Realies, the rise of the experience industry, and the birth of the urban theme park.
__ In the beginning there was the Drive-In.
And Walt said, "Let there be a Park."
And lo, there was Pirates of the Caribbean.
Thus did Walt beget the Experience Industry.
And Walt saw that it was Good... __
The thing is, you make too much money. You've got a car and an apartment, clothes on your back and food in your gut - and you still have cash left over at the end of the month. So: How about a movie? Maybe you just want to rent one. Or buy a Sega Genesis system. Or fly the family down to Epcot....
I was 11 when I first visited Disney World. Grooving to Pirates of the Caribbean, I was a young sensation junkie drunk on the sweet bewilderment of entering another world. Back then, of course, they were just rides; today they're simulations. In the late '80s, the MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte proposed his "teething-ring" theory of digital convergence, which held that the TV, publishing, and computer industries would coalesce to create multimedia hardware. Almost five years later, the first wave of the interactive boom has played itself out. The information superhighway is under construction, and the eye of the high-tech storm rests on content - i.e., the "experience industry" - the myriad descendants of Walt himself who make money by making their customers' hearts beat faster.
A new teething ring has emerged, this time for software. Video games, movies, and amusement park rides are converging into new location-based entertainments - call them Realies - coming soon to a high-tech strip mall near your corner of America's cluttered leisure landscape. Last winter's International Association of Amusement Parks and Arcades convention in LA boasted no fewer than twenty flight simulators and similar games, all bound for planet Earth's parks and arcades.
The Realies run the gamut from the largely cinematic to the game-oriented to the ride-reminiscent. What they share is a vast immersive capability born of digital technology's fierce data-crunching power and, if you care to buy the hype, dual virtues - reprogrammable content and the use of interior (VR) rather than exterior (physical) space - that render them ideal for storming the towers of Disney and Six Flags Over Wherever. Thus, they herald the rise of the experience industry's ultimate 21st-century expression: the Urban Theme Park, a storefront that held more rides than Disneyland ever could.
Or maybe not. I figured the best way to judge the experience industry's latest incarnation would be to experience the industry. So I spent a month traveling the country last fall, riding the rides and schmoozing the PR flacks, seeking that trip of the virtual light fantastic that might push Pirates and its ilk from our nation's leisure heart. Could climbing into a simulation pod or strapping on a VR helmet actually replace the old-fashioned thrill of gripping a roller coaster's handrails and wondering whether you'll puke as the car pauses at the top of the climb? Is virtual experience really a substitute for experience?
__ Battletech: Murder, Incorporated__
I'm slouching in a dark, cold module, hands glued to trigger and throttle, eyes on the view screen before me, where a phalanx of murderous Mech robots lumbers clumsily across a stark geometric plane, all fighters trying to line up the others in their gunsight in order to blast them to bits. My fellow players - all crouched in their own modules, lined up in a row next to my own, outside in the real world - are close to my Mech on the screen. Maybe too close. I shift into reverse: Mine enemies doth recede to the horizon as I glide back behind a monolithic pillar. Safe at last, I exult as my cockpit rumbles with thunder.
What? I'm hit! I glance down at the radar. One of them snuck in behind me. I shudder under another direct hit, then a third. One arm and one leg of my Mech's skeletal outline glow red on the console, indicating that I'm badly hurt - in fact, probably dying. Frantic, I wheel myself around; the bleak landscape on the view screen rotates as my steel attacker looms into view, still shattering me with fire. Left leg gone now ... teeth clenched, I laugh giddily, firing wildly. Maybe at least I'll take my assassin with me when I go. ...
Battletech is the brainchild of Jordan Weisman and Russ Babcock, two undergrad Dungeons & Dragons freaks whose role-playing obsessions eventually led them to produce what may well be the world's first Realie. Their first Battletech networked simulation center (see WIRED 1.3, page 36) opened in Chicago in 1990, and it's been raking in money ever since. In 1992, Tim Disney (Walt's grandson) and his partners bought out Battletech and turned it into Virtual World Entertainment, a proposed string of arcades offering Battletech, with others in development - all using the basic player module Battletech aficionados have come to love.
"The New Age is a celebration of nerdiness," says Tim Disney. But successful though it was, he admits, "we knew Battletech was limited. It plays to a 92 percent male audience. If a couple walks up to a Battletech Center, they begin arguing; then the man goes inside and the woman walks away."
So Disney, his partner Charlie Fink, and Weisman created what they call a "nexus fiction," a complex story line that wraps a Realie company's games into the larger physical world of the arcade itself - creating a unique, identifiable, and consumer loyalty-enhancing universe that remains intact even as, over the years, the games themselves evolve.
Nexus fictions start the minute you enter the arcade. First there's the prebriefing period, during which uniformed employees pretend they can really teach you how to play the game. In stage two, you flounder around in the game itself, pretending to apply that knowledge. Stage three would be your debriefing: meeting with an arcade employee and your fellow players to compare notes. And finally there's merchandising. Of course. Shelling out for food, drinks (smart and dumb), T-shirts, caps, and other nexus-fiction-related trinkets to commemorate your experience.
Battletech's nexus fiction, which sets the tone for all the Realie arcades to follow, is a complex, fictional story line that wraps the company's games in a romantic mythology based on the adventures of the time-traveling, H.G. Wells-era Virtual Geographic League. The first Virtual World Center, in Walnut Creek, California, is resplendent in swank Victorian kitsch, complete with dusty 80-year-old novels and grainy snapshots of people like Howard Hughes.
So far it works. Grunged-out teens hang around the Virtual World clubhouse, sipping soda and fruit juice and awaiting word via the intercom that it's their group's turn to play. As I leave the Virtual World Center with my group, we pass a pimply kid approaching the machines in ripped jeans and a death-metal T-shirt, pumping his fist in the air like he's on his way to Madison Square Garden to see The Who. "Yeaah," he shrieks. "I looooove Battletech!"
__ Cybergate: Full Immersion__
I climb into a smooth, sleek pod and squeeze on my VR helmet. "Are you ready?" the techies around me ask while I adjust the helmet's angular liquid crystal display (LCD) screens snugly over my eyes. I nod. They boot the ride. I wait in the dark. Nothing. "Dammit," somebody mutters. A brief pause. Then another voice says: "OK. We're off."
I'm in space. Not watching a video screen or a movie, but there, inside, floating in an endless inky night awash in stars. The Cybergate helmet must be the most sophisticated VR offering in the consumer market: Everywhere you turn your head, the LCDs provide seamless simulation ... maybe a little too seamless, in fact. Not knowing how to fly, I'm basically helpless. I jigger my space jet's controls and, zapping the phasers every few seconds on general masculine principle, spend the next five minutes gyrating aimlessly: forward slowly, then backward really fast, enjoying the blurring planets, tumbling into a kind of spinning thing where - well, actually, I don't have a clue as to what I'm doing. At this point the techies start getting bored; one of them climbs into the adjacent pod, pops into deep-space existence and starts buzzing around my ship, laughing and trying to guide me over the helmet radio.
Visions of Reality is a 2-year-old company based in Irvine, California. This year they plan to open 150 multipod Cybergate Centers: Realie arcades hosting from 12 to 36 flight pods (Visual Immersion Modules), each offering the space trip I thrilled to during my visit, each adhering strictly to the Realie marketing philosophy, which stipulates total customer immersion in the full range of entertainment experience. "As customers walk into the center," a Visions of Reality promo sheet raves, "they enter a total sensory environment."
In fact, the accompanying cheesy four-color drawings make the proposed center look a lot like a 21st-century Wendy's, but why quibble? Visions of Reality may be the most technologically advanced of all the would-be Realie goliaths. The Cybergate flight simulation VR system was created in collaboration with Kaiser Electro-Optics, a military contractor that built the hands-on display for the Apache helicopter. Now, with defense spending declining and the game biz exploding, Kaiser has decided the peace dividend means taking expertise paid for by the public and selling it back to them one arcade at a time.
This is amazing. "We've got a lot of horsepower, a ton of money, and the most sophisticated program short of Disney that you've ever seen," says Visions of Reality's project administrator, Robert Stone.
"I don't see anybody out there in our class."
In terms of sheer simulation power, I couldn't agree more; Cybergate sends you into space with a verisimilitude the likes of which I haven't seen before or since. But technology is always slipping down the price curve; today's remarkable is tomorrow's run-of-the-mill. And in order to succeed, the barons of the Urban Theme Park are going to need more than hot graphics and Pentagon connections.
__ Cinetropolis: The Iwerks Dream__
"The future of the movie theater," Stan Kinsey informs me as I sit down in his Burbank office, "may not be a movie theater." I'm visiting Iwerks Entertainment, producer of "movie-based specialty theaters, interactive media, and virtual reality." The company was founded in 1986 by Kinsey and Don Iwerks, the former head of Disney Imagineering and son of Ubbi Iwerks, the animator who created Minnie Mouse. They launched the firm after considering several salient facts. "In-home activity" - video games and rentals - had essentially stopped the movie business in its tracks, Kinsey recalls, and theme park attendance had been flat for ten years. Clearly this was a market desperate for exploitation. Iwerks's goal was nothing less than to create the New Movie Theater: a "spontaneously available, out-of-home event using reprogrammable hardware platforms."
The result was Cinetropolis, a projected series of "out-of-home metropolitan movie parks" consisting of themed retail outlets and restaurants with, in Kinsey's words, "the walls and ceilings blown out" and set amid a high-tech sea of Iwerks attractions. An all-purpose experience oasis for the millennium, the first Cinetropolis recently opened in the Foxwood Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut. The second is under construction in Chiryu, Japan. The third is coming soon to a former multiplex near you.
The Cinetropolis offerings cover each of the new teething ring's three fronts.
>> Cinema: the Iwerks 8/70 Big Screen Theater takes aim at industry-leading Imax wide-screens (you know, the screens used to show nature films, San Francisco cable-car rides, and Rolling Stones concert footage ) with their own huge, crystal-clear 70 mm, 40- to 60-foot screens, about 50 of which are now operating worldwide. On my Iwerks promo tour I am shown two five-minute Big Screen films, each featuring live clips of Prince. The screen is larger than Cineplex-heads are used to, the colors sharper and brighter, the picture wider - and the content, save for a short nature outing set to luscious New Age Enya riffs, exhausting and pointless. Wide-screen cinema has been on the verge of making it big for two decades now. And, sad to say, probably working on three.
>> Rides: Iwerks' Turbotour Theaters combine Hollywood's "roller-coaster" films and roller coasters themselves into what the experience industry calls "motion-based attractions." The Turbotour Theater is small and filled with about 30 big, fat, comfy seats. I strap myself into one - it's like a cross between a bean bag and a dentist's chair - and get jangled like a martini while thrilling to the action on the screen. Iwerks shows me and my fellow Turbotourists two short films: a Robocop motorcycle chase and a dizzying spin on the Indy 500 culled partly from old Paramount Days of Thunder footage. Back east in Connecticut, I also catch up with Mindblender, a portable Turbotour Theater show set to 3-D video and the Peter Gabriel song "Kiss That Frog," devised by Iwerks for Crystal Pepsi.
These three Realies all work on the same principle: Your seat pitches and yaws in time to the action on the screen before you. When Robocop's motorcycle slams over a bump, you get jostled in your seat.
But Turbotour, too, is lame and finally irritating, like riding a mechanical bull while watching Lethal Weapon 3 from the front row. It's a perfect example of what's wrong with some of the Realies: They go to great pains to simulate an experience that still ends up seeming manufactured and false. Robocop, the movie, had a compelling story; viewers didn't have to get rocked around to forget they were sitting in a theater. The Turbotour version, by comparison, is all jostle and little buzz. By the end of the six-minute film I was most preoccupied by the question of whether my spare change was getting bumped out of my pockets. I was shaken, but not stirred.
>> Games: I am, however, quite intrigued by the much-hyped debut of Loch Ness Adventure, the first offering in the Virtual Adventures series, the video-game leg of the Iwerks triad - a multiperson, climb-in Realie featuring what Iwerks calls "full immersive VR" - meaning that, like Pirates of the Caribbean in 1973 and Battletech's nexus fictions twenty years later, once you're inside, everything relates to the game.
The Loch Ness module is a large, glossy room carrying six "crew members" at a time, each responsible for one facet of our submarine's functioning. We, the universe's first-ever rookie Loch Ness players, each take a place in the sub's control room; on the wall-sized screen before us looms a lovely graphics facsimile of the murky depths of Loch Ness. Our mission: rescue Nessie's eggs from the unnamed creatures threatening them. Our enemies: the other subs out to get there first. Our weapon: green goop we get to squirt on their windshields. Our team: a captain (unfortunately, me), a navigator even more clueless than our captain, two periscope guys who keep saying stuff like "Down. Up. Down. Down. Up," and two stoic souls manning the sub's claws in the unlikely event that we ever manage to approach anything even theoretically grabbable.
Our reaction: mixed. The Loch Ness controls are slow and, at least on our initial run, confusing; our crew spends most of the journey nose down in the mud at the bottom of the lake, trying in vain to do something - anything - while some creep in a competing sub taunts us over the intercom. By trip's end, I'll admit, I've bought into the concept - it's fun to play live, in the same room as one's fellow gamers - but I'm also a bit bored, fairly frustrated, and longing for the deeply immersive VR confusion of Cybergate or Battletech's rampant unapologetic violence.
Not that any of this stuff, mind you, comes close to touching my own experiential benchmark, Pirates of the Caribbean. Christ, I think, cruising back up Santa Monica Boulevard to my hotel, I can hear the slap of water on the hull now, feel the damp, cool breeze against my cheek, see with a child's wide eyes those leering puppet faces.
But today, you're thinking, you are nominally a grown-up, and you cannot see with a child's eyes. So to be fair, after my first stab at Loch Ness, I solicited a 6-year-old boy's opinion. The kid frowned, oblivious to Iwerks' PR. "It wouldn't move."
__ Number Crunching__
The same might be said of Iwerks' stock, which, after soaring from 13 to 38 during an initial public offering last October, plunged a month later back below 13. Perhaps that indicates second thoughts on the part of the Realies' myriad bandwagon-jumping investors.
Still, the Iwerks Virtual Adventures concept, despite its "multimillion-dollar" R&D costs and iffy initial execution, has several advantages that render it a beacon for the Realie masses.
The first involves the experience industry's awakening to the politically correct '90s. The most important realization in the early history of the Realies may turn out to be the one reached by Brad Hunt and his graphics hounds down at San Diego's Angel Studios: The same algorithms used to simulate a screaming jet fighter can, with minor tweaking, also mimic a swimming dolphin. This is a dramatic idea because women simply do not play video games - especially when they involve violence.
Thus the Realies' looming feminization. Bob Stone promised that Vision of Reality's Cybergate designers are studying ways to adapt their fighter simulations to "nonviolent scenarios." The makers of Battletech are now working on Hull Pressure, a new exploring-Atlantis game for its basic module, which Tim Disney calls "the Outward Bound of virtual reality," since it rewards cooperation between players rather than the usual ruthless butchery. And then there's Loch Ness, with its interdependent players, save-the-Nessie-egg enviro-theme and pacific, goop-squirting "weapons."
The one trait common to all the Realies seems to be the per-play price tag: a strikingly uniform dollar-a-minute estimate for a strikingly uniform eight- to ten-minute game. Now, the Loch Ness Adventure, with six people per capsule and four capsules per game, will have a fairly high throughput of, say, around US$200 per run (if the game is full, that is).
But others, like Cybergate's five or six single jets per game run and Battletech's eight solo players, don't look quite so fiscally enticing.
Think about it. These games require ten or fifteen minutes of downtime to get people in and out, bear additional attendant costs (they require human support, unlike the traditional stand-alone coin-ops like Ms. Pac-Man) and have yet to prove they can attract a broad range of consumers.
Next, consider the money it took to create them. Hard numbers are impossible to come by, but estimates I was given put the average cost for one of today's Realies runs from several million for a low-end machine up to $50 or $60 million for large-scale, multiplayer systems (pressed for a figure, several executives told me simply - and a bit wearily - "many millions of dollars"). So, if some 25 companies are each spending upwards of $50 million on current projects, that leaves us with an investment estimate (probably quite low) of well over a billion dollars.
And that's all just beginning.
__ Reusability, Reprogrammability__
So, uh ... where do profits come from? Start with reusability, the solution to what Tim Disney, clearly with a little Freudian glee, likes to call the Tomorrowland Problem (no matter what you do to it, it looks like yesterday's vision of the future). If you build a roller coaster, you've got a roller coaster: It costs millions of dollars and takes up hundreds of acres. And when people get bored with it ... well, you still have a roller coaster.
Which means you have a problem. "We have enormous appetites for novelty," says industry analyst Paul Saffo. "Public tastes change more quickly than you can recoup your real estate investment."
The Realies, however, utilize interior space, thus saving big bucks in both physical space and hardware. In installed costs, says Kinsey, Loch Ness is "less than a high-end roller coaster." And when people get tired of it, Iwerks just installs a new program and repaints the pod. "The idea at Cinetropolis," says Kinsey, "is to change the software every three to four months."
And so is engendered the Realie industry's Holy Grail: the Urban Theme Park. Why spend God-knows-what putting up another clumsy, sprawling, immutable-content theme park like Six Flags or Great Adventure when you can just slap a few VR games into a storefront? "During the day Cinetropolis is geared toward family," Kinsey says, "and at night it's a rock 'n' roll theme park."
