Something’s coming that could be better than virtual reality; or perhaps much, much worse.
The notion of the perfect virtual reality, one indistinguishable from our when and where, has long been tinged with the fear that we’ve already discovered it. That hyperreality isn’t a thing to be one day created, but an existence that binds us now, a prison of the mind from which we must escape. Or, even worse, that hyperreality exists and has existed for our lifetimes, and that we are all mere simulacra in someone else’s fleeting diversion.
But until we knowingly achieve that ability to fashion out of whole cloth a false reality worth consuming as real, hyperreality remains the ultimate goal of augmented, mixed and virtual reality innovators.
And that primordial fear, perhaps shoved temporarily into the darkened corners of our minds, isn’t the driving force behind those discoveries; for now, entertainment is.
then it is upon me ...
But right now, the last thing I’m thinking about is the existential.
Right now, I’m standing in an elevator, crammed shoulder to shoulder with my son and a stranger, looking down a long hallway at what I can only describe as a ghost.
She floats ethereally into sight from around a corner. My son is the first to spot her, calling out and pointing.
I see her. Then she sees me. Her face remains a beatific Victorian calm.
Moments later, the ghostly blue pallor of the girl is replaced by another entity, something more suitable for Dante than Jane Austen.
It's grotesque form, an angry shade of rancid green, seems entirely shaped around a too-large mouth; an upturned, pig nose and beady yellow eyes almost lost above ravenous teeth.
then it is through me ...
It corkscrews gently in the air for a moment and then barrels down the long hallway, mouth widening in anticipation as it hurtles toward me.
Completely forgetting about the weapon I hold in my hands, the one that pulls power from the nuclear accelerator strapped to my back, I try to shuffle out of her way.
But the elevator is too small. I bump first into my son and then into the stranger.
And then it is upon me.
And then it is through me.
For a moment I glimpse it, almost face to face with me. Then I feel it. A distinct vibration as its form passes through my chest and then out again through my back.
My two comrades — son and stranger — both turn to look at me, slightly shocked.
Then my son breaks the silence: "It slimed you!"
Perchance to dream
"This is a 16-year dream of mine and it’s been really fun to see it come to life," says James Jensen, chief visionary officer and one of the three founders of The Void.
Jensen is in Utah, about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City, when we talk. It is there that he, two other founders, and a growing team of employees have cobbled together an array of technology to create fully immersive, virtual reality experiences.
Their experiences include virtual reality headsets, surround sound, real rooms to walk in and around, haptics to impart feeling, guns and other props, and smells.
Their first big deal is currently live at Madame Tussaud’s in New York City, giving groups of four a chance to see what it’s like to be a Ghostbuster in an experience called Ghostbusters Dimension.
Jensen and other Void team members have been making semi-regular trips out to New York City since they locked in the deal to take over part of a floor at Madame Tussaud’s massive Times Square location.
The location started out as a blank spot in a exhibit typically packed with uncomfortably realistic wax figures of musicians, athletes, movie stars and more.
The Void team came in and built an entire set — something the group calls an "attraction stage" among themselves — inside the expanse of space. It dropped in exterior walls and then turned the area into three distinct spaces: a waiting area for ticketholders, a place for suiting up in the gear of The Void and the experience itself. In reality that stage is just a 30-foot-by-30-foot room, but through the use of ingenious design, virtual reality headsets, software, acoustic trickery, a few props and smells, the area becomes the rooms, floors and even the exterior of the fictional Mercado Hotel in New York City.
The team doesn’t allow visitors inside the stage without being suited up first. "It kinda breaks the magic," Jensen says. "It’s really like asking to see behind the stage of a David Copperfield show."
From the dressing room I can see that the stage has no ceiling and that steel trusses frame and crisscross the open space above it. Mounted on the trusses, seemingly everywhere, all pointing down, is an array of tiny cameras. There are 50 in total, I’m told, all designed to track the locations of the teams of four that make their way through the virtual experience below.
The cameras make use of pea-sized balls mounted to the helmets of players and to the guns they hold, to better track body movement. All of that data is then fed into a computer, which uses it to translate the information into what the players should be seeing, including each other.
After I suit up — slipping on a vest, a backpack, a hard plastic visor and a gun — the world around me looks like something spun from a sort of amalgam of cartoon and real.
My son, seen through the visor that completely envelops my view, is wearing the trademark jumpsuit of a Ghostbuster. The visor now looks like the equipment from the movie used to track ghosts. His backpack is transformed into a proton pack and the sort of generic-looking gun is now the shooty bit of a proton containment laser system. When I look down at myself, I can see the jumpsuit, the wader boots, gloves over my hands and the particle thrower.
The experience of walking in the real world while seeing a virtual one and feeling, hearing, smelling something sort of between the two, is odd — disorienting, even, at first.
