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Lights, camera, action at pop-up virtual reality theater

Maskerade gives moviegoers shared thrills and spills.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  August 5, 2016

2016-Maskerade

Moviegoers at Maskerade. Photo: Nick Page

Today, most people experience virtual reality alone, but Riley Clubb, MBA ’17, has created a virtual reality theater that gives viewers a social, synchronized experience. Clubb opened Maskerade, a 12-seat pop-up theater in Walla Walla, Washington, that resembles more of an art gallery than a movie theater.

Wearing synchronized Samsung Gear VR headsets and headphones, viewers pay between $8 and $12 to be whisked away on a trip around the world, explore a haunted house, or travel to Burning Man festival, all while they scream, laugh, and chat with one another in a shared theater experience.

Clubb created Maskerade in senior lecturer Bill Aulet’s New Enterprises class last year, where he also worked with fellow MBA students Jennifer Lee and Eileen Parra on developing a business plan for a virtual reality production and distribution company that would focus on performing arts and live theater.

“By the end of the semester, our focus had shifted toward solving the ‘social’ problem of virtual reality, to designing new physical environments where people can have a premium virtual reality experience that they can’t find at home,” Clubb said.

About 200 viewers have visited Maskerade Walla Walla since it opened July 1. Clubb will close the experimental theater before he returns to MIT Sloan this fall, where he will work on his next endeavor—a mixed reality theater startup. Mixed reality is the merging of real and virtual worlds to create a new environment.

Clubb recently discussed his work on the Maskerade concept.

Is Maskerade really the “world’s first virtual reality theater”?

Absolutely. There is a cinema in Amsterdam where you can experience virtual reality with other people in the room. However, no one is watching the same thing at the same time. In my opinion that is more like a virtual reality café than anything else. To my knowledge, Maskerade is the only virtual reality theater in the world that offers a social, synchronized experience.

Describe the experience.

When people enter the theater, I greet them with the first movie ever made, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” which is a French film. It is a single shot of a train moving toward the camera on choppy, silent, black-and-white film, but when it first came out in 1896, it sent people screaming from the theater. I like to show that film because I think virtual reality is at a similar moment where people take what they are experiencing as real, as if it is actually happening to them, and the responses are great.

After this introduction, everyone is seated in swivel chairs and they don their headsets and headphones. The headphones are open-back, meaning that the audio from the “real reality” can mix with the audio from the virtual reality. This makes it possible to communicate with others during the show, which is an interesting thing to observe, since it goes against all social norms of appropriate audience behavior.

2016-Riley Clubb Riley Clubb, MBA ’17. Photo: Nick Page

What movies are shown?

“Black Rock,” directed by Rus Gant, which was produced on location at the 2015 Burning Man festival, has been the feature experience at Maskerade this summer. I have been rotating other “pre-feature shorts” like “The Conjuring 2,” a horror film.

Who is your typical customer?

Some of my customers are middle-aged wine tourists from Seattle, others are 13-year-olds celebrating their birthdays, and some are a wide cross-section of generations from one large family. The single most likely description of my customers is that it is their first time experiencing anything in virtual reality.

What did you learn from the Maskerade experiment?

I learned that flying solo with a startup is really hard, and far less desirable than I thought it would be. I learned that the business model for virtual reality exhibition can and should be very different from the current system set up by Hollywood, for reasons related to the experience as well as profitability. I also learned there is real value to experiencing another reality at the same time as your friends and family.