Reprogrammable interior space also allows a higher percentage of the development costs to go toward content, which is what matters most in the first place. Once you've developed and installed the basic platform, financially speaking, you're close to home free.
That is, as long as you have good software. "We see these products evolving," Kinsey says, "because unlike a roller coaster, we can tell a story." The Turbotour Robocop, for instance, tells a tale (albeit a lame one - something about helping Robocop save the kidnapped mayor of Detroit) that wasn't in any of the actual movies. "We've created something that competes with the movie theater that's not a movie theater," says Kinsey.
He pauses and smiles. "It's more of an event."
__ SGI: Pan-makers Extraordinaire__
But will it be an event that makes money - and if so, on how broad a scale? Industry analyst Lawrence Wilkinson counts himself among the skeptics. "I look at this utility and I think, 'You've got to be kidding.' Yeah, it's amazing to play immersive video games. But is it going to be as large as karaoke?"
That's arguable - but regardless, most of the prospectors swarming this gold rush will go home broke; the only person certain to turn a profit is the guy who sells the pans. In this case, the pan-makers are Tom Garland's Advanced Graphics Division at Silicon Graphics, Inc., whose Reality Engines - graphics systems housed in supercomputers - have become the essential development tool for Realie creators. "We've gone from a $100 million to a $1 billion business in a year," Garland says. "I've never seen an opportunity expand so fast.... We just want to be the battery," he says peaceably. "It's up to them to figure out who can make the best car."
Garland divides the Realie revolution into three likely phases. We're now in Phase One - Technology - start-ups spending big bucks on projected systems, head-mounted displays, workstations, and motion-based pods. In Phase Two - Content - technology continues its inexorable march down the price curve, and the focus shifts to who's delivering more fun for the buck. "The ante to enter the market stays the same," says Garland. "It starts at a few million." But the cash buys a lot more quality, so it'll be easier for small developers to catch up. And so the barometer of success shifts from technology to the experience it provides. New games don't make money anymore - only great ones do. "Super Mario," says Garland, "didn't sell millions of copies because the mushrooms were texture-mapped."
Phase Three begins when the big boys - large, content-rich companies like Sony, Sega, and Paramount - either buy out the Phase Two winners or jump into the game themselves.
Your average amusement park's throughput requirements demand short, passive attractions; a theme park's profitability depends on its ability to cycle through teeming hordes who want to have the whole experience the first time they try out the ride - Illinois tourists in for the weekend who only cruise Pirates of the Caribbean once.
But smaller venues, whose market derives almost entirely from within a twenty-mile radius, don't need to cycle through quite so many people, and they thrive on game-player obsession. Their Realies will be more complex and interactive than larger-scale, theme-park attractions; they're after local fanatics who want a more intense experience that they'll need to play over and over, like crazed Battletech regulars, in order to acquire enough knowledge to really kick ass. Smaller venues are designed for repeat business and the devotional communities it creates.
Indeed, suggests Saffo, the most important question we should ask about the Realies is why people really want to play them. Saffo's answer: "Group mania. It's in our nature. In an age when we can access the world from our living rooms, we're going to value shared experience more than ever." Realies, he says, "are just the next upping of the ante."
Seen in that light, it's not surprising that the companies now making the biggest investment splash are corporate giants who in recent years have watched cultural fragmentation send their profit margins into flatline: movie studios looking to boost their income through vertically integrated product lines, old-style retailers threatened by home shopping, and casino operators scrambling for new crowd-drawing lures. The Realies may end up serving more as loss leaders than anything else.
__ Luxor: The Realies Hit Vegas__
The opening weekend of Luxor Las Vegas offers a prime example of Realie as consumer-aimed bug-zapper. While my fellow journalists wander starry-eyed through the empty, pristine casino getting drunk and losing money at craps, I wander around getting drunk, losing money at craps and sampling Luxor's phalanx of high-tech Realie attractions. I thrill to the Sega Arcade's R360 gyroscope flight simulator (oh great, another flight simulator), which spins you around so thoroughly you lose all track of the space fighter you're supposed to be flying; I ride, along with feebly nervous celebrity guest Teri Garr, the motion-based AS1 multiperson space shuttle player, a gently rocking, mostly passive, eight-person space flight hosted via video screen by Michael Jackson (er, they yanked him out once the sex scandal hit); and then move to VirtuaRacing, which allows six side-by-side stock car drivers to pitch and roll while racing each other on the full-size video screens facing the cars - a marked improvement on Pole Position, but hardly a Disneyland-shaking revolution.