The tracking isn’t precise enough to prevent me from bumping a shin lightly into something in the next room, presented as a room in a hotel. And when I reach for a doorknob, it takes a second of grasping air to find the real thing. But the magic, the sense of presence, is there — and it can be overwhelming.
Later, after getting slimed by a ghost, I find myself outside of the building, high up above the city, asked to walk across a shaky wooden platform.
My son, who shares a bit of my fear of heights, makes a noise and quickly scrambles over the catwalk. I go to follow, but then something flies up at us and I’m forced once more to stand between two others and face what’s coming at me.
The sense of fear is heightened by not just the appearance of height, but an actual shaking, a slight swaying happening in reality under my feet. I must be standing on something that mimics in some way the wooden slats of the walkway I’m on.
I grit my teeth and fire a proton beam, watching it slither across the sky toward the supernatural being. Two other beams dance around it, from my son and the stranger, as we try to capture or scare off the thing.
When it’s over, when I can finally walk off the wooden scaffolding and into the next room, I feel like I’ve conquered more than a bad guy. I feel like I’ve faced and conquered one of my fears — if only just a little bit.
An evolving reality
Weeks later, revisiting the site of my triumph — this time to see how things work (everywhere but inside the stage) — I can hear the laughter and screams of players. A child, likely in middle school, is shouting as loud as he can:
"Go away! Go away!"
Then he starts to yell not with words but noises. Occasionally, I can make out one thing he’s repeating: "Mommy. Mommy. Mommymommymommy!"
Then he screams.
Silence and then a bit of laughter as the team moves on to some other place, their fears and enemies vanquished for now.
The suit-up room is, it appears, one of the most important parts of the entire operation. It’s here that, during my first visit, I run into a Void employee looking over the recently trained staff and watching how they prep the customers. It turns out The Void employee has experience in theme parks, and in particular, in attraction lines and how to get them to move faster.
The week of the exhibit’s launch, we’re told when I revisit the experience, the staff was only able to get 200 people through it per day. That wasn’t because of demand or the experience itself, which runs about 10 minutes (though one person tells me, perhaps inadvertently misquoting Steve Martin in The Jerk, that it felt like 15). It was because the prep room was a bottleneck.
"We’ve regulated the line, regulated the tickets for the first few weeks because the operations of The Void are kind of a bottleneck," Jensen says. "We’re teaching Madame Tussaud’s to run equipment and suit up people, repairing equipment. The whole op is very new. We did the best to test those systems here in Utah, but we’re still learning out in New York, figuring out the best way to get people into equipment and out of equipment."
Already, the room has seen significant changes. Originally, back in Utah, the equipment was sort of stashed, waiting for people to come in and suit up. Now the backpacks dangle from complicated pulley systems, allowing players to back into them and strap in without having to worry about the pack actually resting on their shoulders until it’s go time. The helmet and mask sit nearby. The gun dangles to the side.
The setup greatly reduced gear-up time, I’m told. Working through some employee training and setup kinks in New York did as well.
In theory, the system should be able to run about 50 people an hour through a system that actually has more than one group in the relatively small space at a time.
Now, The Void is able to get 400 to 500 people through in a week.
The equipment the show uses is constantly being iterated on as well, Jensen says. Almost all of it has been created specifically for The Void. He calls it the Rapture equipment and gear.
There’s a head-mounted display — the only bit of tech that uses an unidentified bit of some other company’s gear — plus the gun and the backpack vest.
The vest it seems, is the thing that has changed the most.
Originally, the vest was equipped with run-of-the-mill haptics, little embedded devices that can create thumps, vibrations or even a sense of movement in the wearer. But as technology advanced, so did the haptics.
"Our haptics vest [wasn’t] directional in our old experiences," Jensen says. "In the Ghostbuster experience, the vest is directional. Depending on how you’re facing, the vest reacts accordingly to make the hit feel appropriate."
The new vests have 22 points of contact on the body and five different types of force feedback they can impart.
"It took it to a completely different level," Jensen says.
That means you can feel a touch on your body or, for instance, the sensation of a screaming ghost ramming through your entire body.
The Ghostbuster experience also includes smells as part of the stage effect.
Right now, the odor is created in the areas where you should smell it. I personally didn’t notice the smell when playing, but Jensen says The Void is working to improve its kits so that the smells can be delivered through the mask and specifically to each person.
"We want to make it very localized, not airborne," he says.
They see all
While teams of four are walking their way through the unreality of the Ghostbusters experience, a master program and small team of operators in a secret command center is keeping a close eye on everything that's going on.
"There is a whole bunch of things that The Void does behind the scenes," Jensen says. "The Ghostbusters Dimension is intelligent. When there are multiple groups in there, it knows where you are and it adjusts the experience based on how much time you are spending in each area."
Behind the doors of the command center are displays showing operators what every person inside the experience is seeing. Each head-mounted display includes headphones — not just for the audio of the experience, but so those overseers can talk to players if necessary.
