Blow Your Socks Off!

The $900,000 “interactive theatre” at the Atlantic Technology Centre has attracted the attention of the Auditor General. In their annual report, they say, in part:

We noted that an independent consultant was engaged to conduct a study of the interactive multimedia theatre. The study concluded that this type of cinema required high traffic volume in the form of paid admissions to be financially viable. The study also concluded that other revenue sources, such as businesses and research organizations using the technology for development purposes, did not appear to offer a volume and price combination which would justify the capital investment.

They were additionally critical that the process of approving the addition of the theatre did not receive proper oversight:

We noted that in the Treasury Board submission of August 2002 there is no reference to the consultant’s report on the feasibility of the interactive theatre. The submission does not request approval to add the interactive theatre rather it is stated that the theatre area has been upgraded. No evidence of approval beyond the level of the project team was provided to us.

Which sounds an awful like “rather than asking for permission to build the theatre, the project managers simply pretended it was already there, and asked for money to make it better.”

At this point you may be wondering, as I did, what exactly an “interactive theatre” is.

I called the Atlantic Technology Centre and asked. They directed me to the website of Immersion Studios, the Toronto-based company that provided the technology for the theatre. The company says this is what they do:

We blend entertainment with real life concepts through mind-boggling graphics, simulations, interactive games and other tools to engage the audience.

Specifically, an “immersion theatre” is described like this:

The Immersion Cinema is the top of the line product in our family of group interactive solutions. The experience takes place in a high definition digital panoramic environment with ‘blow your socks off’ content and a high impact Dolby Digital surround sound.
The audience interacts with the large screen through touch-screens through group cooperation, competitive games and personal exploration. Typical installations include 25 to 50 consoles, each seating two people. Consoles can be added.
We can configure the Immersion Cinema with one or three screens to accommodate your budget. You’ll be surprised to find out how cost-effective the Immersion Cinema is for the quality experience it provides. For perspective, a single-screen Immersion Cinema with 25 consoles to sit 50 people per show is US $275,000.

Immersion Studios’ installation in the Atlantic Technology Centre is highlighted on their website as a “Client Sucess Story”:

This year we have also installed a 30 — console Immersion Cinema experience at the Atlantic Technology Centre in PEI, bringing high-impact interactive entertainment to the smallest Canadian province.

We Islanders paid $900,000 for those 30 seats, which is $30,000 a seat (and $9.25 per elector).

I asked the Atlantic Technology Centre whether I could actually go to the theatre and experience for myself. They told me that regular programming, run by summer students, is set to begin around July 1, and run all summer long. In the meantime, groups can rent the theatre for $3.50/person for one show, or $5.00/person for two shows.

Is it any wonder that the economics of this theatre were described by the initial consultant as not appearing “to offer a volume and price combination which would justify the capital investment.” At $30,000 capital cost per seat, and a $3.50/seat cost for a show, each seat has to be sold 8,751 times to recoup the capital cost.

Assuming a wild runaway success of 100% occupancy for every day of the 60-day tourist season, 4 shows a day, the payback would take 36 years. Assuming that the “blow your socks off” content is so awesome as to still be blowing socks into 2040.

As controversial as the decision making and financial issues are surrounding the interactive theatre are, it strikes me as more worrisome that anyone in the technocracy thought this was a good idea in the first place. I hope against hope that there’s a good reason for its existence, that, somehow, someone thought it would lead to economic development for the Island.

What I fear, however, is that “immersion theatre” was a way of “sexing up” the Atlantic Technology Centre; that because it involves lots of screens, and lots of complicated buzzwords and gear, and costs a lot, it was reasoned that it must have something to do with “the future,” and there for must be a Good Thing.

Kind of like the New Media Development Centre that we paid $640,000 for in 1998 and the $3.2 million PEI Broadband Network we bought in 1997.

We have none to blame about all this folly but ourselves. Worst case scenario, the development of the technology industry is being led by spendthrifty cheerleaders employed by people we elected who faithfully believe everything they’re told; looked at in a more positive light, we’ve not done our collective part to educate the technology bureaucrats and their political masters about our industry, leaving them no choice but to randomly throw buzzword-laden spaghetti against the wall, with hopes that some of it will stick.


Alan's picture
Alan on March 31, 2004 - 23:09 Permalink

Is that the sound stage that was to be built in the basement according to the early meetings I attended? It was supposed to attract film makers, despite the concurrent closures of soundstages in Nova Scotia.

Jevon's picture
Jevon on April 1, 2004 - 01:13 Permalink

No, it is not. It is a separate facility, on the same floor

Derek Martin's picture
Derek Martin on April 1, 2004 - 14:30 Permalink

I’ll bet the consultant’s report wasn’t cheap either. I’d like to see more writing like this from the actual reporters in this province.

Daniel's picture
Daniel on April 1, 2004 - 15:33 Permalink

Was the decision for this made exactly two years ago from today? Hmm… that might explain it.