On my way out to cover VR at Sundance this week, I had a chance to try out THE VOID, one of the most advanced out-of-home VR systems today in an industrial park in the middle of Utah. The VOID goes beyond room-scale with their minimum 60×60′ stage which employs ‘redirected walking’ techniques in order to trick you into thinking you’re walking in an even larger physical space.
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Inside The VOID, physical walls feel like they’re straight even when you’re touching them while walking around a quarter circle. Every time I reached out for a wall or corner, I found one and it reinforced this primal part of myself that this virtual world was being mirrored in reality. The VOID creates the illusion of exploring infinite virtual worlds at 1:1 scale, and they’re doing it with a lot of custom hardware, some visionary dreams, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of magic.
James Jensen is the ‘Chief Visionary Officer’ of The VOID, and it was his dream to mix virtual worlds with actual sets. Ken Bretschneider and Curtis Hickman originally hired James as a contractor to create a virtualized pre-visualization of a theme park attraction. They asked James if he had any other ideas for a good virtual attraction, and he shared his long-time vision of creating a virtual world that would be juxtaposed on top of a physical space. James, Ken & Curtis would go on to found The VOID using the Oculus DK1 and DK2 systems to catalyze their prototype development.
However, they soon found a number of limitations with the consumer VR hardware, and started to build their own custom computer backpacks, integrate their own optical tracking solutions, as well as add a number of different ‘5D’ effects to increase the immersion. Even with DK2-level graphics and some spotty optical tracking, I experienced an impressive level of astonishment and awe in being able to walk around in VR for as long as I did while maintaining a sense of presence.
Perhaps even more impressive is The VOID’s content delivery infrastructure that allows a worker to change out multiple experiences within a single, physical maze template. The alpha prototype which I experienced was only one quarter the size of the final design, but it is a structure that allows multiple choices beyond a single linear path. The combination of redirected walking and changing turning velocities tricks participants into walking in actual circles while virtually walking either in a straight lines or a 90-degree turn.
I went through the experience, and was amazed that I ended up right where I began. And I was even more amazed when I got to shadow the next participant and see how he was just as tricked as I was. With all of the magical perceptual hacks that they included, it’s very easy to get lost as far as where you’re actually physically located within their maze-like structure. Here’s an animated GIF that illustrates how physically walking in a circle is shown in the virtual world as walking in a straight line.
James gave me an extended tour of some of their latest design iterations and talked about their customized Rapture HMDs & gun peripherals. They’re preparing to put over 1,000 TED participants through their experience in Vancouver, Canada from February 15-19. Prepare for a lot of VR buzz because what they have in store is going to give some of the participants a thrill of a lifetime.
The VOID is planning on opening up their initial arcade location in Salt Lake City later this year, and then start to spread out to other gateway locations around the country. They’ve also been making some content sponsorships with major film companies, and so you can expect some pretty sophisticated branded experiences coming soon.
James says that there’s a process for third party developers to go through in order to go through each of their different stages of development. There’s a special template that developers can use in order to create their own infinite virtual levels. I would imagine that it would be difficult for developers to start designing levels within The VOID’s unique constraints, without having actually experienced it for themselves. But for those developers who have had a chance, I would expect that their imagination is running wild with what types of experiences become possible with this sort of setup.
I went through two VOID experiences including a single-player exploration as well as a co-op alien shooter. Of the two, I found the exploration game much more compelling and fun. There’s something to be said about being able to go at your own pace and take in all of the scenery. The exploration experience was a bit longer, and it had more 5D effect integrations which gave a more vast, diverse, and overall richer experience that had a lot more awe-inspiring moments.
Their haptic feedback guns were novel and nice, but there’s a part of me that knew that I wasn’t really killing spiders and aliens, whereas the sense of presence and immersion was so much greater in their exploration experience. And perhaps there was also a bit of an uncanny valley effect of seeing another player, but only being able to see a canned animation and not actual body movements. With the more complicated game play mechanics, there were just a lot more opportunities to have a break in presence and once those happen then it’s hard to go back. That said, there are some people who are going to totally love this type of co-op experience.
It’s still early days for The VOID, but they clearly have a lot of momentum, resources, and partnerships working for them to fulfill their vision of becoming the IMAX of VR Arcades.
I didn’t get a chance to experience their latest hardware or see their new RF tracking system in action. It apparently does a lot better job of not getting occluded, and it has the capability track the full body. So it’s hard to gauge exactly where they’re at based upon not seeing their latest technology, but they’ve clearly been chipping away at a number of difficult problems and integrations and what they already have is impressive even for seasoned VR veterans.
I’m looking forward to more of the educational experiences and what the third party developers do with this platform, especially when it comes to co-op experiences. I can’t wait to go through some of these worlds with my friends since I think that the social interactions within these environments is going to provide a unique shared experience that will be super compelling.
There’s still a lot of room for innovative puzzles and game design that utilizes physical props, but they’ll be constrained with wanting to maintain a fast past so that they can have a high-enough player throughput to become profitable.
Once their physical template is finalized, then the sky is the limit as far as what types of genres and experiences could emerge from this type of platform. James Jensen is living out his dream of mixing virtual and real worlds. I expect that 2016 will be a big year for his team, and that there will be a lot of people eager to step into The VOID.
For more information about the VOID, the be sure to check out co-founder Ken Bretschneider’s presentation.
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