Next I wander over to longtime cinematic adventurer Doug Trumbull's Past, Present, and Future attractions: cinema's first inauspicious steps (all right, maybe John Waters' Odorama was the first inauspicious step) into participatory moviegoing. Part One, In Search of the Obelisk, crowds the Vegas masses through a faux ancient-Egyptian hallway and onto a rising platform facing a large, curved movie screen for a dumb archeological adventure.
From there we move on to Luxor Live, a "virtual" talk show whose studio audience watches the same bland characters from Part One chatting up a hackneyed Hollywood host in a clever melding of a physical stage and a video screen. Part Three, the Theater of Time, consists of a seven-story theater (the world's tallest, not that it helps), which takes the strapped-in audience, gently rocking, into a heaven-and-hell view of mankind's alternative futures.
Yawning my way through past, present, and future, I can't help but think that, despite all this new movie tech, I would have been more lost in the experience - more immersed, if you will - watching Terms of Endearment on a six-inch black-and-white screen. Sorry, fans - the Trumbull attractions had boring and barely coherent stories. They may pull in crowds of Vegas-intoxicated sensation junkies, but it's hard to see in them the makings of an entertainment revolution. It's the content, stupid.
__ Edison: Marketeers' Dreams__
So what software should the Realie creators be seeking? Experiences that give people a sense of community. Games like Loch Ness, which, for all the initial difficulties it presents, seems to have the basic idea right. Or like Battletech, which sends its teenage fanatics into the street laughing, comparing notes on who blew more limbs off whom.
At this point, marketing analysts tell us, teens then spend the rest of their money on shoes and sport clothes. Edison Brothers, a conglomerate that owns and operates a chain of 3,000 young men's apparel and women's footwear stores, also happens to be America's largest purveyor of VR entertainment systems, running a dozen Virtuality Centers featuring the 3-D chessboard combat VR game Dactyl Nightmare, 138 more ordinary arcades, five large-scale Exhilarama entertainment arcades and 40 Spaceport arcades, purchased from Sega. "Our retailing," Andy Halliday says, "is focused on young, single, dating customers who spend a high proportion of their disposal income on apparel and entertainment. We're just going after other dollars that they happen to spend."
Quite a departure from shoe stores, right? Halliday doesn't think so. "This is retailing," he says. "The product category is food and beverage and entertainment. There's a great synergy between merchandising and entertainment."
Several people I spoke with implied that Edison's Virtuality Centers (a total of 9,000 machines purchased at a cost of $65,000 apiece) haven't yet turned a profit. Halliday says they have, at least peripherally. "They're window dressers," he says, "the pair of shoes that goes in the corner front window of a shoe store. Nobody's going to buy them, but it gets people in the door."
And thus will the Realies flourish, at least for a time: high-tech, synergistic loss leaders drawing in customers like flies to honey, both for themselves and for the more traditional product lines whose continued viability they support by providing that heart-beats-faster frisson, that bulwark against the boredom at the end of the consumer rainbow.
My tour of duty ended, I find myself as ambivalent about the Realie revolution as I was when I began. Yeah, some of the games - most notably Battletech - were cool, but they're all still so utterly indoors, in the dark, inside modules and pods. You clamber out of them eyes smarting, stretching your limbs. No doubt the technology will continue to improve, the games will get wilder, the content weightier, the simulations more vivid. The Urban Theme Park is too commercially viable an idea not find its own profitable place in civilization's Experience constellation.
After visiting Visions of Reality near San Diego, I stopped by the ocean before getting back onto the highway north to LA. I took off my shoes and walked down the sand in my bare feet. It was a typically sunny California day, and, crouching in the warm sand under the sun at the edge of the Pacific, I felt healthy and joyful in a way, by definition, that no imaginable Realie simulation could ever capture.
The body yearns for recreation that embraces physicality. We want bumper cars and go-carts, not Sega's VirtuaRacing. We want Pirates more than Loch Ness. We want ping pong, not Pong. But on a planet hosting five billion humanoids (and counting), interior space and virtual adventure may become endemic to societies sorely challenged by vanishing resources and diminishing expectations; simulated experience may merely be our consolation prize in the wake of a disappearing real thing. The real message of the Realies may be that it's a small world, after all.