What happens when a entrepeneur/theme park creator and special effects artist/magician team up? You get a team crazy enough to create the first true virtual reality theme park (sorry, Six Flags). They only have a single experience so far, but it's already taken a giant leap beyond the wonders we've seen in today's consumer virtual reality headsets.
Last week, I took a trip to Lindon, Utah to visit THE VOID's home base. It doesn't look like much more than a standard set of offices attached to a giant warehouse. While that might sound awfully unimpressive, that's actually what makes the place so cool. It looks incredibly mundane, but once you're in their gear, you see how they've figured out how to transform the ordinary into practically anything.
After trying out their first experience, I sat down with THE VOID spokesperson Whitney Thomas to find out how this all happened and where it's headed. You can watch our full interview in the video below. If it doesn't convince you that this company designed a major piece of the future of entertainment, read on and I'll do my best to fix that. After months with the Microsoft HoloLens and too many hours in TiltBrush, I didn't think I would, again, experience a leap in technology like that for several years. THE VOID proved me wrong.
When the Oculus Rift finally created real potential for a consumer virtual reality experience, it had to make many sacrifices. At first it wasn't more than a headset and controller, but then HTC released the Vive and added room scale to the conversation. Even still, these technologies come with several limitations—and we'll get to those later—but almost no one considered what it would take if they didn't. THE VOID saw the possibilities of a far more immersive VR experience and realized they could create it if they sacrificed one thing: home use.
Despite promising experiments, sensory augmentation beyond vision and sound don't really exist in a device consumers can implement in their homes. THE VOID realized it could surpass the current technical limitations if it had complete control over the physical environment outside of a home environment. Through an incredible confluence of machinery and clever software "magic," they manufactured a false reality so convincing that knowing it's fake is next to meaningless. THE VOID will immerse you and create an amazing sense of presence—whether you like it or not.
If you've built a VR rig for the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you know how much power those headsets need to deliver a great experience. Furthermore, that setup comes with several drawbacks. Because Rift and Vive both require connections to the computer, you can only travel so far from the machine before the "leash" on the back of your head will stop you.
We love room scale VR—just like 82% of SteamVR users—but I've personally found the Vive to require at least a little fine-tuning most times I turn it on (and I'm not alone). If you don't wind up paying extra for cameras and motion controllers for the Oculus Rift, you lose out on this great experience altogether. Both products produce some amazing experiences, but they're not plug and play. Early adopters of virtual reality products have their work cut out for them.
Why does this matter? Take a minute and think about the work required to just build a working computer and set up a Vive in your home. (If you need help imagining the frustration, read this and this.) While most people with a fair amount of patience and intelligence can handle this task, it's not for the faint of heart. Now imagine building that all into a backpack that weighs just two pounds more than Apple's tiny intergalactic trash can, the Mac Pro.
That little computer packs a lot of power, but so does a VR rig regardless of its housing. The vests built by THE VOID use powerful CPUs and GPUs, shield those parts from damage and dissipate heat efficiently to avoid harming the user, and run off of a quick-swap battery for about an hour. They also took surround sound headphones and an Oculus Rift—both of which may be replaced by more robust, proprietary alternatives in the future—and created a custom helmet to house them. Oh, and it includes a built-in microphone as well so you can talk to others in the experience with you.
That's just the hardware you wear—and it's shockingly comfortable, in my opinion. Putting on the vest felt like slipping on laser tag gear, except without the awkward shoulder pads and clunky plastic parts. While the suit doesn't provide the absurd flexibility of an Enflux motion controller, it's remarkably light and manageable. Beyond that, you have the event stage for your experience with many cameras tracking your every move.
I went through THE VOID's Ghostbusters: Dimension experience, like the one you can check out now at Madame Tussauds in New York City. The video below will show you a lot of what I saw, but you're missing the point of THE VOID if you're only analyzing the visuals. While I couldn't photograph the stage where the experience took place, I can tell you a bit about how it works (and you can see limited shots in the videos/images in this post). You walk around in an otherwise unremarkable room, but you don't see it.
You see the augmented version in your virtual reality display. When you touch something in the space, you feel it. Walking through a door requires reaching out, touching the door knob, turning it, and walking through. When a virtual object touches you, the experience provides tactile feedback—the vest vibrates. In some cases, you'll feel smoke and temperature changes, such as when Slimer passes through you at the beginning of the game. At the end, should you defeat the final foe, you're rewarded with the undeniable scent of roasted marshmallows.
