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Las Vegas' immersive future will get a kick-start with AREA15

A field trip and a peek at the space that's opening later this year.

Las Vegas' AREA15 opens this spring: we got a very early peek at the space.

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

I'm standing across the highway in Las Vegas, hotels in the distance, hard hat on. I'm in an industrial complex. Ahead of me is a massive warehouse labeled AREA15. No, not Area 51 -- this is a future immersive art and entertainment complex announced in 2018, with an opening planned sometime this spring. 

I'm taking a break from CES in Vegas to check this out because I'm dying to know what's in here. Meow Wolf, the hit Santa Fe art collective, is planning its first Las Vegas installation inside this place. But I don't get to see any of that yet. What I'm walking through is just the massive space inside AREA15. It's cavernous, and I keep imagining what sorts of wild installations could fit inside.

AREA15 will also have lots of immersive attractions: a bar/arcade From San Francisco called Emporium, location-based VR from a company called Nomadic, ax-throwing, a bar with a giant glowing LED-lit tree, local art. That's the promise. Intel has also just announced it's building an "Experience Incubation Hub" at the Area 15 complex to help build immersive experiences for retail, with early partners including knitwear company Variant and storytelling gift company Papinee.

Video: A peek inside Area 15, Vegas' upcoming immersive playground

"AREA15 is a 200,000 square foot warehouse of innovation and content and cool shit," AREA15 CEO Winston Fisher tells me. "The idea is from the outside it does look like this bunker, and when you walk in it's like it's almost a portal, you're transported into this world of really innovative experiences. What does that mean? It's a mall inspired experience, free to enter, free to park. But when you enter, through the spine, to the left and right are our tenants. Our tenants are primarily....immersive-type tenants."

A look from the outside at the entrance.

James Martin/CNET

Meow Wolf's AREA15 space alone is 50.000 square feet, and 40,000 square feet is available for others to use for concerts or other events, according to Fisher. There's 32,000 square feet outside, and a projection-mapped ballroom space in the back.

What surprises me is how Las Vegas doesn't really have anything like AREA15 yet. I've become addicted to immersive experiences over the last few years, and I've seen some great things in New York and London, in pop-up installations, in theater events and at festivals like Tribeca. Los Angeles has become an immersive hotbed, too. Oddly, Vegas isn't so much. There aren't large-scale theater experiences here like the long-running Sleep No More in New York, which spans five stories and also has a restaurant/club. Want evidence of Vegas' relative lack of immersive art? Scan immersive site No Proscenium and compare cities for yourself.

Maybe that's because Las Vegas is already inherently strange and immersive. But every time I visit, I see sprawling hotels, big old-fashioned theater spectacles, and upscale restaurants...and not much else.

"Tech is a big part of this -- how do we use tech?" Fisher says. "Tech is an enhancement to the experience...it is not the experience."

This Henry Chang steel art car will be in AREA15, along with other local artworks.

James Martin/CNET

I toured AREA15's spaces with Intel's IoT Group VP, Joe Jensen, and AREA15's Fisher. We started in the design showcase building, which had a handful of funky art pieces like a dancing video cube, and walls of conceptual art. AREA15's Fisher shows me the maps of what the venue is modeled to be and gets excited about bringing in art. A giant projection-mapped skull in the room, and a glowing steel art car by Vegas artist Henry Chang that looms in the corner, are some of the installations that will be inside. Some parts of AREA15 will be indoor, some outdoor. There will be location-based VR and AR projects and some flexibility to possibly bring in other immersive experiences over time, like a curated theme park or art museum. 

Then I walked through the corridors of the unfinished space. I wasn't allowed to photograph the third dedicated to Meow Wolf at all. It's...a lot of space.

There's a lot of space in here...it's just not filled yet.

James Martin/CNET

Intel sees AREA15 as a chance to explore how malls and other retail venues could evolve. AREA15 seems to be taking an open approach, too.

"It's a campus," Fisher says about the space and how he sees using it. "We are purpose-built for the immersive economy. We're not trying to fix what's broken: we've created space that works. It's flexible...we have the ability to morph."

It's AREA15's promised commitment to art and flexibility to work with new immersive experiences that interests me most, because I already see hints of immersive art entering Vegas along its seams.

It's hard to tell how flexible it all will be, or how much it will seem like the sensory-saturated hotels and lounges that Vegas is already submersed in.

AREA15 will already have a Meow Wolf experience. Could it be the home for an installation like a Sleep No More, eventually, too? Or will it be more like Los Angeles' reinvented arcade space, Two Bit Circus? Or will it be a bit of both? 

AREA15 isn't the only new, bold immersive space coming to Las Vegas. The MSG Sphere, already under construction, will have a giant glowing bubble for futuristic concerts. Location-based VR attractions are already peppered everywhere, too. But it feels like the first wave of a lot many more changes to come.

The billboard, up and running, says what AREA15 isn't.

James Martin/CNET

Later that day, I put on a VR backpack and entered The Void, a location-based virtual reality space tucked alongside The Venetian hotel's artificial canals, where I played with four people in an escape-room virtual version of Jumanji, solving puzzles, crossing crocodile-filled rivers and edging along cliffs. And later that night, I sat down at an immersive dinner hosted by Incite, the fictional new company in the third season of Westworld. The immersive dinner experience was invite-only and a marketing event rather than a permanent attraction. But its hypnotic mix of dining with strangers and actors, who knew more about me than I expected, felt like the type of immersive night fun in Vegas that I've been dying to have. Why not have these types things at larger scales? The pieces are arriving, slowly. AREA15 feels like a model for where Vegas should go next. 

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