Mall of America’s newest attraction blends AR and VR

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Legendary architect Victor Gruen designed the first generation of American shopping malls during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Gruen wanted his creations (which numbered in the dozens) to be more than just shopping destinations. He pictured them as cornerstones of the greater community, which would also embrace open green spaces, essential services and entertainment options.

Most of Gruen’s projects saw his vision only partially realized, but his successors took his ideas to heart. When Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., opened in 1992, guests were greeted by a bevy of amusing diversions including Camp Snoopy, an indoor amusement park.

In recent years that emphasis has become even stronger. Nickelodeon Universe has replaced Camp Snoopy, which has been joined by Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, Crayola Experience and FlyOver America.

“When we opened we were about 80 percent retail and 20 percent dining and entertainment,” says Jill Renslow, senior vice president of business development and marketing. “We’ve always had the goal of offering a guest experience with variety.”

According to Renslow, that creative mix has resulted in increased traffic levels and strong guest loyalty. It’s even established the mall as an international tourist destination.

Part of the ongoing evolution is the continuous renewal of its celebratory offerings. Meanwhile, more advanced virtual reality technology has given birth to a new breed of virtual reality-based entertainment concepts.

The VOID is one of a new generation of immersive VR concepts that elevate the level of excitement and engagement. Rather than something merely seen or observed, the VOID is an all-encompassing environment visitors walk through that embraces the senses of sight, touch, hearing and smell.

BEYOND 3D

“The VOID allows the guest to step into the world of their favorite stories and become an active participant in Star Wars or Ghostbusters,” two experiences which are currently available, says Sean Griffin, head of business development for the entertainment experience.

Its arrival at Mall of America represents its ninth location worldwide. Known officially as “Entertainment Centers,” existing sites are in high-traffic venues: Madame Tussauds in New York City, Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Calif., the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas and the City Walk in Dubai, U.A.E. A new Entertainment Center recently opened at West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Additional centers are planned for Atlanta, Austin, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

Participants wear a high-tech headset and other gear, transforming the physical space into an alternate visual reality that offers astounding sights and interactive effects, like what happens when a target get hits by a proton blaster.

Creating this magical world of make believe is the result of the most advanced versions of VR technology. While the high-tech aspect is the most obvious, the VOID’s total environment is a virtual world superimposed over a set of physical props. Sophisticated equipment replicates sound, wind and moisture. Guests can touch a “rock” and feel its slippery dampness or hear the roar of a Star Wars fighter overhead. The effects take the experience out of the 3D world and into 4D.

Since the VOID went to market in June 2016, Ghostbusters, Star Wars and Nicodemus (a haunted house experience) have made up the offerings, with more under development.

In VOID adventures, teams of four guests are inserted into the story, each taking on the persona of a known character. The team is then directed to fulfill an assigned task. In the Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience, participants are ordered by the Rebellion to infiltrate an Imperial base to steal critical intelligence, all with the assistance of the franchise’s familiar characters.

HIGH-TECH FLEXIBILITY

The VOID operates in a manner like a movie theatre where featured experiences periodically change. The sophistication of the technology allows the transition to be accomplished quickly based on market demand.

“We’re actually flexible enough that we can show one experience one day and another the next,” Griffin says.

“The same physical space can be used for any experience. What’s really amazing is that when guests who have sampled one experience return for another, they feel they’ve entered a totally different world, yet they’re in the very same space.”

Guests can touch a “rock” and feel its slippery dampness or hear the roar of a Star Wars fighter overhead. The effects take the experience out of the 3D world and into 4D.

The Mall of America location is set to open by late 2018 and will occupy from 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of space, with two independent stages. The double capacity allows separate experiences to be offered in tandem or a high-demand experience to be offered on both stages simultaneously.

Since guests are only admitted in complete groups of four, reserving a time slot in advance is the preferred way to plan a visit. “Giving guests the option of advance booking allows us to spread out the traffic, and eliminates long lines, although we do accept walk-ins if space becomes available,” Griffin says. Capacity is around 48 guests per hour, double in locations with two stages like the Mall of America location.

The experience begins before guests enter the theater with a pre-show “Mission Brief” that puts them into the story as soon as they arrive. “We then suit you up, all while the staff is engaging with you in character,” Griffin says.

After the VR portion, guests can pose for a commemorative photo and visit a specialty shop offering themed merchandise. The total experience typically runs from 20 to 30 minutes. Admission to the Star Wars experience is $30; prices increase slightly during peak periods.

Paying close attention to the science of adjacencies, the VOID’s specific locations are strategically chosen to be near other leisure options.

“We always move our tenants around to keep things fresh and exciting, so we were able to find a great location for the VOID near our miniature golf course, Moose Mountain and several dining options,” Renslow says. “This allows our guests to have an entertaining experience, have some food and do some shopping.”

Frequently moving tenants requires an energetic staff. “Everything here is done in-house — from carpenters, plumbers and electricians to our housekeeping and security. Having all this expertise at the ready makes us agile and ready to meet our challenges.”

For now, Renslow and her team are anxiously awaiting the VOID’s late 2018 opening. Given Mall of America’s philosophy of constant innovation to remain appealing and invigorating, there’s little doubt the VOID will be a galactic success.

Detroit-based Paul Vachon writes for various trade publications, in addition to feature stories for consumer magazines and books on Michigan history and travel.

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