3D scan just like they do for digital doubles in movies. This way, we can take that image and put you right in the middle of the movie experience. We are continuing to build on features like these to wow our customers.

Before you leave the store, we’ve already emailed you a shareable, social media moment: a 90-second movie of your Spaces experience to your cellphone. That way you can share it on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or any social media that you’d like.

What’s happened since you opened Spaces at the Irvine Spectrum late this summer?

We’ve exceeded all our expectations. We’ve seen thousands of customers over the past month. We sell out on weekends. We also expanded our evening hours to 11 p.m. because many people like to come later for the experience. At the same time, we’re starting to see corporate team-building bookings during the day. A major video game company had their legal department come through, and the IT department from a major hotel chain came.

How many visitors do you get each day?

We don’t disclose that. But our projected occupancy and profitability have both been exceeded. Some days we see hundreds of visitors — even into the high hundreds.

Some folks get motion sick from VR. How do you prevent that?

The safety and comfort of our guests is number one with us. We have a patented technology that reduces things like motion sickness. We will ultimately have four types of VR products: seated, walk-around, driving and flying. In all cases, we build experiences that match the human experience along with how the body works. You can’t have a great experience if you make folks motion sick.

What tweaks have you made since you opened at Irvine Spectrum?

Most people have never put on a VR headset. And the video we show never does enough to give people an idea what VR is really like because videos are two-dimensional. We solved this problem by letting every customer come to enjoy a snippet of the experience. We let interested customers put the headset on for 15 to 20 seconds. It’s a way to welcome people and also give them a taste of the technology.

How are you financed?

We’ve raised $10 million from investors, and Comcast Ventures is our largest shareholder. We’ve also signed a $30 million venture with a Chinese company. We’re building a 20,000-square-foot VR experience in China that will host up to 1,000 people per hour.

Where did the name Spaces come from?

The word ‘space’ is how we describe the world we live in. We are not two-dimensional. We take volumes of space and apply our technology to transform it into anything we want. I get excited when I see an empty space. I notice empty space and think about all the great things we can do with it. The DNA of our company is about constantly evolving that space.

How should mall owners view Spaces?

Mall owners have real estate and space. We need those same spaces that so many retailers are abandoning. We like to say that we can apply technology to open space and make it better. We really have the same goal as mall owners: to get people out having fun.

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist.