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Meet the Illuminarium: The multisensory theater that makes IMAX look prehistoric

“When you walk in, you will feel like you are there,” said Alan Greenberg. “You see it with the best projection systems in the world. You hear it with what we think is the best, [most] technologically advanced sound systems in the world. You feel it through the low frequency haptic systems in our floor. You smell it through our sense systems. And you actually affect it; you’re part of the narrative through our lidar-based interactive [technology]. You put all that together, and we really capture your entire visual central framework in a way that no place that I know of has done [before].”

What is Illuminarium? :60 sec

Greenberg is describing the Illuminarium, a forthcoming, breakthrough multimedia venue that promises to transport users into immersive virtual environments — from the plains of Africa to deep underwater environments to trips to other planets — without the requirement that visitors don VR glasses to enjoy them. Instead, guests will walk into a cavernous space in which high-definition video is projected onto walls 22 feet tall and 350 feet wide, augmented with a plethora of high-end special effects, such as in-floor vibrations and scent release. Picture something between a next-gen Imax and a cutting edge theme park exhibit, and you won’t be too far off.

Exterior of an Illuminarium location.

A serial entrepreneur in his early 70s, the Atlanta-based Greenberg speaks with the kind of confident, breezy enthusiasm that — based on the $110 million that Illuminarium has so far secured in funding — makes investors pay out like a 1997 gamble on Amazon stock. He spits out pitch deck-polished gems when he talks about his latest venture. “It’s designed to be a place that can take you anyplace,” he told Digital Trends. He politely barrages you with a list of impressively important-sounding partners. Radical Media, the folks who produced Hamilton for Disney+, are involved. So is the founder of the Rockwell Group, which helped design the upmarket chain of Nobu restaurants frequented by the great and the good.

“We’re building a global, experiential entertainment company,” Greenberg said. “We think it will be one of the most prodigious entertainment companies in the world. And we hope that, you know, five or six years from today, there’ll be 50 Illuminariums [people can visit].”

The best of the best

One of Greenberg’s most important creative assets on the project is Brian Allen, Illuminarium’s EVP of Technology and Content. “[Immersive] experiences have been around many, many years,” Allen told Digital Trends. “But I think we’re at a point with technology in many facets and verticals — audio, video, lighting, show control — where we can actually layer a lot of those facets together and create something that’s very, very interesting from an audience perspective. As creators, it gives us a huge tool set to be able to basically bring reality into a space, but also take you to a fantasy land.”

One of Allen’s jobs was to go around the world assembling a crack team of technical partners who could lend their groundbreaking expertise for everything from amazing video projection to hyper-localized beamforming audio to lidar that’s able to detect the location of visitors and trigger interactions depending on what they’re doing.

Cross-section of an Illuminarium location showing different exhibits.

“I can’t just go to a manufacturer and say, ‘Hey, I just want to buy your product,’” Allen said. “I went to these manufacturers and said, ‘Hey, I need a relationship with you. Because where we’re going, we need to iterate together.’ These providers had not only great technology but great foresight on what was coming into this space.”

Illuminarium refers to its immersive experiences as “spectacles.” The first will be a safari spectacle, taking visitors across Africa on a journey similar to one that Greenberg took with his own family many years ago. “My kids still talk about it as the best, greatest experience of their lives,” he said. After this will come a spacewalk spectacle, still currently in production. “Literally, you will be walking on the surface of the moon,” Greenberg explained. “And when you do, you’ll be kicking up moon dust and leaving footprints.” The goal, he said, is “democratize the most extraordinary experiences in the world” (or, evidently, out of it).

Of course, as a LASIK surgeon might say, there’s more to life than just spectacles. “We do our big spectacles during the day,” Greenberg continued. “But at night we, in essence, flip a switch and the Illuminarium is transformed into the coolest bar in town. We call it the Illuminarium After Dark experience. You’ll walk in off the high street and, one night, you’ll be having a drink at the bottom of the ocean. Then you come back two weeks later and you’re in the Shibuya Night Market. And two weeks later you’re in the Himalayas.”

The first Illuminarium opens in Atlanta next month. After that, a second will follow in Las Vegas at the end of 2021. Six months later Miami joins the party. The company has just signed a letter of intent for a “really cool location in Chicago” as well. Plans are afoot for Mexico and Spain. New Zealand, Australia, China are in the works, too. And, lest the rest of the world feels it’s missing out, “certainly we want to be in London, Paris, Moscow, etc.,” he noted.

Get ready for the world to be Illuminated.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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