The latest in a semi-regular series of features where Kevin Williams covers the wider aspects of the re-emergence of virtual reality development in consumer and commercial entertainment. In this special feature Kevin gets a chance to try one of the most anticipated VR applications in the entertainment sphere, the virtual reality theme park called The VOID.
About the Author – Kevin Williams has an extensive background in the development and sales of the latest amusement and attraction applications and technologies. The UK born specialist in the pay-to-play scene; is well-known and respected through his consultancy KWP; and as a prolific writer and presenter (along with his own news service The Stinger Report), covering the emergence of the new entertainment market. Kevin has co-authored a book covering the sector called ‘The Out-of-Home Interactive Entertainment Frontier’ (published by Gower). He is also the founding chairman of the DNA Association, focuses on the digital Out-of-Home interactive entertainment sector. Kevin can be reached at – email@example.com
Salt Lake City, holds a special place for those familiar with the history of immersive technology and the emergence of VR. The legend behind the first experimentation into technological mixed reality application, Ivan Sutherland, hails from the city, working on his development of the first virtual reality and augmented reality head-mounted display system, (named ‘The Sword of Damocles’). The VOID’s placement in Salt Lake City mirroring the innovative launch-pad of the area and its part to play in this latest phase of VR development.
Another happy connection with Salt Lake City is that KWP / DNA Association partner and friend Adam Pratt; owner of the local amusement facility The Game Grid Arcade and also the famous publisher of the “saviour of the arcade” website Arcade Heroes, lives there. It was great to have Adam join me attend this special test session, able to offer an untainted perspective on what we were about to see, and be able to vocalize it from a real facility operator perspective
Into The VOID
Adam and I spent the day sampling The VOID in various forms. Adam shares his thoughts below:
As a beta experience, I did have to temper my expectations against their large ambitions as the hardware is not complete at this point in time but it is adequate to get the point across. When I first entered into their stage/arena (which is 1/4th the size of a single stage that they plan on having upon launch), it felt like going into a laser tag arena, replete with the numbered packs hanging on a wall by where the attendant trains and prepares you for the event ahead. The first interactive game they had me do involved the exploration of some ancient Mayan ruins. Them making you sit down early on really gets the point across of what it is that makes The VOID stand out. After that having to grab and hold a torch added to ‘reality’.
The next experience was one I did with Kevin, as we took part in a short alien shooting game that had flavor of Halo mixed with “Hero’s Duty” as seen in the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph. As a multi-player experience I could see how this effort is made to appeal to players of the popular shooting genres of video games. This game is more of a ‘work-in-progress’ than the exploration one as the guns were not accurate to the space where I was holding them (which made aiming a little off) and with Kevin being a head taller than I am (6ft 3″), his avatar had a squashed appearance. The developers confirming tracking of the game is normally accurate, and seemed to be experiencing problems on this particular demo we tried on the day.
Also I felt it is unfortunate that the proprietary ‘Rapture’ HMD that The VOID is developing is not ready quite yet but it does make me look forward to using it once ready for prime time. Since they had to use a pre-existing VR solution with some modification of their own, the tightness and weight of the prototype headset left me with a headache for some hours afterwards. That said, my interest in experiencing other VOID VR games hasn’t waned as I got the distinct impression that what I was seeing was the birth of a whole new sector in the out-of-home entertainment industry, The VOID is closer to that than anyone else I have yet seen.
From my own personal perspective of the visit – I arrived in Utah and at The VOID test facility having to manage many of my varied expectations. The incredibly popular promotional video for the concept had done much to captivate many into the concept of VR beyond the current restrictions of home usage.
But this incredibly slick presentation would have to be tempered against the realities of current technology and early access. Fundamentally the concept represents the latest application of the Location-Based Entertainment (LBE) business approach, a facility comprising multiple play arenas which the guest enters using the unique VR hardware. The concept building heavily on immersion married to a physical environment, resurrecting memories of the popular Virtual Worlds Entertainment (VWE) concept of the 90’s.
