With immersive theater growing across the globe, Haunting had the unique opportunity to speak with Jay Kong of Illuthion, a leading immersive company founded in China. Read below for more information on Illuthion, China as an emerging immersive market, and some of the work they have produced.
In your own words, what is Illuthion?
We call ourselves a dream-making company that creates immersive experiences for scenic spots, theme parks, commercial real estates and various commercial spaces in China. Illuthion has been established for two-and-a-half years. Our team members come from various industries such as film, theme parks, IP licensing, etc. Though we contribute expertise from our past experiences, everyone here aspires to be a generalist, because there is only one position in our company. That is dream-maker. A dream-maker is responsible for both creating and managing immersive experiences. Our business is mainly based on B-to-B service solving two key problems for commercial entities for our local market.
First, it is well known that the Chinese mobile market is mature and almost every demand can be satisfied on networks while traditional shopping malls, museums and various activities have lost their attraction to young people. We help these spaces become more interesting by adding various types of immersive experiences.
Second, tourism has become an emerging and booming market since last year. After the merging of Chinese ministry of culture and tourism and national policies, venture capital investors and real estate developers are optimistic and continue to raise capital in this industry. Even our government has encouraged resources to develop Characteristic Towns in the countryside to control the overgrowth of the real-estate industry. Though Characteristic Towns are called “characteristic,” in fact, many scenic spots in China are not literally characteristic. High-quality experiences are still extremely lacking. Therefore, Illuthion is developing a series of projects in the form of Immersive World.
The concept of Immersive World is similar to HBO’s Westworld. We have constructed different Chinese-style virtual worlds for our clients according to the history and our imagination of scenic spots. Some of our clients have many different scenic spots. We also develop stories to connect all the different virtual worlds, like the Marvel Universe, where each story exists independently and has a unified and continuous world behind it. In the space aspect, we make the scope of the experience bigger and bigger in Immersive World, while in the time aspect, we extend the immersive experiences to a lifelong period. Stories from Immersive World drift with time. The players will constantly receive information from that world via social networks and other media. They can be pushed into and revisit the world at any time. If you’re going to make a comparison, I think Evermore Park in Utah is similar to our Immersive World concept. We are planning four Immersive Worlds for our clients. The themes are a human-AI war, Chinese myth, horror world and Prosperous Dynasty. We are also working on some smaller immersive experiences such as Secret of Tang Palace, Infection and the immersive museum on water.
Tell us more about the immersive space in China.
The word “immersive,” or “immersion,” is widely known in China and has been misused even. Many exhibitions and business events use it as a marketing buzzword. Those Instagram-worthy immersive pop-ups and immersive performances using mapping projection or other new-media technology, but without sense of interaction, are controversial. Subjectively, the meaning of “immersive” is blurrier for more and more people now.
Our marketing is growing fast. It is difficult to compare the scale of market between China and U.S. for I lack of revenue data of both countries. But I can say some other data for reference. By September 2018, the number of companies producing immersive experiences is about 210 and the number of projects is about 380 (same projects in different areas are not double-counted). You could see immersive LBE (such as immersive real-life game, immersive escape room, murder mysteries, LARP and ARG), immersive new-media art and immersive theater almost represent what is Immersive or Immersion all in China. Some Chinese media has estimated that the scale of Chinese immersive industry will reach 100 billion RMB in 2022, according to Chinese overall offline entertainment market scale.
On the other hand, there are over 5,400 escape rooms in China. Less than 1.4% of escape rooms are immersive experiences. China Escape Room Industry Association was established last year and there are many platforms of introducing and promoting new escape rooms. Almost all the first-tier cities have their own hardcore communities for escape rooms. There is a new form of trip called Escape Room Expedition. Players travel to a city just for the purpose of playing escape rooms all day. But in the core immersive market, platforms and communities like Haunting and NoProscenium haven’t been gathered yet. I cannot find any activities making chemical reactions like FOST (Future of Storytelling) Summit or the Immersive Design Summit here.
In addition, there is a very special kind of immersive experience called “Immersive Show.” They usually appear in scenic spots and theme parks with huge tourist flow. The audiences have no seats and can enter the live stage to watch the performance closely. The capability of some Immersive Shows are over a thousand people. It’s a simple solution for large-scale immersive experiences, but with less interaction.
Medium-scale projects, like Sleep No More, are in small number and most of them are imported from abroad. Small-scale immersive experiences, with less than 20 people, are the norm here.
Los Angeles sees an explosion of immersive theater during the Halloween seasons, do you see the same there?
There are many immersive haunted escape rooms in southwest Chinese cities such as Chongqing, Kunming and Guiyang, where people have a hardcore horror culture. But there are no well-customized immersive experiences for Halloween like Creep LA or Delusion. A lot of malls and theme parks have made some Halloween-related activities whose main purpose is not bringing people to experience horror or Halloween’s culture, but just providing an occasion for them to take selfies or a reason to do something crazy which they dare not do usually. Extreme haunted houses do not exist in China because most themes in extreme haunts are politically sensitive in China such as cult, terrorist, kidnapping, torture, etc. If these contents are not handled well, they will cross the boundaries of Chinese penal law so that no one would dare to try. Personally, I really like the concept in extreme haunts of breaking the security boundary and bringing people the feeling of inner fear. I have been thinking about how to optimize and change the extreme format in China, but no action has been taken so far.
How is safety handled?
Waivers are invalid under Chinese law. Direct contacts between players and actors are not allowed in most immersive experiences in China mainly for security aspects. However, many details of Chinese projects still need to be improved. For example, no project puts a warning on its front door to remind the players of some potential risky contents like what 17th Door has done. Few projects will deliberately buy insurance for players. Fortunately, players rarely have security issues. But staff are often beaten or harassed, that has bothered many creators and operators of immersive experiences. There are no effective solutions yet.
In terms of company registration, location-based entertainment projects, including immersive experiences, cannot find a specified company category in China. You can choose to register an indoor theme park company, but the entry conditions are too high. Therefore, most creators choose to register the company as a general premises. It works well as long as the fire control requirements are met. Currently, the government is conducting more content censorship on the internet and mass distribution channels. But they don’t censor offline content including immersive experiences unless someone tips off them.
There is a difference between Chinese projects and the U.S.’s projects. There are many short-term and site-specific projects in the U.S. while Chinese creators mainly choose to open permanent projects. It’s not hard for them to find a space for immersive experiences.
What inspired you to dive into the immersive space?
My last co-founded company was a CGI production company that produced feature films, animation serials and visual effects for Hollywood and the local market all year round. In the process of outsourcing service, I found myself getting further and further away from creating exciting content. When my company was acquired by Dreamworks in 2014, I began to look for new directions. At the very beginning, I built an in-house system called ACGBUG, which is an information-collection and analyzing system about future entertainment using deep-learning technology. Over time, contents of immersive experiences grew.
The first immersive experiences that attracted me were, of course, Sleep No More and Then She Fell. What’s more, a lot of immersive experiences appeared almost at the same time such as ARG Ingress (produced by Niantic Labs), Forest Lumina (which is the first version of Moment Factory’s new-media interactive immersive experience), Tokyo Metro Escape (which is an open-space escape game in subway stations), immersive horror theater Delusion, immersive school (whose concept is based on World of Warcraft), Witches’ School (which is a Harry Potter-style LARP), etc.
I have experienced almost all the resident immersive experiences in China and some of the overseas projects, except for L.A. ones. But L.A. has always been a shrine to my heart and many of the projects are on my to-do list.
How does your background in filmmaking and CGI help your immersive design process?
First of all, except for narrative mode and narrative frame, the early process of developing immersive experiences and developing films is similar including visual development, character setting, etc. We even set the story for each prop, which is inherited from my filmmaking experiences. Secondly, the film industry is rigorous and orderly; I transfer the whole project management mode to our immersive production management. It’s the same reason that we develop and maintain the ACGBUG database. We want to find methodologies through research rather than relying on dream-makers’ personal creativity.
How do you aim to immerse your guests? What do you want them to leave with?
Following the above question, we’re trying to find methodologies for everything. Therefore, we summarize a feature pyramid of immersive experience based on our past projects. From the surface to the core, we have listed five levels of contents. Each level of content has its specific implementation standards. Generally speaking, the aim of our immersive design is making our customers feel happy. It’s the entertainment value of our immersive experiences. What’s more challenging for us is getting our customers to feel growth in the experiences. In other words, before and after participating in our projects, the customers experience some changes in emotion, cognition, perception and even some moments of epiphany. It is hard for us to achieve this level and actually we don’t reach this standard in all projects, but we always keep it in mind to add such design.
What is the interactivity between guests and the world? Specifically in Fall Into Mist, which contains a “death” element.
Fall Into Mist is a small, client-commissioned project whose theme is tomb survival. All the formats of our design are solving specific commercial concerns. When we take over the project from our client, we also get his expectation. That is creating an immersive experience in a 210 sqm space which should contain more than 40 players per hour. And the players’ experience shouldn’t end in 2 minutes like a normal haunted house. It takes longer for the players to experience deeper contents, so we set the experience time to 20 minutes. Does it sound like an impossible mission?
We designed six immersive spaces for Fall Into Mist. Players need to complete some simple puzzles and interactive installations in each space to enter the next one, so that we can control the length of experience time for each player. We added the “death mechanism” as well to prevent people from being unable to solve the puzzle. If the player cannot finish the interactive game on time or is caught by monsters in the ancient tomb, he will “die” in the game. God of Death will take the failing player outside the game space. If he wants, he can challenge the game again for free. That’s why we can keep the players moving to the next room in 4 minutes. Actors work as monsters in ancient tombs and their main job is to catch the players. In order to make Fall Into Mist funnier for players, we reduced the difficulty of the puzzles, instead adding many physical and multi-sensory experiences in it such as all-dark groping, water dropping, earthquake, suspension bridge, treasure grabbing, crossing the rope array, etc.