Storytelling for Screens that Surround You

Screen-based entertainment is expanding to surround audiences with enhanced ways to step into story worlds. Toronto-based Secret Location is an immersive studio that has recently evolved their content to come to life beyond VR headsets or handheld screens. This emerging form of screen-based entertainment lets you enter into game-engine based worlds, as easily as it is to enter a room. Illuminarium, a global experiential entertainment company recently partnered with Secret Location to open their first Canadian location, in Toronto’s distillery district. Now & Next contributor Laura Mingail explored Illuminarium and Secret Location's evolving approach to storytelling.

I never wanted to just be a filmmaker or just make games” explains Secret Location’s President & Co-Founder, Ryan Andal. Andal and his team like to play in between those mediums. From winning the first-ever Emmy award for a virtual reality experience, to launching a multiplayer at-home VR title that lets players run on virtual walls, Secret Location is driven to leverage new technologies to power memorable content. This is why they ventured into building story experiences that can be projected onto floors and walls effectively turning entire rooms into screens, and even adding interactable moments. Their first title, Waking Wonderland - a story that picks up three generations after the original Alice in Wonderland, began being distributed by Illuminarium last year.

“I see this as a true canvas,” says Andal. Unlike traditional cinemas, spaces like Illuminarium offer creators a considerably larger array of options to bring their story worlds to life.

Full Immersion Without 3D Glasses or Headsets 

The beauty of projection mapping, especially with high quality content and technology, is that audiences can feel fully immersed without the added step of needing headsets or even 3D glasses. At Illuminarium, you can see the depth in the content projected onto the walls, like these asteroids captured flying around the room in the SPACE experience which includes stunning imagery from the James Webb Space Telescope. And the illusion of immersion is enhanced with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) which can track guest movement which can impact various parts of the visual and accompanying audio content. 

With story content fully encompassing each room, audience members have the chance to explore the worlds in a manner similar to virtual experiences. They are not seated in front of a view of the action taking place but can rather look all over. This creates opportunity for guests to experience unique moments, and for creators to think beyond a single frame when bringing a world to life.

While the Toronto Illuminarium has about 14,000 pounds of servers powering the experience, there is no hardware that audience members need to worry about. Similar to at-home mixed reality, experiences can be digitally mapped to the unique physical footprints of each venue. Considering this, even locations currently used for traditional cinemas or even performing arts could extend what’s possible in their locations with more immersive storytelling that comes to life with technologies like projection mapping.

Interaction with the Story Content

Waking Wonderland gives you the feeling that you’re stepping into a storybook .. and being in an interactive game” whereas another experience called SPACEis very much like being in an immersive film” explains Andal. Interaction with story content can vary substantially based on what makes the most sense for the story. In spaces like luminarium, creators are not confined to a set number of features that they can apply to the interactivity. As with building a story world for any medium, it is important to start with a good baseline story and experience for audiences.Then, identify the impact that different forms of interactivity can have on the story experience. Secret Location integrates interactable digital elements through guest movement, live actors and even incorporating scent-based elements into their Waking Wonderland experience. They plan to layer in more elements as their content expands, such as putting microphones into rooms to allow content to react to audiences' voices, and floors that allow guests to feel vibrations and movement.

Upcoming titles including Lite-Brite, a safari experience called Wild and even an immersive musical tied to The Wizard of Oz will each have interactive elements that make the most sense for the story. And the technologies used in Illuminarium are not limited to flat surfaces like walls and floors. Andal and team are considering what can be done with immersive dining events like Le Petit Chef experience (featured in over 45 locations worldwide), fashion shows and live music performances.

Audience Insights

This form of headset-free immersive storytelling also offers storytellers the ability to rapidly learn about what is most and least engaging for audiences, and to iterate on experience options. Creators can easily watch and listen to guest reaction, movement and interaction with content as they physically roam around the rooms. With other forms of digital content, insights may just come from more limited data points such as where an audience member is gazing, or if they understood how to interact with a moment in the story. Here, there is a shared experience between the creators and audience and updates to the content can be made and tested more rapidly on-site - both with the projected content and any added layers to the experience. They can also more easily be customized for different audience segments and ‘screening’ times.

Programming for Dynamic Audiences

Capacity varies for each Illuminarium physical location, as well as each experience. For example, current content being showcased in Toronto is ideal for up to 50 guests. However events that will take place in this space can hold up to 200. Programming can be adjusted for dynamic audiences to reach high capacity utilization. In this way, the venue is similar to a cinema. Family content is currently programming during the day and after a one hour change-over, content that is appealing to slightly older audiences takes over the space. The Illuminarium in Atlanta has also been experimenting with programming for dynamic audiences by pairing cocktails with their evening screenings of SPACE, and even offering immersive Monday night football watch parties with food and beverage options.

A capacity of hundreds is a far cry from other headset free immersive experiences popping up, including the 18,600 person capacity of Sphere in Las Vegas, with wrap-around LED screens. This also impacts the choices for content programming as the more intimate setting allows guests the opportunity to have a greater impact on the story content, which could help enhance the illusion of immersion.


Laura Mingail
Laura Mingail is an award-winning marketer, strategist and thought-leader in the entertainment space. She founded Archetypes & Effects to provide organizations in storytelling industries with impactful strategy, marketing and business development support. She is also a contributing author and media commentator focused on innovative forms of storytelling and technologies.
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