"They can talk to them directly if they start doing anything crazy," Jensen says. "They can call them down or even stop the experience.
"They are constantly monitoring everyone in the experience. There is a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that we do that is quite a bit different than anything out there."
The complexity of operations and training for them took The Void’s team by surprise. It's something the company is working to improve for future iterations.
"We didn't anticipate how hard it was going to be to train people to do what we do," Jensen says. "We're working on better ways to do that."
What dreams may come
While Ghostbusters Dimension in New York City is the first experience from The Void in the world to be open widely to the public, it's not the first attraction The Void created.
The team actually landed the Ghostbusters deal after showing off its technology at a TED talk. That experience had players exploring the ruins of an Egyptian tomb.
It was, in the parlance of The Void, a Dimension stage, which is four times bigger than the sort used for Ghostbusters. Those setups let 10 people go through at a time, allowing for them to split up and join back up over the course of their adventure.
Attraction stages, like the Ghostbusters experience, are designed to get up quickly and use less space.
In the case of the Ghostbusters experience specifically, Jensen and team hope it will be the sort of big splash that will garner the attention The Void needs to expand as aggressively as it wants to.
The three founders of The Void envision a future that arrives in waves.
First come these one-off experiences set up with partners like Madame Tussaud’s and Sony.
Already the team has plans to bring Ghostbusters Dimension to a few more Tussaud’s locations, and Jensen says that there will likely be different one-off experiences this year at completely different venues. He says that the plan is to establish Void experiences in high-traffic areas like malls or theme parks.
"The way The Void business model works is that they provide the location and staffing, then The Void leases them the equipment, experience, operational management and the IP," Jensen says. "We can cycle that equipment every 18 months."
Just a month or so into The Void’s first operation, Jensen says the team is already hearing from a lot of good potential candidates.
"We have a few new IP under development," he says. "Some of it is our own and others that have their own IP like Ghostbusters. We are trying to be diversified in our content. Maybe by next year you'll see more exploratory and first-person shooter-type games. More gamified experiences where you are going in to get points.
"You'll see more announcements this year."
As The Void continues to work out the kinks and slowly expand this year, the team is also working on speeding up the production line and dropping the price for its equipment.
Once that happens — in 2017, in theory — The Void's growth will speed up, hitting a second wave of expansion.
Next, the company wants to build "experiment centers," sort of like hyperreality multiplex movie theaters.
"That's the end goal," Jensen says. "To have these centers that have multiple stages with their own experiences. These attractions."
Jensen says while the growing interest in home virtual reality setups certainly helps, they’re a very different sort of experience than what The Void offers.
"It boils down to what we do on our stages — it’s a huge step," he says. "It’s something way different than walking around in your living room with a Vive system from being in The Void. You completely let go of the real world and trust the environment in The Void. At home you still know you’re in the living room, still worried you're going to trip over your cat. You can't let your mind completely go. You have to preserve something for things you're not seeing. Your mind battles with reality in VR; you can't really escape unless you come to The Void."
Despite arguing that the full experience has to happen in an arena built for VR, Jensen tells me that down the road he could see The Void starting to sell their own gear for home use.
"The gun is completely ours," he says, listing out what the company could sell. "The vest and the PC in the backpack is completely ours. The [head-mounted display] is mostly ours, but it's a bit of a hybrid with another company."
But that will be changing, he tells me.
"We're still trying to nail down which direction we're going with our [headset]," he says. I would say [we will be selling this to consumers], but that's going to be down the road."
The undiscovered country
In creating The Void, the trio of founders knew they had a lot to do, and that it didn't just involve creating the technology and the experience.
Hyperreality isn't quite yet ready to be a case of build it and they will come.
"If you look at the film industry, I feel like we parallel ourselves with that history," Jensen says. "It’s kind of a perfect roadmap for The Void."
As Jensen sees it, most VR companies today have skipped one of the most important steps in making movies such a tremendous success: the education of the end user.
"With moving pictures, they didn’t first make TV and try to sell them to an audience," Jensen says. "They built movie theaters.
"That allowed the theater companies and content creators to create content for that medium."
And that's essentially what The Void sees itself doing.
"A majority of the people who have gone through The Void have never had a VR experience or know what VR is," he says. "I think we are going to be the biggest education for the majority of the population, and we will always have the highest-quality VR experience that you can experience out there.
"Personally, I think it’s a little too soon for home VR, because there’s not enough engaging VR out there. The price point is extremely high. It's like taking a plasma TV back to the age of cowboys."
Give it three to five years, Jensen says, and things will have changed.
"Until that time we’re going to be releasing several locations and giving people the time of their lives," Jensen says. "We would be the best people to build a home experience when it's time. We’ve watched thousands of people go through our experience. I think that’s really important; there are a lot of game developers making content who have no idea how that impacts people at home.”