The core element that makes The VOID so special is the unique employment of advance ‘redirected walking’ algorithms within the play-space, creating the illusion of infinite movement while still retained within a limited space. Incredibly precise user tracking is needed to ensure the physical environment marries with the virtual environments representation, achieving virtual and reality tactility.
The team at The VOID comprises a varied skill set, including those with experience of theme park development, game creation, and even experienced magicians. The marriage of physical illusion, often seen in 4D theatre attractions, finding a home in this virtual arena, with physical walls, and facility-scale-tracking, (dependent on the latest RF sub-millimeter technology).
During our visit, Adam and myself were able to try two distinctive experiences, the first of a multitude of different environments planned to be available on launch.
The first was an exploration narrative, the guest progressing through a mysterious Mayan temple, full of crumbling walk-ways, hidden treasure and impressive wonders. The guest able to interact with certain hidden elements of the temple, as well as the wielding of a torch to illuminate the darkening interiors. The experience illustrating the strengths of The VOID presentation with physical effects such as heat, wind and vibration, achieving a highly compelling level of ‘presence’.
The second experience illustrated the immersive network capability of the environment – taking two guests on an alien bug hunt, wielding their weapons through the interior of a generic sci-fi landscape, even including virtual outside elements and the obvious jump-scares. The area offering more than just a VR interpretation of laser-tag, the physical walls allowing the orchestrating of the game experience, drawing the players into the narrative.
Summarising the day’s experiences, Adam Pratt said “interest for VR started back in the 90’s, when I first heard of a venue that had opened in Salt Lake City that had an exclusive focus on VR systems, as offered by UK arcade manufacturer Virtuality at the time.” In summary, Adam concluded “I have had the opportunity to try out some modern takes on the technology, with The VOID test facility providing the most impressive virtual reality experience I have had to date.”
To address the limitations of both experiences – we were on pre-production head mounted technology; place-holders for the helmet-visor system ‘the Rapture’ that will be deployed with the final system, along with the powerful mounted computer, trademarked as the “BackTop”, part of the Rapture Vest. While some of the tracking issues we experienced were unusual to that recent build, and that normally the game is more robust. Being developed in Chicago through technology partnerships, their ‘Rapture’ helmet, will use curved OLED displays and wide-field-of-view optics. Also we were playing in an environment less than 1/4th the size of a single gaming arena for the proposed sites (at some 60ft., by 60ft.,) – and the tracking system was still temperamental at this early stage of development.
The team behind this impressive first step were obviously excited, and had seen others enthused by the prospects that The VOID represents. The company has amassed an impressive board of directors and investors that will see some big money invested into this brand, and into its ambitious roll-out plan. The first site being in Utah, with a new facility comprising eight play areas (gaming arenas) where groups of up to four players each can take park in 20-minute sessions, looking at a $29 to $39 ticket model (dependent on content). All supported by a museum, merchandising and hospitality component to the facility.
The biggest part of this drive is the ambitious roll-out schedule, the team behind the project feeling they are some six-months away from opening their first site, (recently stating they envisage the site opened by the end of summer next year), and are only some four months from having production Rapture hardware, all this underlining their ambitious development schedule.
It is impossible not to be infected by the excitement and exhilaration that this platform represents – and the wealth of opportunities that a ‘Arena-Scale’ virtual experience has over the limitations of a home consumer approach. With so much to achieve and so much at stake, we eagerly look forward to the next phase in the evolution of the “entertainment experience”; Adam and I would like to thank those at The VOID for the chance to be some of the first to see their development.
This momentous development will be placed into context as we see The VOID start to reveal influential partnerships; but we also have to be mindful of other announcements from new competitive companies hoping to establish their own ‘Arena-Scale’ entertainment offerings. This could be the birth of a brand new genre in public-space entertainment, and the coming attraction expo, IAAPA, will reveal more detail this month. I’ll report back on that event soon.