As impressive as this all may be, it doesn't hold a candle to how THE VOID's software tricks your mind. The experience displays an enormous environment that takes you indoors, outdoors, and through elevators while, in physical reality, you're not moving around all that much. With subtle tricks, you feel like you're rising up in an elevator when you're not moving at all. When you step outside on a ledge, you feel it shake and the air blow past your face. You know you're safe indoors, but good luck telling your brain everything it sees, feels, hears, smells, and touches isn't actually real. THE VOID tricks you into touching the same objects and passing through the same doorways while thinking you're traversing a much larger environment.
On their own, these technological achievements are still impressive. When combined, you end up with the most immersive virtual reality experience currently in existence by far. The only downside is that it's 10 minutes long and feels like it goes by so much faster.
Virtual reality takes a bit of work to set up in the home, but that will change very soon. Microsoft already demonstrated that you can do amazing things out of the box, with next to no setup, with the HoloLens—the company's amazing mixed reality headset. Idealens, Intel, Google, Samsung, and many others are hard at work creating untethered VR devices that utilize our smartphones or just work as standalone devices.
Consumer technology is evolving rapidly and we'll have good, inexpensive options in the near future. That may impact more robust options somewhat, when consumers consider spending upwards of $500 on the best hardware currently available, but it won't touch THE VOID. Rather than betting on a hardware platform, they focused on creating an amazing experience first. That allowed the company to leap beyond the current capabilities of virtual reality before most of us even experience it. In the near future, they'll use that lead to do far more than create an immersive but otherwise short and linear game.
THE VOID's Ghostbusters experience opted for simplicity. It doesn't require complex controls—you walk, aim a gun, and pull a trigger—and guides you through the game. With very little competency, you should have no trouble winning. The game doesn't provide much of a challenge but, instead, focuses on the joy and wonder of the world it presents.
Because you can't help but feel remarkably present in the environment, the challenge comes from adapting to this strange new world. Your base instincts go on high alert because your brain doesn't understand what it sees and feels isn't actually real. Because you don't know how everything works and what constitutes a win in the game, you can't really measure the significance of the game's challenge either. I just assume it was easy because I'm terrible at first-person shooters and I won—and I was assured it wasn't that hard. That's still just conjecture. A lack of information and doubt about your new environment plays a great role in the illusion of challenge, and THE VOID understands how to create illusions better than anything.
Knowing all of that, imagine yourself in a completely open but virtual environment with little guidance or assurance. You have more time to explore. You have to figure out what to do. You can use every single one of your senses to explore a world that doesn't actually exist. While a linear experience provides a lot of fun and excitement, one with more personal control can go a lot further—and that's where THE VOID is headed.
THE VOID plans to introduce the first virtual reality theme park. That moniker doesn't fully describe the space, however, as they told us it'll feel more like entering a movie theater at first. Like you would at the cinema, you buy a ticket for a specific time. With THE VOID, however, you don't enter a theater but, rather, a stage while enveloped by their virtual reality helmet and vest. It all takes place safely indoors, but it could feel like absolutely anywhere and anything.
While THE VOID wants to focus on rocketing light years ahead in the virtual entertainment space, they also know the virtual world offers far more possibility than just fun. In our interview, we discussed possibilities for the future and they're already brewing ideas for education and professional applications. Right now, at home, you can walk through the deep ocean on your Vive or explore the land of dinosaurs on the HoloLens, but with that you only get sight and sound. While we can only presume the possibilities, I don't think it takes much to imagine the incredible feeling of walking amongst dinosaurs, feeling their presence, and completely avoiding any danger because none of it truly exists.
When I see a film, I try to go in knowing as little as possible. I avoid all the hype, critiques, and opinions that I can. Once expectations are raised, they're hard to meet. I try to avoid that so I go into experiences with an open mind. That's next to impossible with VR/AR/MR when you spend your days writing about these emerging realities. For that reason, I couldn't shake the hype before experiencing THE VOID for myself. My bar of expectation was incredibly high, and they cleared it with ease.
I'm not alone. Business Insider, UploadVR, Time, Polygon, and Wareable all agree—and those are just the glowing reviews I found with 60 seconds of googling for first impressions. Like with any technology, THE VOID has room for improvement. They currently employ the Oculus Rift to hijack your vision and, like all consumer headsets, the Rift could benefit from a higher resolution and greater pixel density.
THE VOID told us they intend to replace the Rift with their own hardware in the future, and hopefully it'll step up the visual capabilities and set a new bar for what the digital world can look like. We've also seen odd new contraptions to augment your other senses. While not ideal, THE VOID has an enormous world to explore in their quest for full virtual immersion.
But what they have now is incredible, and if you have a chance to try it in New York City, Lindon, or wherever THE VOID opens next—even for the hefty price tag of $55 at Madame Tussauds—you should do it. Eat ramen for a week and save your money if necessary. You'll get a rare chance to step into our next reality and enter THE VOID for a glimpse of the future.